South Charlotte

Cross country pioneer leaves permanent trail for runners

It is a late Thursday afternoon at McAlpine Park off Monroe Road, and the weather is near perfect.

Hundreds of cross country runners, their coaches and parents are on hand for the Southwestern 4A Conference Championship in cross country.

Larry McAfee is in his folding chair at the back of his SUV with the back door open. Timing wires, a laptop computer and printer are powered up and ready for the race.

McAfee, 64, has the meet-director process down to a science. He has been a major player in the advancement of cross country running since he taught chemistry and coached at East Mecklenburg High School in 1974.

He has touched the lives of thousands of young people over more than three decades.

A native Charlottean, McAfee grew up off Ashley Road on the west side and graduated from Harding High School. An avid runner, he went to UNC Charlotte in 1965, where he studied chemistry and ran on the school's first cross country and track teams.

During his junior year he worked as a lab assistant, and the experience sparked a love of teaching.

Upon his graduation in 1971, he got a job at Coulwood Middle School teaching science. After three years he transferred to East Meck to teach chemistry and math.

The cross country coach had just left, and McAfee offered to take over the team.

High schools only fielded men's running teams at the time, but there were plenty of kids who wanted to run. The problem was a lack of facilities.

Wanting to ramp up the program, McAfee had the idea to build a course near Central Avenue.

"I lived over off of Kilbourne Street, and as a runner myself I knew the area and thought it might be a good place to build a course," he said.

He developed a plan for a three-mile course that went through the Evergreen Cemetery, Sheffield Park and Winterfield Elementary School, but there were no funds.

Undaunted, McAfee enlisted the help of the boys on the East Meck team to provide the sweat equity to build the course. Although the course worked well for meets, large conference and regional meets continued to be held at the Freedom Park course, which could not safely accommodate a large number.

McAfee was inspired when he read in the Observer that the Mecklenburg Parks and Recreation Department was going to build a new park on Monroe Road.

The new McAlpine Park would be perfect for a full-size course. McAfee contacted Dave Singletary at Mecklenburg Parks and Rec about his idea. Singletary was a high school miler, and the idea took wing.

"We walked around the property, which was a cow pasture, and looked at maps to plan out the initial three-mile course (originally a one-and-a-half-mile loop)," he said. "Parks and Rec said that they did not have the manpower to build the course. I said, 'I've got the manpower.'"

In summer 1978, McAfee cajoled the East Meck cross country team to work every Saturday to make the course. They borrowed chainsaws, wheelbarrows and bush axes to cut a dirt path by hand through the rough terrain.

McAfee borrowed the tractor with a bush hog from East Meck to cut the waist-high grass.

By summer's end, the course was ready.

And this time, McAfee made sure the girls were included. In 1980, girls' cross country officially became a high school sport in North Carolina.

One of the runners who ran for McAfee and helped build the course was Joan Nesbit-Mabe, who went on to make the U.S. Olympic Track and Field team and set the Master's World Record for the indoor mile in her age group in 2007.

Mecklenburg Parks and Rec saw the popularity of the McAlpine Park cross country course and took over the upgrades, eventually expanding the course. McAfee joined colleagues Richard Prince, the Myers Park High coach, and Thermon Gibbons, owner of the store Athletic Footwear, to put together the Wendy's Invitational on the first Saturday of every October.

This year was the 36th running, which hosted more than 3,300 runners from 99 schools in five states.

McAfee retired from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in 2000 after 29 years. The Stonehaven resident now teaches chemistry and coaches cross country at Hickory Grove Baptist Christian School, and continues to provide meet-director services. "Running is something you can do throughout your lifetime," said McAfee. "And from the academic and coaching point of view, I have found that kids who run are all-around great kids."