The Athens Twilight 5K begins and ends on Washington Street in the the northeast Georgia city's historic downtown.

Image courtesy Charlie Swank/Courtesy Athens Twilight Criterium

Is it possible for a sporting event in Athens, Ga., to be as popular as a University of Georgia football game? Well, maybe not. But the Athens Twilight Criterium comes in a close second to the Bulldogs. The annual cycling event is not only popular nationally among cyclists, but the race and related events bring in more than 30,000 spectators each year. And while the primary emphasis is on the cycling race, the Twilight 5K is hardly a neglected stepchild of the weekend. In fact, it's the race that rings in the weekend's events.

The Athens Twilight 5K first began in 1987, seven years after Gene Dixon founded the Twilight Criterium. It has become a popular feature of the Twilight weekend, kicking it off bright and early on a Saturday morning with the thud of 700 sets of sneakers hitting the pavement in downtown Athens. Rachel Cooke, a former track runner, works with Dixon on planning the 5K, which now has almost quadrupled the number of participants it welcomed in the late '80s.

Unlike the criterium, which is suited for serious cyclists, the 5K is open to participants of all athletic levels. The race's classes are divided up into 11 age groups, and individuals can choose to run, walk or a combine the two. Just be prepared: This race, unlike most 5Ks, will have you running (or striding) past throngs of spectators -- something that will make even a roadrace newbie feel like a champion marathoner. The top finishers of the race can go on to participate in another race, the "$1000 Mile." The less serious runners -- and the walkers -- are racing to benefit a local charity. In 2010, the participants raced to benefit the Joshua Reeves Foundation, an organization created in memory of a northeast Georgia man killed by an improvised explosive device, or IED, while serving as a U.S. Army corporal in Iraq.

So, whether you think you have the speed and stamina to beat out hundreds of other runners, just love running or want to help raise money for a meaningful cause, all you have to do is pay the $25 registration fee to enter.

If you plan to participate in an Athens Twilight 5K, which occurs each spring, find out more about the route and type of terrain you'll be facing on the next page.