Wednesday, October 22, 2014 · 5:37 a.m.
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Last weekend’s Chattanooga Mountains Stage Race used the bridge on the second stage of three days of running. (Photo: Contributed)

The growth of nonprofit Wild Trails allows leaders to give more grants to help maintain area trails, and their latest project is the restoration of a bridge on the Lula Lake Land Trust property. 

“We want to fully rebuild the bridge over Rock Creek that was knocked out by a recent storm, and we want to do it quickly,” Wild Trails Executive Director Randy Whorton said in a prepared statement. 

About eight years ago, Whorton and his wife, Kris, moved to Chattanooga. They are both passionate about trail preservation and running. In 2007, they teamed up with Rock/Creek owner Dawson Wheeler; board member for the nonprofit and Rock/Creek’s marketing director Mark McKnight; and President Chad Wamack to create the Wilderness Trail Running Association. 

Eventually, the Wilderness Trail Running Association took on a new identity and broader mission and became Wild Trails. 

"Fairly quickly, we realized this is far more about the trails and getting people out on the trails than it is about trail running," Whorton said on a phone call last week. 

Leaders of the nonprofit put on more than a dozen trail races and maintain area trails.

The reconstruction of the bridge began with a $2,000 donation, and now, leaders are asking the community to raise $2,000 more. The extra money is needed to permanently improve the bridge, which is located on Lula Lake Land Trust’s core property on Lookout Mountain in Georgia.

Whorton said the total cost is about $4,000 and that leaders have already restored it to usable condition, but it needs more work. 

The new bridge plan will be a nail-laminated, longitudinal span bridge. Leaders with the U.S. Forest Service developed the design. 

Last year, Wild Trails leaders gave $56,000 to organizations around town, Whorton said. The organization does two $10,000 grant cycles and also gives five $2,000 grants. 

"In addition, every race we put on, we give money to that organization," Whorton said. 

Sponsors, tourism 
McKnight said that Wild Trails races have drawn high-profile sponsors over the years, such as Salomon, SmartWool, The North Face and Patagonia

And there are also local sponsors, such as Collier Construction.

And McKnight said that Collier employees have come to the events and been inspired. 

"One of the things you don't know until you see [a race] is that you're looking at a field of runners that don't look like high school track runners," he said. 

Trail running draws a wide variety of participants of different ages and body types. It isn't uncommon for people who are in their 70s to participate. It isn't uncommon for winners to be in their mid-40s, he said. 

A few years ago, leaders with Salomon said they wanted to sponsor the trail running races, he said. 

"They came to us and said, 'You guys have the best series in the U.S., and we want to be the title sponsor,'" he said. 

Then, McKnight got the chance to go to France, Spain and Switzerland to see how similar races are done there. 

"It's crazy how fanatical people are about individual sports in general, but [especially] trail running in Europe," he said. 

McKnight saw thousands of spectators come out to the races and got a vision of the possibilities for races in Chattanooga.  

According to The Outdoor Foundation, trail running attracted 4.8 million participants who went on 153.7 million running outings in 2009.

The future 
Going forward, leaders are planning a 100-mile race, McKnight said. And that will likely draw even more people to the area. 

"That's a really big deal," he said. "We will draw people from all over the world. It's along the lines of an Ironman event. It puts Chattanooga on a radar in a way we were not before."

And Wild Trails leaders also have a long-term vision of creating a system in which members vote every time there's a grant. So grants and projects are in the people's hands.  

"It's bringing in other members of the community," McKnight said. "[With that], we are doing more of what people want to see, not just what we think sounds good."

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