Racing Toughness – Race Director of the Year Presentation

By David Yon

There is little doubt that as a group, runners are a bit quirky. Whether running in bad weather, obsessing about training, describing our bathroom habits or entering crazy events, we pride ourselves in being a little bit different. Dave Rogers embodies that creed – long flowing hair and bare feet running through the forest – runners are different. So when Dave stepped forward to start one of GWTC first races, it is no surprise he designed and gave birth to a very unique event – the Steve Prefontaine 5K. First, it took its name from one of the sport’s most colorful competitors, an Oregon runner who dominated the US distance running scene with a tough running style. 

And the race found a home on the sandy trails in the Apalachicola National Forest. And it had to be a tough course. The sandy mounds, trails and rough terrain of the forest made this event one of the toughest per mile the club would offer. That wasn’t the end of the craziness either – traditions such as shooting apples off a head, firing shot guns to start the race, having all runners kiss the person next to them and much more gave this race its own unique character. 

Since its inception the Prefontaine 5K has always been the race that embodies that runner’s creed about being different. It is not and never has been about drawing huge crowds; it is about appealing to people who love the sport and love to run. So when it fell into the hands of its current director, you knew that spirit was safe. 

He has done an outstanding job directing this race since 2002. He has probably drug more obstacles on to a running course than any other race director in club history. He marks his course with a weed whacker – keeping things as close to nature as possible. What other race can you go play with rattlesnakes after it is over? 

And I personally will always remember the 2004 race. I recorded my experience as follows:
“Many times I have watched the mass start at cross country races with wonder. The runners spread out wide and then make a frantic dash for position. “How can such effort so early make any sense?” I always wonder. Saturday I got a bruising lesson. Young and old toed the line together Saturday morning at the 2004 Prefontaine 5K and this time the young new something most of the old didn’t. Go out hard and grab your position. And that is pretty good strategy when nearly 240 runners (160 “old” folks and 75 high school runners) are trying to cover less than two tenths of a mile before funneling down to a single track path that is littered with hurricane debris and years of artistic expression from the Jeff twins. (That’s race director Jeff Nielsen and Prefontaine spirit Jeff Doherty.)

I chose to start carefully and then began trying to move up. I have never seen so much “stuff” on the course as trees, axles and sand turned any thoughts of a pleasant stroll through the forest into a masochistic challenge that would make Prefontaine quite happy. My choices were to sit and wait or to pick my spots and run through briers and who knows what else to grab one more place. I tried the latter and it seemed to be working until I tried running right of one group just as someone in the group decided to release a limb they had shoved out of their way. 

Whack up side the head and I was certain I was speaking to Prefontaine the next few minutes. He was right there I swear. 

But there was no way I could feel too sorry for myself. The real tough guy finisher in the race was 79 year old Charlie Yates, who came out of the woods with his face scratched and bleeding, making me look dressed for Sunday school. He got a very unpleasant taste of the terrain and a battered face, but he never let it dampen his spirit. 

Our race director of the year has that spirit and that toughness. 

In 2005 he added a new event that electrified the crowd — THE PUSH UP CONTEST — quickly surpassing anything I have ever seen in a local road race. As the count went past 20, 25, they cheered and hooted. As the competitors collapsed one by one the crowd pressed in closer. The cheers became a deafening din as the remaining competitors pushed on. Thirty five and counting and there were fewer than five competitors left, then four, three, two and finally only one – Lincoln runner Cody Vincent had won the first ever Post Pre Push Up Competition.

But that is not the complete story. His races have always been well organized and fun events. 

He has also been a great supporter of the animal world making this event an annual fund raiser for St. Francis Wildlife Foundation.

Finally, he is also a tireless volunteer for other GWTC events. My experience has been meeting him at “god awful early” Thanksgiving morning to get things rolling for Turkey Trot. There is a long list of race directors who have reached out for his help – one day he will get smart and get rid of his truck – but for now he always says yes. 

Most of all I am very pleased to be able to call him friend – and to know he gladly shares that mantle of runners who like being different. 

Please join me is congratulating Jeff Nielsen GWTC’s Race Director of the year.