Running down the wide rocky road that winds into a great Dante’s Inferno-like descent is not the difficult part … running back up is. Those who have participated in the Quarry Crusher Run for the past three years know this all too well. Many avid runners claim this as the most challenging run of their competitive experience.
Jeremy Becraft, general manager of Mast General Store in Downtown Columbia, says he has been a regular runner for 10 years, racing with a Strictly Running group. He seeks out races that offer unique courses, including trail races, and the Quarry Crusher Run overstepped his expectations. “I go for anything that offers a challenge; not just a flat run,” he says. “I had not run a race like that before. You might start out fast and people keep up with you because you’re going downhill, but then you turn around and start back up and, no joke, it’s at least a 10 percent grade.”
Another runner, Lisa Smarr, adds, “The experience of running down and around into the bottom of the quarry is exhilarating, but the return trip is tough … really tough.”
This spring on April 18, runners young and old will have another opportunity to tackle the 1.86-mile incline that is the massive rock pit formed from more than 100 years of mining. Few Columbians know this immense hole exists near the city’s downtown, the Olympia/Granby neighborhood near Assembly Street to be exact. This area is one of 11 stone quarry sites in South Carolina operated by Vulcan Materials Company and one of 342 sites in the United States. Back in the 1880s, large chunks of granite were mined for the construction of buildings. “However, the story goes,” Bob Johnson, plant manager of the Columbia Quarry explains, “that stone blocks were being cut for the State House and miners uncovered shades of pink, instead of the desired gray stone. The owner of the mine at the time decided to mine for crushing stone instead of stone blocks; crushed stone is used for roads, driveways, foundations, etc. It is the primary ingredient in both asphalt and concrete.”
Currently, the Columbia location of Vulcan Materials Company uses three 100-ton trucks and two 65-ton trucks to mine approximately one million tons of crushed stone in varying sizes each year. Vulcan is the nation’s largest producer of commercial aggregates. At this site, there are 33 employees, many of whom have spent their careers at the quarry. The ongoing process of mining rock involves 7,500 gallons of diesel fuel to be delivered each week for the massive equipment; blasting of different areas of the quarry to loosen rocks; and, crushing rocks that will be loaded onto trucks and taken to designated sites.
What has resulted over the years on the 230-acre site is a hole that winds more than a mile and a half to 425 feet below sea level. Rising on every side are steep Grand Canyon-like cliffs of gray and pink. Words like “awesome,” “wow” and “amazing” are often immediately expressed at first sight.
Jeremy, who won the 3.72-mile race last year with an overall time of 21:45 says, “I work downtown, not that far away from the quarry, and I didn’t even know it was there. It’s like you’re in a different country or state when you walk in there.”
The Olympia/Granby area of Columbia just outside the Vulcan quarry is historic because of the Olympia Mill Village that thrived from the late 1800s to the late 1990s. One of W.B. Smith Whaley’s four Columbia textile mills, the Olympia Mill, opened in 1899 with more than 100,000 spindles and 2,250 looms; it was the largest cotton mill under one roof in the world. In the early 1900s, around 2,000 people worked in four textile mills in that area. Employees and their families were affectionately known as “lint heads,” and their descendants still are. The community dynamics were close-knit due to residents living, working and often worshipping together. Children attended school together. That close spirit continues today, and many residents are children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and cousins of those who worked in the mills. The newly renovated Olympia and Granby mill buildings now offer upscale apartment living where many USC college students reside.
Lee Ann Kornegay became enamored with the area when she began assisting friend Richard Burts on the renovation of the historic 701 Whaley building. While the mills were thriving, 701 Whaley was the center point of mill life in that it housed a pool, basketball court, pool hall, dance hall, canteen and library. As a documentary and video producer, as well as media specialist, Lee Ann produced a documentary about the process of transforming the dilapidated brick building with a collapsed roof into an upscale multi-use building that offers space for offices and special events. Lee Ann says she became so attached to the community that she wanted to do something more. She was at first a volunteer and has now become the coordinator of the Olympia Fest for the past three years — a local festival that celebrates the impact of the historic mills and the generations of families still in the area. The nine-year-old annual event includes live music, arts and crafts vendors, local food vendors, quarry bus tours and a variety of family-friendly activities.
A few years ago, several of the area’s neighborhood groups met to determine if there was another event that could take place in conjunction with the Olympia Fest that would draw even more attention to the area. An idea for a foot race was proposed.
Jaime G. Lomas, of Eggplant Events, was invited to discuss the possibilities. Her company coordinates races and unique events in the area. “I met with Richard Burts and Bob Johnson,” she says. “We looked at a possible route around the outskirts of the quarry and afterward, Bob asked if I wanted to take a ride into the quarry. It was such a neat experience that I proposed the question: ‘Can we run in the quarry?’ Runners are always looking for a new challenge and my thoughts were that this would definitely be a challenge!”
She adds that after many discussions regarding insurance and liability, they got the approvals needed and the Quarry Crusher Run was born. “It’s such a unique race, and there are only a handful like this held across the nation,” she says.
“I love the run and have done it all three years,” says runner Alex McDonald who is president of the Columbia Running Club. “It’s very well organized, has great awards, and I love to enjoy the Olympia Fest afterward. On a personal note, my father-in-law was raised in the Olympia area.”
From the start, Vulcan embraced the Run, points out Lee Ann. “Vulcan is very supportive of the community there,” she adds. Bob, who also serves on some of the Olympia/Granby community organizations, and is also an “Honorary Linthead,” did not run the first year, but ran the second and third year and plans to run the upcoming race. His goal is to beat his time and to run more uphill than he did this past year. “I took a training class, but nothing prepares you for it,” says Bob. His son ran last year, as did about 15 Vulcan employees and their family members. Other employees and family members of Vulcan volunteer during the run to help keep runners on the course and pass out water.
The first year, the run attracted almost 175 runners; the second year it attracted 350 runners, and this past year the number increased to about 500 participants. Lee Ann says the Run can accommodate 1,000 runners. Participants can run as groups — families, friends, clubs, organizations, companies — or as individuals.
Lisa Smarr has been involved in road races for 32 years. She said she was originally inspired to “jog” while a student at USC in the physical education department in the late 1970s. She has run in hundreds of races, seeking out racing adventures.
“The Quarry Crusher Run fit that bill! I heard my Columbia Running Club friends talking about how hard it was and, despite the pain and suffering they experienced, they would be back for more. I decided to give it a try last year and I was not disappointed. The race is well organized and very challenging,” says Lisa.
“This is definitely not a dime a dozen run,” adds Lee Ann.
Besides the Olympia Fest, which now coincides with the Quarry Crusher Run, those participating in the run this spring will experience a band that plays in the hole’s basin — encouraging the runners with blasting music. Bob says his goal is for one of the songs in the lineup to be Starship’s “We Built This City on Rock and Roll.” There is also a Vulcan tent that provides runners with some of the history of the quarry.
“It’s just a great experience for everyone, overall,” says Bob. “When you listen to people come into the gate and go around a large pile of rock and see the quarry for the first time, they express how they have never seen anything like it. The run gives us a chance to show the Olympia/Granby community how determined we are to make the community better forever.”
Now You Try
The fourth Quarry Crusher Run is scheduled for April 18. The start/finish line is in front of Olympia/Granby Mills. The race is 3.72 miles from start to finish. Start time is 8 a.m. The Olympia Fest promptly follows the Quarry Crusher Run awards ceremony. The Olympia Fest is held on the green space in front of the historic Olympia Granby Mills. To register for the Quarry Crusher Run, visit www.quarrycrusherrun.com. Registration includes bib number, chip, official t-shirt and “bragging rights” — as Lee Ann Kornegay, one of the coordinators, points out. For information about the Olympia Fest (and to learn more about exhibiting) visit www.olympiafest.com.