Our Saturday morning history tour group meets at the base of John Calhoun's statue in Marion Square to stretch. From there we cross the square toward Vanderhorst Street, walking through the farmers' market crowd before breaking out into a run as we cross traffic. This isn't going to be your average history tour.
Charleston Steeplechase, the Holy City's first running tour company, was founded in April by longtime friends and tour guides Shaun Garrison and Matt Lambert. "We don't really have any competition right now, although we are on some people's radars as I understand it," Garrison says. "If business does start to pick up and we make some decent money, I think we won't be the only ones doing this for long."
Our group of about a dozen joggers is on a trial run with Garrison and Lambert, covering three-and-a-half miles of historic Charleston in an hour-and-a-half. We are not an especially athletic group, and one guy keeps making self-deprecating jokes about keeling over in the heat. Fortunately for the stragglers, we never travel more than a few blocks before stopping.
Appropriately, our Steeplechase tour includes several old churches, where our guides rattle off facts with practiced ease and tell the sorts of anecdotes that almost seem too Charlestony to believe. At Grace Episcopal Church, for example, Garrison tells a tale from the Union occupation of Charleston about the Rev. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney giving an hour-long prayer for President Lincoln, forcing the Union soldiers who lined the aisles to stand at attention the entire time. By now, the sun has begun to part the morning's cloud cover and a few of the runners are leaning against walls and sitting on steps during the stops. We chuckle between gulps of air. (Pro tip: If you're getting winded, prolong the stop by asking your tour guide a question. They usually know the answer.)
Lambert and Garrison both give carriage tours at Palmetto Carriage Works, where they have worked for years. When a friend of Lambert's came back from Boston and told him about a running tour he had taken, Lambert took the idea to Garrison to see if he'd be interested in a new venture.
Garrison figured a running tour would offer a few distinct advantages over other popular tour types. "A walking tour, you're going to cover about eight to 10 blocks in about an hour-and-a-half," Garrison says. "A carriage tour, you cover about 25 blocks in an hour. In the running tour, we cover over 60 blocks in an hour-and-a-half, which is only exceeded by the buses." And then there's the matter of access: "We go down streets that you otherwise wouldn't be allowed to go down in a carriage or a bus," he says. Our tour, for example, takes us down Orange and Lamboll streets, narrow residential roads that I had never seen even as a Charleston native.
Tourists feeling guilty about eating a 1,600-calorie dinner at one of Charleston's world-famous restaurants might be interested in combining a tour with a workout, too. "I think that people these days, when they go on vacation, they still like to be active and keep up with their workout regimen," Garrison says.
This summer, Charleston Steeplechase has been building business by leaving cards at hotels and getting the word out through the Convention and Visitors Bureau. They're also booking tours at charlestonsteeplechase.com via local online ticketing company Indexic, and they're on Facebook and TripAdvisor. In three months, they have risen through the ranks of TripAdvisor's user-rated Charleston Things To Do list from No. 127 to No. 40. That puts them 10 spots behind Palmetto Carriage Works and just ahead of Kayak Charleston and Charleston Harbor Tours.
Our Saturday morning route stays mostly south of Calhoun Street, with stops including the Cistern Yard, the Rutledge House Inn, the Sword Gate House, and the Battery. By the end, the sun is beating down and the slog has claimed a few of the runners, who walk the final leg to Marion Square. Others finish at an easy trot. Garrison says the route is flexible, and return customers can request to be taken on a route they haven't seen before. Future plans include a longer, 7.5-mile run that crosses the Ravenel Bridge to Patriots Point.
"One thing about being a walking or carriage tour guide, you get stuck in a rut because you're limited in the places you can go," Garrison says. "But one of the great things about being a running tour guide is that if I'm tired of talking about this church or that house, I can pick a different street and go that route. You could go on a tour with us three days straight and never see the same thing."
Charleston Steeplechase runs start at 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. daily for $25 per person. Group rates and custom routes available. Visit charlestonsteeplechase.com.