By Tim Unger
The 18th running of the highly popular Gate To Gate 4.4 mile race that is held annually on Eglin Air Force Base seemed to be in a “war time” transition this year. The event once again had well over 1500 entrants mandated to be pre-registered before entry to the base was allowed. Honoring our nation’s war veterans on this military site has become a bit of a tradition for the Gulf Winds Track Club racing team at this last official team event each year. This team event has been special to many GWTC folks who have kept a tradition of winning a beautiful team eagle for their efforts for 6 straight years. Without GWTC superstars such as Simpkins, Droze, Remillard, Gorton, Yon and Deak, who have carried the tradition through the years, this year looked like a tough challenge with over 20 teams entered into the competition. GWTC would have to have some new heroes step up and help the racing veterans who have built this team challenge into an official winning streak.
As usual the race itself featured hard filtered sun with humidity steaming in directly off the Gulf of Mexico all served up at the start that was almost a half hour late. General racing conditions at Eglin almost never favor the “Highlanders” from inland Florida. Despite the summer like conditions the racing veterans all came through with a great team effort as most of the GWTC racing team claimed some sort of individual award. Sarah Williams returned to the event after a several year hiatus to give our team a great starting point with a superb 26:11 effort. Her sub 6:00 minute per mile pace earned her the 2nd overall female individual Eagle trophy and some cash. Not to be outdone by a mortal woman, Bill McGuire checked his bionic knees out of a boneyard clinic just hours before the race to once again conquer the Grand Master’s division with a 27:20 clocking. There must be an entire flock of huge Eagles hanging around at the McGuire household because at age 56 Bill is still dominating his age group and brought the only 1st place Eagle back to Tallahassee.
Bill’s main competition this year came from Rueben Diaz, who showed up at the GWTC post race party to try to get a hold of McGuire, but was once again a few seconds too slow to catch Bill. 2002 Grand Master Champion Jerry Ongley was fresh off some skin cancer surgery which slowed him down to 3rd in the 55-59 age group with a gutsy 28:13 performance. Joe Dexter made a considerable move to the front of this age group, compared to 2002, and ran 30:27 to score the 4th finishing position out of 42 entered for a near Tallahassee sweep of the age group. Just a few seconds behind Joe, Lisa Whitworth was doing another wrecking ball run winning her age group for the second year by several minutes. Lisa seems to have more spirit and energy than most of her competition and it shows in the several minute gaps she piles up in her age group. Linda Ongley ran 40:23 and was awarded the second place age group cup for her outstanding effort in her first attempt at this point to point race.
My daughter Lilly was just behind Linda for most of the second half of the race, being pushed in her baby jogger by her momma, Lisa Unger. Lilly is an experienced baby jogger racer now, and helps to make sure momma doesn’t get too far behind. I ran about the same race that I have for the past several years. I finished in 24:56 and earned the 3rd place Men’s Master’s Eagle that, after four years of racing, has completed my collection of the elusive creatures. Hobson Fulmer and Bob Keller both won 4th place age group cups in their respective age groups to round out a great showing on the individual awards for GWTC members in 28:31 & 40:01 respectively. Nadine Dexter improved on her 2002 showing and finished in the top half of her age group running 44:16. Pete Kerwin proudly wore his GWTC singlet en route to a 49:23 finish.
With 20 teams entered in the team competition there was plenty of serious racing detail happening at a fast pace. Many of the teams had looked for youthful runners that could weather the tough conditions better. I may have led the GWTC team this year but half of the runners ahead of my 16th overall place were college runners. Notably the extremely well behaved University of West Florida Cross Country Team had come in very strong on this day. Humanatee winner Caleb Carmichael was the first Tallahassee runner to finish in the 8th overall position. He was the 3rd finisher for the UWF team however and was followed by Tallahassee’s Jason Fulgam and Scott Poindexter, who were just ahead of me. It was refreshing to see a young group of kids work so hard together through the entire event. The UWF kids showed a lot of class and were together for the entire race and even sat politely together, shoulder to shoulder, to accept their age group awards.
The college runners dominated the younger age groups so much it would have been easy for the GWTC team racing heroes to lose their cool. But joining the group of folks who have preserved the GWTC team racing legacy does have its magic. Our high school heroes who fought with the college kids this Memorial Day earned the respect of the racing community by finishing 6th and 10th in their age group. Their efforts for the GWTC team could not be overlooked as Justin Dickieson and James Dexter motored into the 22nd and 36th overall finishing positions. Justin is currently in the GWTC overall men’s Grand Prix top 5 and is getting better all the time. He edged out running icon Sarah Williams by a second @ 26:10 and missed an age group cup to one of the Troy State college runners by only three seconds. Together with James Dexter running a 27:11, the two high school runners completed the scoring for the GWTC racing team only 28 seconds slower than Ryan Deak, Tim Bolton, and myself had done in 2002.
The team racing drama was not complete however, as Pensacola’s Navy team was disqualified from the military division, putting them out of the cash military award, which pays $500 to the top military team. The judges’ decision to score the Navy team in the Open competition placed the elite team just over a minute ahead of GWTC. GWTC did hang on to the 3rd place Team Eagle because of the valiant efforts of our young guns. Our award-winning streak at this race now stands at seven in a row and I am lucky enough to have been involved in six of them representing GWTC. The team awards were handed out before the individual awards so I took the liberty of taking a lap around the awards podium with the GWTC feather when GWTC was announced in third place. Now I know how Tim Simpkins must have felt when he accepted awards in costume. Jogging with that 16-foot “feather” in front of a cheering packed house was thrilling for me as my teammates all came forward with plenty of grins.
Then it was Party Time! The race sponsors had put together an outstanding culinary banquet. Runners were able to graze on plentiful fruit, red beans and rice, buffalo wings and Subway sandwiches while drinking from the Budweiser truck and enjoying the sounds of the band, “Jones & Co” until almost noon. The REAL post race party was moved to POSTL Point (Choctawhatchee bay) about a half mile from the race finish line. GWTC had advertised a get together with the race host, North West Florida Track Club, for a traditional Memorial Day cook-out/swim/kayak experience. The party was given rave reviews for location, atmosphere and food. We had claimed a spot at daybreak before the race started that had several well-established, shady oaks growing just a few feet from the surf. My sons Justin and Tyler stayed to protect our piece of the beach with the younger James Frazier for several hours until we finished our race details. Jim Frazier had worked the race crowd by distributing some race flyers for a 5k he is directing while reminding folks to, “Drink up the free truck so we can save some brews for the party you are going to.”
As word got out about our beachfront paradise we had runners from The New Orleans Track Club, Pensacola Runners, Capt’ Fun Runners and even the Timing Results crew who worked the race all came by to share the Memorial Day holiday spirit we had come together to celebrate. The Results crew surrounded me at the grill and claimed to have never seen me sweat before, then made some generally true jokes about my attempt at playing chef. We plowed through about 75 hotdogs and hamburgers with several cases of cheer until thunderstorms forced us to call it a day around 4 P.M. Hobson had said to me while I was feverishly flipping flaming burgers that if I would have told him how nice the party location was he would have brought the oysters! I replied that “I had no idea that this party would be such a great success.” We have a year to plan our next Eglin post race base party and we are already following up on some of the suggested improvements for 2004. Thanks to the NWFTC for helping to make the 1st Annual POSTL Point Post Race Party a success. I can hardly wait to do it again. CHEERS!