Another Ho-hum Day in Paradise: The Tallahassee Ultradistance Classic 


Gary Griffin


I worked in the Florida Keys for a few years back in the late ’70s. A commonly heard phrase amongst those of us that had the pleasure of being a part of that environment was “Just another ho-hum day in paradise.” It attested to the fact that though the days may remain strikingly similar, they were always filled with some of the best things in life.

I was reminded of that this morning as I awoke after another Tallahassee Ultradistance Classic experience at Wakulla Springs State Park. “Just another ho-hum day in paradise.” Granted, paradise is not supposed to have some of the pain that I (and presumably my fellow competitors) experienced during the long hours of yesterday, but I was just so clearly reminded of what it is that binds us all together – those of us that hold that annual experience at Wakulla so dear. Yesterday was a family reunion – a homecoming of sorts. It’s early December. It must be time to gather the family at Wakulla Springs for the ultra.

Oh, the joys of the day! Where do I begin? Let’s start with the old folks and move on to the youngsters. There tends to be a fairly good array of the former at Wakulla each year and a growing number of the latter. Why do those old guys keep coming back and what is it that draws in the younger set?

Gordon Hawkins, from the Tampa Bay area was there yesterday, as he’s been some 19 times before. Gordy first came to Wakulla in its inaugural year of 1982, and has won it four times at the 50M/80K distance. That was before he suffered a running career ending injury awhile back. He now race walks Wakulla. He told me it is the only long distance event he does every year. Yesterday he race walked it at a very rapid pace until his knee went south on him. Too bad. Gordy was cookin’. Nonetheless, he was at Wakulla, and that meant he would finish. Hobbling much of the last 15 miles, he did so. Gordy’s got a lot of guts and Gordy loves Wakulla. He’s family and he was there for the homecoming.

Another loyal family was there – that being Pat Judd and his dear Mom from Blountstown. His Dad was a fixture here until his untimely death last year. PJ came over from Ivan-ravaged Pensacola, as he’s done annually now for the past 16, and for 19 years in all. Talk about family loyalty! His Mom faithfully tends the course-side table, filled with Pat’s supplies, always sharing them with other runners. I can’t imagine a Saturday at Wakulla without Pat and his family.

Another not-so-young buck that dropped in for the homecoming was 84-year old Don McNelly. Don’s toed the starting line for 17 years now. I want to say “Keep coming back Don,” but that’s not necessary. I hear you’ve already reserved a room at the lodge for next year. That’s good news. Your presence is part of the tie that binds.

Tallahassee’s own Bill Hillison was there with his extended family of friends that try to tag along and run with him. He did something yesterday that should not have surprised any of us in the least. He won the 50K. Again. Eight times now he’s been the first one across the line, beginning in 1992. He didn’t just win it. He ran 3:50:10 (that’s sub-7:30 per mile!) for 31 miles. Bill Hillison is 60 years old. Sure, the old folks congregate at Wakulla each December but 60 year olds do not win ultras. I’ve not done the research yet, but I can tell you, that stuff doesn’t happen very often. Ultrarunning Magazine makes a big deal each year out of 50 year olds winning ultras. Bill Hillison should grace the cover! Somebody check his birth certificate, for as the second place finisher Greg Waddell said, “He took me to the woodshed.” Don’t feel badly, Greg. You’re not the first. I’ve seen him do it so many times at Wakulla now that it is legendary.

My friend Scott Ludwig was there from Peachtree City. You’ve heard me tell about Scott. Started running in November 1978 and has not missed a day since. Scott’s won the 50K there, back in ’98, and last year finished second in the 50 miler on Saturday and ran a sub-4 in the postponed Tallahassee Marathon on Sunday. That’s not too surprising because what he’s done in the last 26 years has its share of “No he didn’t” moments. Trust me on this one: he did. You might say, “Scott’s not an old guy!” Well, boys and girls, don’t let that baby face fool you. He turned 50 on Friday, the day before Wakulla. How do you think he celebrated? He did the same thing he’s been doing every day since that day in November, 1978. He ran. This time, though, he started at midnight and ran 50 miles. He then got in his car and drove to Wakulla for the homecoming. He ran the 50K yesterday and just cruised to a 4:32.

Nick Mazza was there. Like Gordy and Pat, Nick is always at Wakulla. Saturday was his 14th consecutive Wakulla ultra, the last 12 of which have been the 50 miler Nick runs only a few races a year, but if you ever need to find him, come to Wakulla Springs State Park on an early December Saturday morning. Nick ran 50 miles yesterday. Last year he ran the marathon the next day, too. He always runs the marathon, so the fact that it happened to be the day after the Tallahassee Ultra was of no consequence. It wouldn’t be homecoming without Nick.

It also wouldn’t be homecoming without Andy Colee from Valparaiso. You’ll find Andy running an ultra or a marathon most every weekend. After all, he done over 400 now, I think. He’s always at Wakulla, and I am always so glad that he is. Wakulla and Andy Colee go hand-in-hand.

There were more than a few youngsters that added joy and quality running to yesterday’s reunion, too. I hope they come back, because they were fun to watch and more fun to be around. Chad Ricklefs came to Wakulla from Boulder, Colorado in hopes of maybe breaking the course record. Chad is an elite ultrarunner that has won the Leadville 100 mile run twice, as well as being named USATF Male Ultrarunner of the Year in 2002. In 2004 he was the USATF 50 mile national champion. He ran 50 miles yesterday in 5:24:47, barely missing the record. For those you without calculators, that’s under 6:30 per mile! Chad’s pretty fast …. Scott’s friend Kelly Murzynsky came down from Peachtree City and won the women’s division of the 50K in 4:03. She doesn’t race much, but when she does, she wins. Like Chad, Kelly’s pretty fast, too.

Tennessee blessed us with two competitors yesterday. One was indeed a youngster – Brenton Floyd, from Chattanooga, is all of 19. Before I tell you this next thing about Brenton, I want to assure you that is not a typo. Yesterday was Brenton’s 232rd marathon or ultra. When I was 19, the only thing I had done 232 times was run from home plate to first. The other Tennessean that joined us for the homecoming was Angela Ivory, from Nashville. Angela was running only her 8th ultra, but she’s definitely a candidate for many more. She ran the Baton Rouge Marathon last weekend, and smiled her way around Wakulla Springs all day yesterday. I sure do hope she comes back..

There’s one more who was at Wakulla yesterday that looks old and runs young, and is fast becoming a part of the Wakulla lore. For me at least, he (together with his wife) made the day something extra special. It made it truly a homecoming. Lt. Col. Fred Johnson won the 50 miler last year in a performance that brought all that know and love him great joy. Duty called he and his family to Columbia, SC last April, but homecoming was yesterday at Wakulla. Fred was there, along with his wife Laura and daughter Maddie. Fred ran a strong 50K, beating Scott by 4 seconds. Laura, preparing to run the Jacksonville Marathon next Sunday, picked me up and carried me through the mentally tough miles of 30-40 yesterday. Homecoming would not have been such a happy day for me if not for Fred and Laura.

There are so many others …. So many others. Jack McDermott, at his first race at 50 miles turned in a performance that would have won any other day if not racing against someone like Chad Ricklefs. Jack really ran a gutty race. Don’t even talk about guts though unless you talk about Dana Stetson. He’s toed the line at Wakulla more times that he cares to admit. Yesterday he fought through a brutally bad patch late in the 50 miler and finished 3rd overall, winning the master’s title.

The final point about this homecoming is a point that is first and foremost in the hearts of all that were blessed to be able to run yesterday. Fred and Margarete Deckert and an incredible team of Gulf Winds volunteers, made it what it was. Margarete and Fred love the Wakulla event and devote themselves to it because it is far more than an ultra run – it is truly a reunion and a homecoming. The runners that gather there every year have come to love Fred and Margarete as well as the many volunteer faces that make the annual pilgrimage to Wakulla Springs State Park every December. What would a Wakulla Saturday be without Joe Dexter and his array of costumes? It wouldn’t be homecoming, that’s for sure! Joe was there – less than 2 weeks after his second hospital stay in the past few months following cancer surgery. Joe, you’re a gift to us all. You come bearing gifts each year but you only need bring yourself. The same goes for Bill and Ray and Gordo and my dear Peg and Jeff and JoLena and Frannie and Keith and Ken and Jay and Jere and Coach Charlie and Paul and Myrna and Pete and Ron and Cyn and Jimmy and Susan and Lord, so many, many more. You encouraged and counseled and kicked and somehow got us to that finish line that we longed for so badly but would not have attained if not for you. We’ve got a good family, and it sure is nice when we can all get together. There’s just something really special about the homecoming that takes place on that December Saturday at Wakulla Springs State Park.

I had forgotten how much fun it was to run 50 miles. All in all, it was just another ho-hum day in paradise.