It started with Westbury High School’s track and field team wanting to practice cross country running in a safe place. Now the Willow Waterhole Greenway is a premier site for southwest Houston’s many school cross country teams and invitational meets, boasting several beautiful courses. 

Willow Waterhole Greenway Conservancy President Bill Burhans calls this Houston’s “best kept secret.”  And the site’s evolution over the past 15 years, from rough grassy fields to crushed granite courses, has been continuous thanks in large part to the vision of  Westbury track and field Coach Andrew Blanks.

Blanks felt like it was a dream come true when the Willow Waterhole opened and gave access to athletes from the school two blocks away.

“Before they rebuilt our school, our cross country team members used to have to practice and run in the streets, and one of our students was hit by a car,” Blanks said. “So I started looking at where the construction was going on at the new conservancy, and saw there was plenty of room for us to run safely there. We needed a proper place to train without our kids getting hurt.”

Blanks asked the conservancy to let the team run at the Greenway,  promising to clean up afterwards and keep it in good condition. He received permission and mapped out a course for a 5-kilometer race.

“They (WWGC administrators) said they wanted the park to be used, and made constant improvements since we have been training there,” Blanks remembered. “It has been good luck for us, as we began going to State Cross Country finals, and we won the district regional championship in 2008.”

Since using the greenway as their training grounds, the Westbury team has experienced multiples successes. Several of medaled in state competitions and went on to run for their college teams. In 2008, the year they won their district championship, the team placed seventh in Texas.

Blanks saw the potential of the site for not just training, but for actual track meets, and he was encouraged by the conservancy to pursue a plan. Now there are several beautiful courses mapped out by the coach.

Westbury began its first invitational track meet there in 2015. Other schools who joined them liked the site so much, they too started training there, and now other schools also offer invitational track meets there.

Many cross country invitational meets now take place there through a collaboration of coaches, school volunteers, conservancy volunteers, Westbury Little League and the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, which mows the grass prior to events. This year, they hosted the Incarnate Word Academy Cross Country Invitational, the Bellaire High School Cross Country Invitational, the Westbury High School Cross Country Invitational, the YES Prep Cross Country Invitational, the St. Thomas Episcopal Cross Country Invitational and the Texas Association of Private Schools Regional.

The fees collected from runner registration go toward paying usage charges and operating costs to the parks department. The Brays Oaks Management District and the conservancy fund the regular maintenance of the venue.

“Coach Blanks mapped out a course, promoted it to other coaches, and helped them with the process to get their invitationals started,” Burhans said. “We recently installed a plaque on a bench recognizing Coach Blanks for all he has done in making this a premiere site for cross country track.”

As it prepared for its annual on-site music festival Oct. 30 and celebrated the paving of a greenway road and parking lot, the conservancy shared more good news: Harris County Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis announced a $2 million investment in the trails. 

The money will result in 2.5 miles in new trails at Westbury Lake. Construction starts in December with anticipated completion in March 2022. Part of the project will be concrete trails for bicycling and part will be crushed granite trails for runners. The conservancy and Blanks are working with the design team.

— by Arlene Nisson Lassin