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The GWTC 30K road race, 1978-1988

Written and Compiled by Rod Anderson and Daryl Ellison

On a warm, sunny day in March, 1978, twenty-four local runners followed Tim Simpkins across the finish line of the “Ides of March 30K Road Race” and a GWTC tradition was born.  Tim also directed the race and did a “bang-up job of organizing,” to quote the newsletter editor of that day.

That first race was held at Springhill Road and S.R. 267, out on the forest trails where the Pheidippides Forest Marathon was born and where the GWTC 20K was held for several years.  But the next year the race was moved to the Natural Bridge in Woodville in conjunction with the GWTC running festival.  There it stayed until 1982, when a new race director, Tony Kronenburg, looking for a site away from the pickups and hunters of Natural Bridge, moved it to the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge where it has remained ever since.  The idea of the St. Marks site came from Mike Eakin, who often used the refuge for his long Sunday run.

A slight adjustment was made in 1983 to eliminate the uneven, grassy finish, but since then it has remained the same, an out-and-back course with all splits in kilometers.  Unfortunately, when the race moved to pavement, barefooted Dave Rogers decided to forego the pleasure.  Indeed, the last year the race was held at Natural Bridge, Dave got permission to simply repeat the sand road half of the race to avoid running the paved part of the course.

Each year the race has had its own identity, formed as much by the vagaries of wind and weather as by the competitors themselves.  The present course has inevitably featured a buffeting wind, often a cold, harsh breeze from the north for the first half, the endurance of which leads to an almost unbelievable euphoria for the first few miles after the turnaround.

The first year, 1978, both Tim Simpkins and Donna Glotzbach (now Miller) won by over seven minute on a sandy course which years later one runner feelingly described as “miserable.”  Herb Wills, then a 15 year-old Leon High student, finished second, and GWTC Hall of Famer Andy Burns was third.  Laura Harrington was second woman, followed by Betty Ely, the only other woman in the race and soon to become one of the dominant women runners in the area.  Leitch Wright finished tenth as the leading masters runner.

The 1979 GWTC Running Festival attracted nearly 800 runners to Natural Bridge, with 124 running the 30K, the largest field in the history of the race.  The others ran in a 5K and a one-mile fun run.  Ken Misner, a well-known regional runner, won in what is still the second-best time, 1:42:13, a 5:29 mile pace.  Less than a minute behind was Mark Bossardet, one of six Valdosta State College runners in the race.  Barefoot Dale Eiriksson from Ft. Walton Beach, undeterred by the paved section, ran a respectable 1:48:35 for third place.  Donna Glotzbach Miller improved on her previous year’s winning time by nearly ten minutes, but was edged out by Linda Heimann, whose 2:12:44 gave her place #33 out of the 124 finishers.

Interest in the race seemed to lag in 1980 and 1981.  The 1980 winner was Steve Ray and we think his time was 1:51:19.  Dave Sheffield was second in 1:52:38.  Robyn Anderson (now Grady) was the female winner in 2:48:31.  We have no results for 1981.

Some fine times were run in 1982, the year the race moved to St. Marks Wildlife Refuge.  Of the 74 finishers, 11 broke two hours, let by Rick Miller in 1:44:41.  The first woman was Laura Ledbetter (now Caldwell), who finished seventh in 1:56:57, still the fastest women’s time for the race.  The top masters were Jim Hanlon, from Port St. Joe (1:59:31) and Dot Skofronick (2:28:15).

The 1993 race was noted for its fierce headwind the first half and the youth of the two winners.  Andrew Wills (1:48:18) was 18 and Christy Orthmann (2:18:18) was only 15.

In 1984 Noel Shumann’s 1:43:32 set a record for the course which is still the fourth fastest time for the race.  Barbara Balzer ran 2:04:20, still the second-fastest time for women.  Patti Sudduth was second in 2:04:30, still the third fastest women’s time and the record for masters.  The race also featured Olympic walker Jim Heiring, whose 7:27 per mile walking pace astounded many.  Our own Andy Burns is the only other person to have walked this race; that was 1979 when he was trying to promote racewalking in the club.

The 1985 race marked the re-appearance of Herb Wills, who had gained national prominence since 1978 when he finished a distant second to Tim Simpkins.  Herb won, but he had company much of the way from a tenacious Felton Wright, whose 1:46:58 was a PR.  After running cautiously in fifth place the first half into vicious, near-freezing headwinds, Mae Cleveland passed leader Debbie Moore (2:18:21) in the final 5K to produce a come-from-behind victory of 2:17:56 which still ranks third among female masters times.

The current course record of 1:38:54 was set in 1986, the first year the course was TAC certified.  The record belongs to Herb Wills, who ran virtually unchallenged at a relentless 5:18 mile pace.  His performance overshadowed some fine running by Scott Hinkle (1:48:19) and Felton Wright (1:49:04).  James Dickson set a masters course record that day with his 1:57:51.  Two records seemed amazing on a day when everyone was complaining about the warm weather and swamp bugs.  Missy James was also impressive with her 2:10:48.  Second place went to masters runner Dot Skofronick in 2:34:48.  Ten runners were in less than two hours.  There were 92 finishers, including 12 females.  After five years as race directory, Tony Kronenburg moved to Sarasota.

Rainy, chilly weather kept many runners away in 1987, but it did not deter Larry Greene from winning easily in 1:44:45.  Tom Burr was second (1:48:09), followed by Scott Hinkle (1:52:06) and David Yon (1:54:29).  Dave Sheffield set the current masters course record of 1:55:15 in beating Ron Gressel (1:57:00) and defending master champion James Dickson (1:58:30).  Karen MacHarg won the women’s title in 2:11:59.  Masters winner Patti Sudduth was second in 2:20:08, followed by Mary Jean O’Neil (now Yon) in 2:31:35 and 15 year-old Michelle Jernigan in 2:34:18.  Daryl and Linda Ellison directed their first race and continued the tradition of outstanding tee shirts.  Hot soup was a welcome post-race refreshment on this cold day.

The temperature was ideal in 1988, marred only by a strong wind from the east.  Tom Swiersz (1:46:22) led most of the way but was passed by Tom Burr (1:45:24) in the last 5K.  Tim Simpkins, with Burr through 15K, was third in 1:48:00.  Mae Cleveland, at age 48, won the women’s title in 2:10:04 over Valerie Caraotta, 24, of Cuthbert, GA (2:12:41), and Cindy Nyenhuis, 36 of Gainesville (2:13:29).  Mae’s time was a PR by almost 8 minutes and placed her second all time among female masters.  She and Herb Wills are the only two-time winners known (1981 winners unknown).  Patti Sudduth (2:23:56) and Nancy Dowdy (2:29:53) were second and third masters.  Grand masters (50 and over) records were set by Tom Richards of Jasper (2:08:50) and Dot Skofronick (2:38:45).  Tom had raced the Jacksonville Marathon just a week earlier.  Dave Sheffield defended his masters title in 1:56:09, just 43 seconds off his record.

Much of what makes this race unique is the setting.   Amid the wild splendor of the coastal marshes with virtually no spectators and little traffic, the runners struggle with the natural elements and with themselves.  It gives us a certified course over a distance rarely run in the South, and serves as an excellent tune-up (if you don’t race it) for our marathon in February. After the race there is the traditional camaraderie at Posey’s, with beer, oysters and smoked mullet that makes this a great social event too.  Low entry fees, unique trophies and quality tee shirts have also been a tradition.  The GWTC 30K is a race worth running, and worth remembering.

(Anyone who has any information or leads concerning our 30K results from 1980 or 1981, please email David Yon.)