By LYDIA BERGLAR
This Saturday and Sunday, approximately 500 runners will cover anywhere from five to 50 miles of Cloudland Canyon trails. Run Bum Races is hosting its ninth annual Cloudland Canyon Trail Race on December 2-3, but due to increased fees from Georgia State Parks, the future of the event is uncertain.
The weekend features four races: a five-miler, a half marathon (13.1 miles), a 50K (31 miles), and a 50-miler. People from about 30 different states and Canada travel to Dade and Walker counties to enjoy the beauty of Lookout Mountain and compete with fellow trail fanatics.
Sean Blanton, founder and president of Run Bum Races, organizes ten annual events across the southeast, with stops in Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, and many in Georgia. Blanton said, “We chase the fall south and we chase the spring north. I put on races in places I want to be when I want to be there.” While the events offer short distance options, Blanton’s speciality is ultramarathons – races that are longer than the marathon distance of 26.2 miles. A popular ultra distance is 50 kilometers (31 miles), and that’s considered a short ultra.
Run Bum’s two longest races are the 100-miler at Forgotten Florida and Blanton’s newly created Appalachian 200, a 200-mile race with 45,000 feet of elevation gain over the course of six days.
When the Sentinel spoke with Blanton via phone, he had just finished canoeing the Suwannee River in northern Florida while he was in White Springs for the Wild Florida Trail Run. Traveling and outdoor adventure is, naturally, one of the things he enjoys about his job, but he also enjoys positively impacting people and communities.
Blanton said he receives messages on social media from people thanking him for putting on the races. He said, “I get to make a living by helping change people’s lives and also improving the trails we use.” Run Bum Races promotes volunteer work and generosity, with free race entries offered to runners who submit volunteer hours. Blanton himself volunteers with the Georgia Forestry Commission, doing chainsaw work, and he completes about 400 hours of trail work each year.
He added, “We also give about $35,000 a year to various trail organizations and state parks across the south.” For example, 100 percent of the proceeds from the Wild Florida Trail Run go to the Florida Trail Association. This year, that amounted to about $16,000.
An Atlanta native, Blanton grew up playing sports, especially soccer, but his career as a runner began 16 years ago. His first race was the Peachtree Road Race before he grew into trail running. Now, at 37-years-old, he has completed over 300 ultramarathons.
Over the last decade and a half, Blanton has watched trail running flourish and increase in popularity. Now, many race options are available, but when he first began running, he said, “You saw 70 percent of the same people at races across the country.”
Blanton started Run Bum Races 12 years ago. He organized four races the first year, all in Georgia, all continuing to this day: Georgia Death Race (Blairsville), Yeti Nightmare (Clinton Nature Preserve), Sky to Summit (Sky Valley), and Helen Holiday (Helen). The Cloudland Canyon Trail Race is in its ninth year, and it has sold out every year.
Blanton plans all of the routes himself, saying, “Course design is my art. I have hundreds of courses all over the world that I’ve mapped out.”
He recalled, “Growing up in Atlanta, Cloudland was this far off mysterious place to me. In high school, a bunch of people talked about the park.” Blanton eventually visited the park after he’d begun trail running. “It was April. A bunch of flowers were blooming in Sitton’s Gulch, and then I got above the clouds at the top of the canyon. It was absolutely stunning.”
Not long after, the park manager at the time reached out to Blanton about organizing a race. Blanton explained, “He knew it would be positive for the park. The irony is that now, nine years later, Georgia State Parks is pushing us out. This might be the last year of the Cloudland race.”
Blanton explained that Georgia State Parks used to charge $2 per runner, but the state organization has changed it to ten percent of the gross profit, on top of the rental fees Run Bum already pays. Blanton said that Run Bum has made donations to Friends of Cloudland Canyon and helped with trail work in the park in the past.
He called the shift a 7,000 percent increase in expenses, making the event impossible. The new standard would impact races in all other Georgia State Parks – those put on by Run Bum Races and those by other organizations. Blanton met with two people at the top level of Georgia State Parks, but he had no luck arguing his case.
According to Blanton’s estimates, $450,000 dollars are spent in Dade and Walker counties during the Cloudland Canyon race weekend. He said, “This is something all people should be concerned about. When money stops coming into the local community, you have to try to find that money from other places.”
He continued, “My goal in all the places where we bring people together, is to positively impact the trails and the local economy.” He reported that 5,000 people register for Run Bum Races each year. “It’s really neat traveling around the county and seeing a shirt or hat from one of the events.”
The trail running community is a vibrant one, with ultramarathons placing more emphasis on endurance than speed. While training can involve many hours alone, races bring large groups together around a common passion. Blanton said, “The cool part of a race is the safety of it.” With marked courses, many people nearby, and aid stations providing food and water, races offer more peace of mind than running in the woods alone.
If interested in learning more about Run Bum Races, visit www.runbumtours.com. Blanton also started a podcast about running called, “Bend Don’t Break,” available on Spotify, Apple, and the Run Bum website. The podcast’s description reads, “We’re here to help you become a smarter runner, run further, and fall in love with trail running…We want to share your stories of success, overcoming failure, training, and tales of the trails. Along the way, we want to give you as much FREE advice as we can. We want YOU to become a better ultra, trail and road runner.”