Stratton Lawrence (right) and Matt Lambert, founder of the Charleston running tour Steeple Chase, run through the city. (Photo: Hunter McRae)
Thanks to its warm weather, rich historical significance and an ongoing transformation into a world-class culinary destination, Charleston, South Carolina, attracts visitors in droves. With added attention from Conde Nast and the New York Times in recent years (along with the presence of locally based Southern lifestyle magazine Garden & Gun), those numbers have only grown.
For a local living on the city's outskirts, the downtown peninsula's most heavily trafficked areas can begin to lose appeal. The hip new restaurants are not opening on Market Street, where thousands of visitors descend each day; they're in the gradually developing far-reaches of the city's core.
When you live in a tourist mecca, it becomes easy to take a city's backstory for granted. Although I once trained to guide tours in Charleston (over a decade ago), my inclination when friends visit is to send them out on a carriage or walking tour on their own. It's all old news to me, right?
How wrong I was.
A heart-healthy alternative
The truth is, none of Charleston's guided tour options ever really appealed to me. Walking around with a group in fanny packs? No, thanks. Riding on a horse-drawn carriage? It can be fun, but there's a serious movement underway to do away with stabling horses downtown, especially in the heat of summer. And a tour in an air-conditioned bus? Not at all my style.
Enter Charleston Steeplechase, the brainchild of an innovative pair of friends who decided to combine their passions for running and Charleston history. For $25, company founders Matt Lambert and Shaun Garrison take guests on a rambling three-and-a-half-mile circuit that touches on each phase of the city's history, from pre-Revolutionary days through the Civil War and the 20th century.
"We can cover a lot more ground than a walking tour, and hit the tiny side streets that a carriage can't go down," says Lambert as we turn into a narrow alley off of Broad Street, perhaps the city's most regal thoroughfare. "A running tour can offer the best of all worlds."
He's right, and despite our concerns that even a loping pace in 90-degree heat might interfere with our ability to soak in the history lessons, we quickly discovered that this method of touring is perfectly designed for the ADD generation that also puts a premium on fitness, efficiency and low-impact tourism.
Within the first 15 minutes, we learned about Denmark Vesey, a freed African-American accused of inciting a slave uprising in 1822, received a brief primer on John C. Calhoun, the firebrand politician who planted seeds of secession in South Carolina, and heard stories of how White Point Gardens (the majestic promenade looking across Charleston Harbor at the city's tip) was reduced to a multi-social-class tent city after the hurricane/earthquake double wallop of 1885-86 … all while maintaining a consistent jog.
For our route, we began at Marion Square, the city-block sized grassy area in the middle of town that once served as the parade ground for the Citadel military college. We weaved through the College of Charleston on our way past historic churches and graveyards, into the frozen-in-time South of Broad neighborhood and along the famous Battery. Working our way back through the French Quarter, we managed to cover four different neighborhoods that would each require their own walking tour if visited at a slower pace.
Sweat but no strain
A Steeplechase tour is not a rigorous workout. Whenever a landmark has a story behind it, Lambert stops his group for a breather while he shares the background. But before anyone has a chance to become disinterested or lose attention, the run continues on.
It's a model that Garrison and Lambert took from Boston's Freedom Trail, a three-mile network of historic sites that can be walked or jogged while taking in the city's most notable landmarks. In Charleston, where cobblestone streets and uneven sidewalks are still the norm and the proliferation of churches (including the first Lutheran and Unitarian congregations in the U.S.) earn it the nickname, The Holy City, the pair decided on the Steeplechase nomenclature, pairing the classic obstacle-laden race concept with the obvious appeal of the steeple-laden skyline.
The company often caters to visiting corporate groups, as well as fitness-minded tourists. But if there's one misconception about a historic running tour, it's that being a runner is a real requirement. Sure, you'll need to be in good enough shape to manage a light jog, but distances beyond a few hundred yards were rare without a break and a quick story. The result is a fast-paced history lesson that can cover the gamut of the city — from the College of Charleston (the nation's 13th university and first city-sponsored college) to Rainbow Row (the colorful strip of houses along East Bay, built for visiting merchants at the nearby wharfs) — while never feeling like the interpretive info is dragging on.
For my tastes, I actually completed a 3.5-mile running tour feeling more energized than I would after a one-mile walking tour that requires slow shuffling and waiting on other people's tedious questions. Best of all, a running tour offers a complete picture of Charleston, a city that is not confined to one historic neighborhood, but in fact carries historical significance throughout its entire downtown. I'd suggest it to visitors as a first activity immediately upon arrival, because the context a complete view of the city provides will improve the experience of each detailed historic site or museum visit that follows.
I'll be recommending a running tour to local friends, as well, and will be on the lookout for similar offerings in other cities as I travel.
Have you taken a running tour of Charleston or another city? How did it match up to a more traditional tour option?
Stratton Lawrence writes about travel, outdoors and fitness related topics for eBay.com, where you can find running shoes (here) and other gear for your next outdoor adventure. Follow Stratton on Google+ and at eBay.
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