Todd Graffagnini, a digital contributor for the New Orleans Saints, is a walker. You can find Graff pounding the pavement somewhere around this great city almost every day. During this pause in games we've asked the New Orleans native to let fans tag along and learn about the routes he takes and some of the city's sports history.
Greetings again everyone. For the last seven weeks, we have traveled around the New Orleans area during our time of quarantine with the hope that all of you would try to get out there and get in a walk or a jog (or 18 holes of golf) and get some exercise. As Phase 1 is finally upon us, and slowly things are progressing forward as far as businesses opening and people getting out of their houses, it's time for one last time on the pavement, and I think we definitely saved the best for last.
Full disclosure, my idea for the final column hit me last Tuesday night. I was watching TV (shocker) when my wife tossed a big manila envelope on my chest announcing that I received a package. Well, I hadn't ordered anything online, so naturally I was confused. After opening it, much to my delight, it was my 2020 Allstate Sugar Bowl Crescent City Classic goodie bag complete with a T-shirt, medal, and official race number. Of course, the 10K (6.2 miles) race, a New Orleans staple since 1979, scheduled for April 11, was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For the first time in my life, I was going to participate in the festivities along with some of my colleagues. Obviously, that didn't happen. Then I figured, why not walk the exact route that hundreds of thousands have run or walked the last couple decades? It would be a perfect way to end this series and give a tribute to the race itself, which is such an important part of this community.
The route itself begins in front of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Poydras Street and heads straight toward the Mississippi River. Then take a left on Convention Center Boulevard and head toward Canal Street. When you reach Canal, then it's left for a couple of blocks to North Peters, then right, and into the French Quarter.
Eric Stuart is from New York, ran track at LSU, and never went back to New York. He has been the race director for the Crescent City Classic for eight years. Obviously, this spring has presented many challenges in the world of road racing, and in New Orleans that has been no exception. The unfortunate process of cancelling the race, which is always on the day before Easter, had been in motion a month before.
"The process was on March 15 we had the St. Patrick's Day Run, right before the St. Patrick's parade in Metairie. I had all intentions of running that, and things in New Orleans started shutting down with all the stuff that was supposed to go on there, and I did not think Cynthia Lee Sheng (Jefferson Parish President) was going to cancel the Metairie festivities, but she did," Stuart said. "So I had to scramble and cancel the St. Patrick's Day Classic, which brought me to the realization that I really should start thinking about this. Even though the Classic was a month out, I went to Homeland Security, I went to New Orleans EMS, I went to New Orleans Heath Services, and NOPD and started asking what my chances were of pulling off the Classic on the (April) 11, and they said I'd be very cautious about it.
"So we made the decision to go virtual. We said let's not play around with this thing. The whole deal was the Classic didn't stop for Katrina. It hasn't really stopped for anything in 42 years and we wanted to be able to give people who have been training since November ... from the 20-25 year Classic participant, October-November qualifier or the average walker, they were getting ready for the Classic and we thought we have at least got to give these people some kind of avenue to be able to go out there and do some sort of competition. We're the fourth biggest 10K in the United States, let's see if we can implement this thing for a large 10K. I can tell you it was an effort to be able to put it on."
Head down North Peters, merge onto Decatur and now the full spectrum of the Quarter dominates the route. Jax Brewery on your right, Jackson Square on your left, a little further Cafe Du Monde and the French Market on your right. The only positive about doing this now is the car traffic was very light to non-existent throughout the route and I was able to stay on the street pretty much the entire time. All the way down Decatur till you come to Esplanade Avenue and veer to the left. Now comes the longest, straightest part of the route, as you will walk the entire length of Esplanade till you cross Bayou St. John and take a left on Wisner.
Walking Esplanade and nearing the bayou got me to thinking about the original route of the Classic when it would finish in Audubon Park after the famous curve on Prytania. Stuart talked about that original route, which after the race was completed led to the almost as famous after party in the park.
'The route changed in 1996 to be exact. Here's the deal. Easter weekend is always Classic weekend, and we're one of the few road races in the United States to do that and it just so happened that the Audubon Zoo's biggest weekend now is Easter weekend. It wasn't back in '79 when this thing started. It became an economic thing. So when we bought the race in 2012 we approached Ron (Forman) and said would you be willing to let us go back in and we started naming prices per runner which were really outrageous to be able to get back on that route.
"It was absolutely incredible. The Fly was covered with people. That's when the race drew 30,000-35,000. There were 70,000 people on that Fly at one time, friends and family plus runners. I ran track at LSU and I graduated around the time the Classic was starting. We would come down and that Prytania route right before we moved into the park, it was iconic. I loved it. You could tell, you know, we're close, we're gonna get in that top 500 or whatever we were trying to do back then but that's why we can't go there. But I do love where the finish is now. It's universally accepted. We tweaked it twice now to get it to end where it does. I mean it's a really great route. Going through the French Quarter, going up Esplanade Avenue, it's absolutely beautiful. It's well-paved now, there's no potholes anymore. It's a very good course and that's why we get the elite field that we normally get to come in because they know they can run fast as hell."
Taking that left onto Wisner Boulevard with the New Orleans Museum of Art in view gives you that exact feeling as you know now you only have a little over a mile to go. Veering right onto City Park Avenue it's another half-mile till the right turn into the park on Anseman Avenue. Then over the bridge and to the left and around the loop. Homestretch time. Storyland will be on your left as you head to NOMA. The one final right turn at the train tracks and around Collins Diboll Circle to the front of the museum. Finished!! I have to say I was very pleased with my pace. My goal was to finish in the 14 minute to 14:15 minute per mile range and I ended up at 13:47 to compete the 10K in 1:25:29. I held my CCC medal with pride in front of NOMA.
To me, the best part of the route is that it combines my walking throughout the city (which I have been able to bring you along some) into one. I'm proud to say that at one point or another I have walked every inch of that route, other than one little stretch on Esplanade, just not all at one time. Now I have, and I really look forward to next year when I will definitely be a Classic participant again. This time, hopefully, with thousands with me on Easter 2021 weekend.
So that will do it for Walks with Graff. I just wanted to let everyone know I really enjoyed doing this and bringing everyone along for the ride so to speak. Continue to keep staying safe, taking care of each other and one day we will all be back at the Smoothie King Center or the Mercedes-Benz Superdome watching and cheering for our favorite teams. Thank you New Orleans!