Article published Jun 23, 2006
Not just a running club

The Pine Belt Pacers Running/Walking Club runs. And eats. And instructs. And socializes. And competes. And enjoys nature. And donates to causes near to its collective heart.

From just beginning runners to Boston Marathoners, the club endorses physical fitness and involvement with the Hattiesburg community.

The group has increased its membership 40 percent just in the past six months and, over the past two years, it has donated more than $8,000 to worthy causes in the Hattiesburg area.

"We've just seen a number of ways we can contribute to the community," Pine Belt Pacers president Jim Coll said. "Especially since Hurricane Katrina (Aug. 29, 2005), there have been a number of needs."

The Pine Belt Pacers have given almost $3,000 to the Longleaf Trace, a 41-mile paved recreational trail from Hattiesburg to Prentiss, and $2,200 to the Hattiesburg High School track and field program.

"We have a good group of members, good people, who generally aren't content," Coll said. "They just want to do something."

While there are regular races put on by the club, there also are social events and fun-type events.

"At the Pine Belt Pacers Relays, we had a quarter-mile kids run," Coll said. "We gave trophies to every kid. Instead of purchasing trophies, our members gave back their trophies they had won and we purchased tags to put on them and gave them to the kids. You have to be creative to do some of the things we do."

Longleaf Trace trail manager Herlon Pierce, who said 10,500 trees were blown down across the trail and another 10,000 were partially over the trail due to Katrina, loves the community involvement shown by the Pine Belt Pacers.

"It helps to support what we're doing and encourages us to do it," Pierce said. "It shows us that the community supports us."

Pierce said that people who have hiked and rode bikes on numerous trails throughout the country tell him that the Longleaf Trace is one of the top three trails in the nation.

And he says it is going to be even better when money donated by the Pacers helps build an outdoor classroom along the Trace.

"It is a very worthwhile project," Pierce said. "We're in the process of gaining title to Beaver Pond. We'll make that a focal point of the trail. There are about 15 acres of water, and we're getting some additional property along the shoreline. We plan to have a classroom, camping facilities and possibly a horse corral."

Pierce envisions the outdoor classroom in an amphitheater type arrangement, with seating built into a steep slope that overlooks Beaver Pond. It would have an instructor's platform between the students and the pond.

"Our youth seem to stay on couches and under the air conditioner," Pierce said. "This will give them the opportunity to get out and explore nature. With the outdoor classroom, we'll be teaching nature and what the outdoors brings to us."

And that is right along the lines of what the Pine Belt Pacers want.

So are activities like a 15-week beginners walking and running training program held at 5:30 p.m. each Tuesday at the Thames School track.

And, each Thursday night during June, the club has a "predicted time run," where runners predict how fast they can complete a run. They can't wear watches, and the runner who finishes the race closest to his predicted time is declared the winner.

"I think the variety of things we have is getting us more members," Coll said. "Things like the predicted time run are encouraging new people who aren't competitive runners to come out and have a good time."

When the year 2006 began, the Pine Belt Pacers consisted of approximately 100 members. The membership is now up to 140.

"We have our 5K Labor Day Run, our five-mile run on Thanksgiving, and our Steam Whistle 12K on the Longleaf Trace on New Year's Eve or the day before, but most of our events are more socially oriented than competitive," Coll said.

People seem to like that. And with the proceeds, some worthy causes in the area are benefiting, too.