The Nashville tourism industry is temporarily leaving its glossy leather boots and ten-gallon hat at the door and roaming the city with nothing more than running shoes, a sweatband and a fair amount of endurance.
Nashville Running Tours, in tandem with its name, guides visitors and locals alike through the best of Nashville while knocking out a day’s worth of cardio.
“We wanted to get to know our own backyard better through this whole process,” said Sam Sudano, one half of the duo responsible for the business. “Not only do we get to learn more about it, but we actually get to talk to so many people who have been here longer than we have, and hear their stories. It’s made us love Nashville even more than we even thought was possible.”
Sudano’s pursuit of a new way to experience the city came from the tourist experiences she received on a trip abroad after college.
“I went backpacking through Europe for about four months when I graduated college,” said Sudano. “A lot of it was kind of landing in new cities and not really knowing what to do, so I’d go on a tour. I did pub-crawls and walking tours—all these different kinds of tours. I had never even heard of running tours, and I probably wouldn’t have even done it if I had at that time.”
Sudano, like many runners she now guides, began as a rookie, with a backpack of travel experience but about as much running experience as any 20-something fresh out of college—slim to none.
“I wasn’t a runner,” said Sudano. “I didn’t think I could run. I wasn’t into it before.”
However, moving to Nashville and landing a stress-filled public relations job quickly changed her mind.
“At that time, my job was getting really stressful, so I started working out to kind of alleviate some of that stress, and I started taking a boot camp class that forced me to run a mile,” she mused with a chuckle.
“So, I ran the mile, and I was like ‘Wow, I didn’t think I could run, this is kind of cool,’” said Sudano.
From that point on, it was like eating potato chips—“Once you start, you kind of get really into it,” said Sudano.
Boot camp not only proved the breeding ground for a newfound lifestyle, but a successful partnership. Sudano met her business partner, Shelley Bankard-Weaver, a local runner, in the program.
A team was formed, and ambitions began to ruminate.
“One day the two of us were like ‘Man, what if we could show people around the city while we’re running, and introduce a new way for people to stay healthy and fit and maybe not have to break their workout routine? How cool would that be?’” said Sudano.
Like any recent college graduates, Sudano and Bankard-Weaver laid out their business model with the help of an all-night brainstorming session and a wall full of Post-It notes.
Since that night a little more than two years ago, Sudano and Bankard-Weaver’s sticky-note game plan has transformed into a thriving tour group.
Aptly named Nashville Running Tours, the $30 runs attract visitors from around the country, as well as locals from down the street looking to gain a new perspective on the city while supporting a healthy lifestyle and Nashville’s prominent running culture. They even sponsor a “Fit as a Fiddle” package through the Loews Vanderbilt Hotel.
“We really wanted to get involved with the people of Nashville who are already supporting running,” said Sudano, who, along with rest of the team, has spearheaded collaborations with other runners in the community, even having partnered with the Country Music Marathon this year. The team led a “Shake It Out” Sunday tour after the race in April, with discounts for marathon participants.
Since 2012, three additional guides have joined the Nashville Running Tours brigade, and, like Sudano and Bankard-Weaver, enjoy using a breathless activity to breathe new life into the city.
“This is just a part-time thing for all of us,” said Ryan Bush, a running guide since August 2013. “We all have other jobs—this is something we all enjoy doing.”
The team guides morning and early evening tours five days a week—Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday—with Mondays and Wednesdays reserved for private and custom tours. Morning tours go out at 6 a.m., giving the early birds who can’t begin the day without a good run the opportunity to see the city before it wakes up. For those who appreciate the hustle and bustle of the rush-hour scene, there’s a 5:30 p.m. tour as well.
The team offers three 5K length, specialized tours to runners—the music tour, the history tour and, in honor of East Nashville’s noted hipster concentration and its signature facial hair, the ‘stache and dash tour.
“Our history and our music are by far the biggest attractions so far, which makes sense when you think about Nashville,” said Sudano. “On our historic tour, we go up to Capitol Hill and run back down Rosa Parks Boulevard, and it’s really cool to see how they’re revitalizing all of that. We talk about the history and how Nashville was settled. We see the Stockyard, Fort Nashboro…we even get up into Germantown, which is one of my favorite up-and-coming parts of the city. Then we go back down through 2nd Avenue and Broadway and talk about the history behind Printers Alley.”
The music tour, the team’s longest tour at four miles, showcases the in’s and out’s of the prominent music staples in Nashville—everywhere from the Country Music Hall of Fame and Cannery Ballroom to Music Row.
“As far as the music tour goes—that one’s just so much fun,” said Sudano. “Everything in Nashville is geared toward that. We stretched that one out longer to pack as much in as we can.”
Perhaps the most specialized of the bunch, the ‘stache-and-dash tour, endearingly referred to as the hipster tour, aims to expose visitors and locals who wouldn’t normally trek across the river to one of Nashville’s signature locales.
“East Nashville was the place no one wanted to live in years ago, and now people are coming here from all over the country, and that’s the pocket of Nashville they want to be in,” said Sudano, an East Nashville native like most of the Nashville Running Tours team.
“There’s so much character over there. We talk about the bands, music, different coffee shops, cafes and vintages stores. It’s one of those things that most people don’t get to see when they’re coming in from out of town. I wanted everyone who is visiting from out of town to know that all of this exists, you just have to cross the river to get to it—even if you live there you can learn so much from it,” said Sudano.
Naturally, the team plays up the stereotype in good fun.
“We kind of play off the East Nashville inside jokes and wear ‘staches on the tour, and just have fun with it,” said Sudano. “We end at a bar and just kind of chat with our guests and get to know them a little better and answer any questions they have.”
While the majority of scheduled tours remain geared toward one of the three fixed routes, the team welcomes custom tours and will readily build a tour for any runner’s needs.
“We take custom tours any day somebody wants them, provided we have the resources and guides to make it work,” said Sudano. “So far, it really hasn’t been a problem—we have a team of five, so we’ve been able to make everything work.”
The team has even gone as far as to chart a 15-mile course around the city after receiving a request from a man bringing his wife to the city for their anniversary.
“We’re really about making it a personalized experience based on the group,” said Sudano.
This also goes for the one thing that many people come into a running tour dreading—the pace.
“We ask what the person’s pace is before we go out,” said Sudano. “As a rule, our runs are more on the casual-paced side. If we have someone come in who’s looking to get that hardcore workout in before they start their day, we’ll make that happen for them. If we need to send out two guides, we’ll send out two guides—one to run with the faster-paced and one to run with the more casual-paced group. We really cater it to who we’re running with—we try to find out a little about them before we go out on the tour.”
Each tour typically runs—no pun intended—about 30 minutes to an hour, but team members readily accommodate those who might need the extra time to catch their breaths and want to stop and absorb the sights and sounds.
“I’ve done tours where we walked the entire time,” said Bush.
Betsy Barbour, a Nashville-native and author of the blog “My Decade of Running” who ran the history tour in February, recommends having at least a little background in running before signing up for a tour.
“Although the tour is several miles long, it’s a pretty easy pace with breaks to take in the sights so it isn’t a hard run at all,” said Barbour. “But they do need to be able to run. I would definitely recommend them to runners living in Nashville. It’s a great way to reinvigorate your running.”
Despite having lived in Nashville since 1996, Barbour did not find the experience of taking a running tour through her home city any less intriguing.
“I’m a huge history buff who enjoys reading historical biographies of famous Americans, like Tennessee’s own Andrew Jackson,” said Barbour in a blog post following her tour experience. “So when I heard that Nashville Running Tours features a history tour through downtown Nashville, I had to check it out.”
“For me, the highlight of the tour was the stunning view of the Nashville skyline from the State Capitol,” she said. “Seeing my adoptive city at night through the eyes of visitors, Nashville looked more beautiful than ever. It’s completely different from other running experiences. Usually, we don’t stop to take in the sights while we’re running.”
To continue promoting a one-of-a-kind Music City experience for all, Nashville Running Tours is opting for more diversified running experiences in the future.
With details in the works, the team is working on implementing more extreme themed runs, like Color Runs or zombie runs—attractions that will pique the interest of traditional and non-traditional runners alike.
“People have seemed to be really excited about what we’re doing, which makes us even more excited to wake up in the morning and do this,” said Sudano. “Especially myself, being a non-runner two years ago. I never thought I could run this much. I think it’s just giving people a way to stay fit and stay healthy and support Nashville.”