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Flatlanders Challenge has run its course

It was a good run.

By that I mean the race itself, Flatlanders Challenge, a gauntlet thrown at the feet of runners living on the wrinkle-free landscape that covers most of Florida. The course was hilly and tough and packed with Southern small-town scenery.

And I mean Flatlanders' more than 30 years as a must-do event for a particular subset of slightly masochistic runners — a race that, among those runners, put Brooksville on the map.

Why the past tense?

Well, if this were a tombstone — and, sadly, it pretty much is — the date of the first Flatlanders, Dec. 1, 1978, would be on it. So would Feb. 4, 2012. That, apparently, was the date of the last one ever.

Next year's event, previously scheduled for Feb. 2 in downtown Brooksville, was officially canceled last week. And the race's organizer, Jay Pingley, has no plans to hold the event in the future.

"I'm sad to say that I have decided to stop doing Flatlanders," Pingley, who owns a South Carolina-based company that stages endurance events, wrote in an email to volunteers on Dec. 18.

"(The decision) comes with a heavy heart, but the cost, time and effort are too much and I simply can not afford to do it anymore."

Pingley, a Brooksville native, said that living out of state made it difficult to drum up interest among Florida runners. The past two races have each drawn fewer than 300 entrants while costing him nearly $5,000.

"I tried to do it for the community, but I just can't continue dumping money into something … people don't really seem to care about," he wrote in a follow-up email.

I hate to hear that — that people don't care about such a well-established tradition and one of only a handful of annual events designed to bring people downtown. But it's the same conclusion reached back in 2006 by the club that founded the race, the Red Mule Runners.

It first decided to drop the race after that year's edition attracted only 93 runners.

Pingley, whose father, Norm, was a longtime Red Mule member, and some other younger folks with connections to the club stepped in to revive Flatlanders in 2007.

It looked as though it was dead again after that race and the one the next year drew small fields. But Pingley once again got it up and running — or at least staggering — in 2011 and 2012, when he held the race with the plan of turning into a moneymaker.

The problem is not a shortage of runners who enjoy the kind of punishment doled out by Flatlanders, said Ernie Chatman, a longtime Red Mule runner and former race organizer. It's just that most of them seem focused on running marathons and half-marathons, rather than the 5K and 10K distances that Flatlanders offered. Those events "seem to be taking over," Chatman said.

Neither he nor any other Red Mule runners I talked to were willing to take on the job of staging Flatlanders; nor did they know of anybody who might be.

And at this point, with so little momentum and fading name recognition, it's not just a matter of applying defibrillators. It's more like starting a whole new event.

Still, it could happen. It would take networking and money — for advertising and, maybe, drawing the big-name runners who helped boost attendance in the race's peak years of the late 1990s.

It wouldn't be easy. But then, as anyone who ever ran Flatlanders knows, that's what makes a good challenge.

Flatlanders Challenge has run its course 12/27/12 [Last modified: Thursday, December 27, 2012 8:08pm]
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