Around 5 a.m. on early fall mornings, Franklin Council can look out his window across the highway and see small lights moving quickly through his hay field.
He’ll smile. He might go back to bed, or he might get ready to tend to his cows.
He knows he is not watching a remake of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
He knows aliens from outer space are not invading Wilkinson County.
He knows it’s just Georgia College or Baldwin High cross country runners wearing headlamps and practicing in the early-morning darkness before they have to return to campus for classes.
Franklin Council and his son, Wade, have created a first-class cross country course at the intersection of Highway 112 and Council-McCranie Rd., just beyond the Baldwin County line.
Their course, called Council Farm, weaves through hay fields and pine forests. It has become a mecca for cross country runners at the high school and college levels.
Georgia College annually hosts its Bobcat Cross County Invitational, which features teams from all over the Southeast, at the Council’s course. And in 2016, Georgia College played host to the Peach Belt Conference Cross Country Championships at the course in Wilkinson County.
Baldwin plays host to its region tournament and invitational there every year, and John Milledge Academy and GMC Junior College have had events there.
“It’s quite a sight to see 25 Greyhound buses parked out there, and to have pop-up canopies for all the teams as far as you can see,” Franklin Council said. “And we’ve had some tremendous crowds out here. Some extra, extra large crowds.”
This season the Council Farm course, in its fifth year, hosted five meets -- the most ever.
It all started when Georgia College was looking for a place to practice and “someone over there crossed paths with Wade,” Council said. “So we invited them to use it for practice, and we started laying out courses and measuring the distances.
“We kept it up, trying to make it work with the hay season. You’ve got to have good luck with the weather. This fall was very dry, but that’s better than it being soggy wet when you can’t get any (support) vehicles out on the course.”
It’s a spectator-friendly course because fans can stay in one place and watch the start and finish, or they can walk into the tree-lined part of the course for some shade if it gets too hot in the open field.
Baldwin cross country coach and athletic director Dexter Ricks called the Council’s course “a Godsend. They are great hosts for our region championship. Our runners love the course. It’s a fast course with no hills. That means good times.”
Cy McLeod of Richmond Academy, who won the Baldwin regional, said the course “is great because it’s in the middle of nowhere. It’s in the wilderness and it feels great.”
The Councils might be the runningest family in two counties. Franklin, the grandfather, was a distance runner at Wilkinson County High and West Georgia College.
Son Wade was a distance runner at Baldwin High and Georgia Southern. Daughter-in-law Shea, who lost both legs below the knee at the age of 6 after she contracted meningococcemia (a bacterial infection of the blood), won gold medals in the 100 and 200 meters in the 2000 Summer Paralympics in Sydney, Australia.
Grandson Julian, 12, is a budding distance runner as a seventh grader at GMC. Granddaughter Millie, who is 10 and attends the GMC Elementary school, is trying to decide on her speciality: distances like her father or sprints like her mother.
Grandmother Beverly is the only member of the family who has not run competitively, but she “runs all the time,” usually helping Franklin and Wade conduct an event or watching her grandchildren compete.
After watching Julian do well in a race, she said, “He’s happy, so Granny’s happy.”
Wade and Shea met at the Paralympics in Sydney. Wade was there as the guide runner for his Georgia Southern teammate Tim Willis, who is totally blind. Wade also was his guide runner in the 1996 Summer Paralympics in Atlanta.
Wade and Willis lived in the same dorm at Southern for several years. They had practiced for races over and over. Wade knew what to say, what to look for, what pace to set, and how to keep out of trouble during races.
“You’re a coach, a timekeeper and a companion,” Wade said.
A guide runner is attached to the blind participant by a tether, a string, rope or any material that can’t be longer than a specified length (1/2 meter).
“You’ve got to have a good range of motion and some sense of stability,” Wade said. “You’ve got 10 blind runners, then add 10 more guide runners. The races are very competitive, very intense. You might have two or three from one country. They compete as a group, trying to set the pace. They might have already designated one as the winner.
“You’ve got to have your own strategy and relay the information, but in the end the runner makes the final call.”
FUTURE IS BRIGHT
So what does the future look like for the young Council runners, as well as for the Council Farms cross country course?
It looks very bright, indeed.
Wade, who is in the private road construction business, and Shea, who works at Georgia College, have an abundance of running expertise to share with their children. Wade can handle the distance events; Shea the sprints.
“We’ve got two kids, and two coaches who have a lot of opinions,” Wade said, laughing.
Julian has taken to running distance events and “enjoyed it and had some success,” Wade said. “He’s had some podiums, won some medals. That goes a long way in providing motivation.”
Millie is undecided on whether she likes distance races or sprints better.
As for as the Council Farm cross country course, bigger races might be ahead. Georgia College has talked about the NCAA Division II national cross country championship being held there.
GMC has mentioned that it might want to host the National JUCO cross country championship there.
“Schools don’t seem to have as much trouple finding us now,” Franklin Council said. “Runners have been here from as far away as Tanzania and Kenya. It’s amazing, and we enjoy it.
“Who would have ever thought it? Somebody from the other side of the world coming to run in a cow pasture in Wilkinson County?”