A History of the GWTC 20K Race

Rod Anderson

Editor’s Note: Many of GWTC races began in the years from 1975 to 1977. There is a lot of history in these races worth preserving and as much as possible has been collected under the Club Race link in the table of contents. The Ten Mile Challenge began as a 20K as Rod Anderson describes below. Since Rod’s article Dave Iden, Paul Hiers and Dawn Brown have all directed the event. Here is Rod Anderson’s look at the beginning of the race recreated from the March 1986 Fleet Foot.

Among the oldest of all GWTC races, the 20K has had only two directors-Leitch Wright and Bill Buckland. Each in his own way put his mark on this race. Leitch directed the first 20K, held at Silver Lake on January 29, 1977. For the first several years it was sponsored by the Athletic Attic and was conceived as a tune-up for the spring marathon. Until the 20K moved to Killearn Lakes in 1984 it was always held on the same course as the marathon. The one exception was the January 13, 1979 race, which continued to be held in the Apalachicola National Forest near the junction of Springhill Road and SR 167 even though the Phidippides Marathon had moved to Killearn Estates that year.

After two years at the Springhill site, and in some real fear of an accident in those heavily-hunted woods, the 20K followed the marathon to Killearn. Since the latter had been moved to early February and the club now had a new 30K race in January, Leitch moved the 20K back to December in order to keep it far enough from these other long races. So the 20K was run twice in 1979 and celebrated its tenth anniversary in 1985 after only nine years of existence!

Under Leitch’s directorship the 20K was run as a low-key, no-frills race with an entry fee to match — $3.00 in 1979, $2.25 for club members. It was always well organized, however, and although not officially certified until 1984, it was always accurately measured.

In 1982 the directorship changed hands. Irreverent individualist Bill Buckland, master of tongue-in-cheek humor, turned the 20K into Tallahassee’s first professional race, the “Big Bucks 20K.” Initially $2.00, the first -place prize is now $3.33, while second and third-place finishers take home $2.22 and $1.11 respectively, before taxes. Bill’s approach to professionalism vaulted Big Bucks to national prominence in the January, 1986 issue of Running Times. (In case you’ve wondered, Bucky takes the “prize” money out of his own pocket.)

Bucky’s tee-shirts are always different and his awards handcrafted. Among the most handsome of any club awards, this writer believes, were his first year’s “trophies” of fabric framed over wood, featuring a white seagull gliding past an orange sun on a blue background with a red border, all hand sewn by Bucky’s sister in Philadelphia.

Despite the distance and the traditional difficulty of its several courses, the 20K has seen many close races and outstanding performances. In the very first race, then Leon High star Herbie Wills battled the sand and below freezing temperatures to barely outdistance Tim Simpkins, 67:06 to 67:14. Rosemary Desloge took the women’s title over Marsha Wills by one second, 89:20 to 89:21. Casey Cason finished last in that first race and another club tradition was born.

Frequently, as in that first year, the weather has been wickedly cold, an ironic contrast to the often warm and humid 15K in November. Leitch remembers the sub-freezing temperatures of that first race in 1977 and how the runners were all bundled up; all that is except for one. As Leitch tells it, he remembers staring in awe as Mike Hochstein came barreling around that last curve heading for the finish line, bare to the waist, nothing on his legs but the thinnest of running shorts, his upper body shrouded in steam like some ancient runaway locomotive dashing madly across the Siberian wastes. Mike was third in a tough age group that day behind two of the club’s fiercest competitors, Andy Burns (second) and Jim Stephens (first), who have since been inducted into our Hall of Fame.

The second running of the 20K saw the closest finish ever. Running shoulder to shoulder for nearly the entire race, Joe Germano of Valdosta State managed to outkick Tim Simpkins to eke out a two-second win. In contrast, Jim Eastman, from Alabama, had little difficulty coasting to a 67:33 win in the January of 1979 race, while Rose Desloge was easily taking her second title. In the first 20K in Killearn Estates in December that same year, George West, after an unscheduled pit stop, managed to reassume the lead over Steve Ray for a five second victory. In 1980 it was Mike Bordel by only eight seconds over a tough John Hodge, while Laura Ledbetter (now Caldwell) was taking the women’s crown by nearly 13 minutes, a margin still unsurpassed in either men’s or women’s competition. For the 1981 race the temperature was 18° and men had icicles on their beards at the finish. Rick Miller won handily, but Chris Van Fleet had to come from behind to defeat Dara Houliston, thereby becoming the only person in this 20K’s history to win both the masters and open titles simultaneously.

The year to remember is 1982. With the temperatures in the low fifties and almost no humidity, F.S.U. graduate student Chris Lingle ran the second fastest time ever recorded for the 20K, 64:42. Unfortunately, that day Noel Shumann set the race record of 63:14 (a 5:05 pace). Seven runners crossed the finish line under 70 minutes, including Rick Miller’s third-place 65:45. Donna Miller won the women’s open in 80:28 and Dennis Barton took the men’s masters title in 77:50.

In 1983 the weather turned hot and humid, the times were generally much slower, and to add insult to injury, nine of the top runners missed a turn and ended up nearly a mile off course. A key corner was left unattended, although clearly marked, and Noel Shumann had already built up such a lead that no one saw him make the right turn following the lead car. Noel won easily, the only men’s open winner to repeat a previous year’s victory. Chris Van Fleet won the women’s masters division for the second time, a feet equaled only by Dot Skofronick.

In 1984, Felton Wright, Steve Meade, Karl Hempel and Kent Vann stayed close most of the way until Steve opened up some daylight on Felton coming up the grass hill on the new Killearn Lakes course and pulled away for a 13 second victory. FSU runner Barbara Matthews set the women’s race record that year, finishing fifteenth overall in 76:24, well ahead of the previous year’s winner, Margaret Coomber. Ron Gressel broke Bill Jordan’s masters record, finishing in 75:05, eleventh overall. Gail Reinertsen won the female masters in 87:57, also setting a new masters record. The only other time that three of the four major records were broken was in 1980, when Laura Ledbetter, Bill Jordan and Mae Cleveland accomplished it.

Most recently, Felton Wright and Scott Hinkle ran together for nearly the entire race, but this time Felton pulled away at the grass hill and won by nine seconds in 69:40. Among the women, Karen Macharg won in 80 minutes, followed by a record number of seven women under 90 minutes, including 14 year-old Michelle Jernigan in 89:45, by far that age-group’s record, and Patti Sudduth in 83:26, the fastest time ever by a female masters runner. Paula Johnson took second place in the women’s open in 83:30 and Janice Hochstein finished third. Ron Gressel continued his domination of men’s masters, finishing first for the third year in a row and lowering his own record by a remarkable two minutes. His time of 73:05 was good for seventh overall and may have been among the best times nationally for 1985 in the 45-49 age group. Two masters runners from Albany, Georgia, were next with the second and fourth fastest masters times in the race’s history: Dave Hagemes, with 73:48 and James Holt, with 75:32. Holt, at age 50, was tenth overall. For masters, 1985 was a very good year.

Over the years the 20K has gained a reputation of its own and no longer acts as a stalking horse for the marathon. But why it is so popular with club members remains a mystery. The course has always been demanding and the distance not an easy one to run well. Yet year after year, 150 or so area distance runners make it a point to run this race.

Just before the start of the 1985 race, Cindy Norden dragged me out to the foot of a dead tree not far from the last incline down into the finish line area. There a bald eagle sat sunning himself on a high branch of the tree, his faxed stare taking in the several runners quietly stretching or warming up. He seemed a fitting guardian for the fiercely competitive spirit of the 20K.