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Journey to the Center of the Earth: Subterranean Venues on the Rise

18 Apr, 2018

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Caves and Mines Have Bucket-List Cache, But Are the Drawbacks Worth It?

In the arms race to find new and different venues for sports events, there’s something big going down: underground venues. And whether that means racing through no-longer-used mines or using local caves that also serve as tourist destinations, it’s gaining ground.

In Kansas City, Missouri, for example, the Groundhog Run, which takes place just prior to Groundhog Day each year, is held completely underground, in Subtropolis, a climate-controlled cave with a consistent temperature in the 60s, so winter weather generally is not an issue. The run, intended as a fund raiser for AbilityKC, a charity for adults and children with special needs, has raised over $4 million since its inception in 1982, and has more than 4,000 participants a year.

In Hutchinson, Kansas, the Strataca Mine 5K sends runners 650 below the earth’s surface, wearing headlamps and reflective bibs, to race through the Strataca Salt Mine, once active but now a museum. The race wasn’t short on atmosphere, either, according to an article in Runner’s World:

While the first 200 meters of the course were well-lit and paved, the remainder of the race sent runners barreling through the dark and rocky caverns—lit only by the glow of their headlamps. And their 3.1-mile path was anything but a straight out-and-back. The maze-like course wound and twisted through old blast sites and crossed ancient cart tracks… Despite the darkness, the attentive runner could glimpse some fascinating relics during the race. At mile 3, runners passed a massive pure salt crystal, rightly nicknamed The Submarine, as well as several old mining carts and empty boxes of explosives lining the tunnel walls. While runners did receive water and the quintessential postrace banana at the finish, refreshments on the course were strictly prohibited. Any spilled refreshments could actually dissolve away the natural salt floors.

In Marengo, Indiana, the Marengo Underground 5K also utilizes subterranean running space. (Fun fact: Marengo is a sort of underground Mecca with not only a cave but a legendary underground storage space carved into the limestone of a nearby mountain. Read about it here.) Marengo has taken full advantage of its reputation for underground venues, offering a Firecracker 5K in July, advertised as “the coolest race around.”

Underground spaces such as caves and mines, while excellent venues to attract runners who have a bucket list item to fill, are also finding increased popularity as homes for drone racing. This YouTube video captures the experience through First-Person-Viewpoint (FPV) of the drone pilot.

But while cave and mine running (and drone racing, for that matter) events are all cool, their success is dependent upon many things out of race directors’ control. The weather – which can cause flooding in caves (historically the lowest spots in most areas, after all) – is a chief contributor. One subterranean run in Missouri, the MJJCA Cave Challenge, had to be cancelled this year because flooding conditions had rendered the cave unsafe. The St. Louis Fleet Feet SpeRUNking Sand Mine Challenge suffered a similar fate.

Many areas, not being the home of caves or mines, have turned to other ways of creating subterranean spaces, either by using toll tunnels on highways, old railroad tunnels and more. Baltimore hosted the 9th Annual Fort McHenry Tunnel 5K, which led runners through one of the bores of the namesake tunnel that went under the city’s Inner Harbor (bonus: it was paved, well-ventilated and offered dry roadways). In Duluth, the Tunnel 10K draws a huge crowd as well. Buena Vista, Colorado, also has the Tunnels Ten Mile.

Washington State’s Tunnel Marathons has made a serious business out of running through tunnels, offering three races in 2018: its Light at the End of the Tunnel Marathon, Tunnel Vision Marathon and Tunnel Light Marathon. (The race underground is apparently a growing trend; this website offers synopses of 12 half marathons that travel through tunnels.)

Despite the undeniable growth related to the cache of such races, there are drawbacks. Many races, whether using either natural or man-made venues, have to cap registration since tunnels and caves can only accommodate so many – and often, they sell out far in advance.

In addition, logistical and legal drawbacks exist. Many venues are great tourist attractions but are not suitable for large group events for a variety of reasons. Many still lack ADA accommodation. Sometimes, a large competitive event would violate occupancy numbers or insurance restrictions, or the venue is a protected area and thus may be unsuitable for such use. The course through the space also may not be suitable for a race for a variety of reasons – too narrow for an out-and-back, too slippery, too dark or too hazardous for runners to navigate safely. In addition, mines, caves and tunnels might not be accessible quickly enough to first responders in the event of an emergency. 

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