A decade ago, Bryan Hulbert would rarely see another runner as he raced down the trails at Birmingham’s Oak Mountain State Park.
"There just wasn’t much of a trail running community," said Hulbert, a salesperson at Fleet Feet Sports in Birmingham.
Now, on any given day, Oak Mountain's trails are alive with the shuffle and thump of dozens of trail runners. And this is the case throughout Birmingham, where the trail running scene has boomed in part because the sport has become more popular in the United States. From 2006 to 2015, the number of U.S. trail runners jumped from 4.5 million to 8.1 million, according to a report by the Outdoor Foundation.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story of the trail running obsession around Alabama’s largest city. In Birmingham, dedicated trail runners have launched a slew of events, like the many races in the Southeastern Trail Series, and new trails have opened.
And, perhaps most importantly, local running groups and businesses have supported each other in a cooperative effort to grow the sport.
"I love this running community because all are welcome, no matter your age, speed, or experience level," said Donna Arrington, public relations director for the Birmingham Ultra Trail Society.
Taking to the Trail
Like many newcomers to trail running, Arrington was once a road runner. In 2013, she and some friends decided to run the trails at the newly opened Red Mountain Park.
For Arrington, dashing through the forest didn’t seem as laborious as running on pavement. "I just loved the primal feel," she said. “The ground is rugged, and every step is different.”
Alex Morrow, owner of the Resolute Running Training Center and Past President of the Birmingham Track Club, agrees that the trails’ more forgiving and diverse terrain is a strong draw for many road runners. "A lot of people have gotten burned out on road running, and trail running is bringing them back," said Morrow. “It’s a little easier on the body, and people want to get back to nature.”
Off to the Races
While Birmingham boasts a healthy population of outdoors enthusiasts, it’s safe to say that trail running wasn’t on the mainstream radar until 2011, when XTERRA hosted the first Oak Mountain Trail Marathon at Oak Mountain State Park.
"That was the catalyst," said Morrow. “That convinced the road runners that they wouldn’t die if they went trail running.”
Over the next five years, the popularity of trail running continued to grow around Birmingham, as enthusiasts discovered the sport through a growing calendar of races and charity events. Also pivotal was the involvement of local trail running enthusiasts and longtime Birmingham residents David and Mary Jo Tosch.
After David competed in a Chattanooga stage (or multi-day) race, he and Mary Jo were inspired to launch the Southeastern Trail Series in 2013. Featuring seven races that are progressively longer and more difficult, the series helps beginning runners progress gradually, so that those who want to up their mileage to longer distances can eventually participate in a 50K run.
These days, the races sell out well ahead of schedule and draw large fields of participants. In 2016, the final race in the series, the Blood Rock 50 Mile, drew 300 runners.
Awesome Places to Run in Alabama
Most races in the Southeastern Trail Series take place in Oak Mountain State Park. Its steep ridges and rugged paths provide challenging terrain that’s relatively close to Birmingham.
But Oak Mountain isn’t the only great trail running destination in town. When Red Mountain Park opened in 2008, it gave locals an additional 15 miles of trails to explore.
"Red Mountain Park has done a very nice job of providing a good place to run," said Arrington.
Great for beginner runners, the 1,500-acre park includes wide, flat trails made from converted railroad beds, while experienced runners can challenge themselves on rough, rooted singletrack trails that climb steep hills.
In 2011, the Birmingham Track Club sponsored the inaugural Resolution Run at Red Mountain to raise money for the park and also increase awareness of this great resource for outdoor recreation. Over the years, the event has become another key rally point for trail runners, and more than 400 racers participated in 2016.
Appealing to Older Runners
As people flocked to new races and fresh trails, the Birmingham trail running community flourished. Local runners formed the Birmingham Ultra Trail Society in 2013.
As of March 2017, the group had nearly 200 paying members, a number Arrington hopes to double after the 2017 membership drive. And, contrary to popular belief, it’s not just young guys hitting the trails: A handful of BUTS members are 25 to 35 years old, but the majority are 35 to 55, and 40 percent are female.
Since the group formed, it has supported local races, including the Southeastern Trail Series.
"BUTS has helped us immensely," said David Tosch, noting that he relies on the group’s knowledgeable runners to offer top-notch aid stations during races.
To promote trail running, BUTS also hosts Tuesday night runs, which "have made a big difference in getting people to participate," said Jeff Martinez of The Trak Shak footwear store in Birmingham. “People feel better about trying something and feel safer if they can go with a group.”
As it has grown, BUTS has received plenty of support from other running groups and businesses, all of which share a spirit of cooperation. For example, the Birmingham Track Club’s Statue 2 Statue 15K race has been modified to accommodate trail runners. In addition, both groups sponsor events together.
"One of our missions is to create some synergy with BUTS," said Morrow.
Local Shops Step Up
As trail running has gathered momentum around Birmingham, local retail stores have responded by raising awareness of the sport, sponsoring races, and providing a broader offering of shoes and gear.
Alabama Outdoors has hosted the BUTS Tuesday night runs, while Mountain High Outfitters has sponsored the Southeastern Trail series. And When Red Mountain Park opened more than 10 miles of trails in 2012, The Trak Shak was very active in promoting its trails and the popular Resolution Run.
Local stores have also stepped up their efforts to educate runners about trail running, while making sure their inventory reflects the growing popularity of the sport and the emerging needs of their customers. In Vestavia, the Fleet Feet Sports store partnered with BUTS and hosted a clinic on the differences between trail running and road running shoes. The Trak Shak, meanwhile, has tripled its offering of trail shoes in the last three years and stocked a healthy assortment of running vests, belts, and Tailwind Nutrition drink, "because the BUTS people just loved it," said Martinez.
All across the city, businesses and organizations have worked together to achieve the higher goal of getting more people onto trails. But that spirit of cooperation stems from the trail runners themselves, who treat each other as kindred spirits.
"Equal amount of respect is given to the winner and the last one to cross the finish line," said Arrington. “Just having the courage to be out there is celebrated. We share, we console and we help that person struggling to dig deep and keep going. The selflessness is abundant, and that is hard to find anywhere these days.”
4 Top Trail Running Areas in Birmingham
Ready to hit the trail? Here, four of our favorite places across the state to go trail running.
Oak Mountain State Park
At Oak Mountain State Park you can do anything from an easy 3-mile loop around Double Oak Lake to a 17-mile backcountry loop that gains more than 1,300 feet of elevation. Along the way, you might encounter creeks, waterfalls, and rocky overlooks with great views.
With 12 miles of trails, Ruffner Mountain is perfect for those seeking a long run in deep woods. On the Trillium Trail you’ll enjoy gentle grades and beds of wildflowers, while the Ridge and Valley Trail will take you on a challenging climb to a rock quarry.
Red Mountain Park
Red Mountain Park offers a wide variety of terrain, including gravel roads and rocky, rooted singletrack. On the relatively flat BMRR South Trail, you can do an easy 2-mile out-and-back run, or you push yourself on a 6.5-mile tour of the mountain and catch nice views at Grace’s Gap Overlook.
Moss Rock Preserve
Moss Rock Preserve has eight miles of challenging trails that explore a shallow creek, several small waterfalls, and boulder fields popular with local climbers. For a good 3.5-mile loop, follow the White Trail to the Blue Trail and finish on the Red Trail.
Originally written for BCBS of AL.