Some Random Musings on the GWTC 30K
By Gordon Cherr,
Race directors Jerry and Jackie McDaniel’s recent GWTC 30K, and the great success that it was, certainly got me thinking about many of the great race courses where the 30K has been held and of all the 30K “fun” times that I have had, running and racing that 30K, over the past 25+ years. I had a lot of time to think about it as I manned the aid station at Mile 7 (and Mile 11.6 on the return trip), with Gary Griffin and Jeff Bryan. Normally, the three of us would have preferred to have been out on the road, bashing each other on the “Three Sisters” (hills, not women!), but I am still on the mend from three ankle surgeries and a staph infection, and Gary and Jeff are both injured as well. The typical lot of the ultra runner wannabes! So, the three of us stood around like fifth wheels and handed out drinks and encouragement to the real runners amongst us who had the guts and fortitude to tough out what is undoubtedly the hilliest and toughest 30K in Florida. We laughed a lot and told one lie after another.
Rod Anderson also joined us. I’ll bet that a lot of you do not know Rod. But Rod was a stalwart member of the GWTC for many years, and the story I want to tell you has to do with Rod actually saving the life of another runner at the Jacksonville River Run many years ago. And it is no lie.
One year, probably around 1980, I went to Jacksonville with John Hesselbart (now of Charlottesville, Va.) to race the River Run. In those days the River Run had about 5000 starters and was regarded as the biggest race in Florida. John was one of the first two ultra runners in Tallahassee, the other being Dave Sheffield of Pine Run fame. It was a furiously hot day in March and not many runners were acclimated to that heat. John and I had finished the race and were heading back to his car, thinking about beer and air conditioning, in that order. We saw these three overweight football types trying to finish the race, obviously being out of shape and struggling mightily in the oppressive heat. The guy in the middle was being held up by his two beefy friends. About 200 yards from the finish, they dropped him in a door way, in the direct sun, and headed for the finish line.
This guy was out cold. John and I ran over to him and dragged him into the shade and started washing him down with what water and Gatorade that we still had, and it was not much. The fellow was suffering heat exhaustion and looked to be on the verge of heat stroke and shock. Just as John went to hunt up some EMTs, Rod Anderson happened by, carrying an ice chest full of both ice and beer. When beseeched, Rod gave us his ice chest and we packed ice around the guy’s arm pits and groin, to cool him down. That this ultimately saved the fellow’s life by lowering his core temperature I have no doubt. I do recall that Rod only cried a little when we dumped out the ice, but when John and I tried to panhandle a beer or two, he would have none of it. Rod was the right man in the right place at the right time and he rose to the occasion. Even if he was cheap with his beer.
But as to the 30K, the first race course I recall was at Natural Bridge. The course was out and back 4 miles (8 miles total) on a sandy dirt road with lousy footing, and then 5.3 miles out and back (10.6 miles total) on asphalt blacktop. It was freakin’ hot and there was little or no shade, and the run on the black top was a trip in and of itself because the Wakulla County redneck hunters didn’t care to share their the road with runners and usually swerved their jacked up pickup trucks dangerously close at about 70 mph, to scare you off the road, a tactic which was highly successful. More than one of us ate a bunch of sand in those days. I do recall running 2:04 out there one year and it was a tough course especially because of the loose footing in the first 8 miles. Someone, and I won’t say who because he is a businessman in this community still, ran about 2:03:30 to beat me and it disgusted me further when he announced that he could have run faster but that he had treated his body like a “big chemical experimentation vat” the night before, so that this was likely not his best effort. BS or not, he dusted me good that day.
Some time later the 30K moved to the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. Start at the lighthouse, go out 9.3 miles, and return. It was a beautiful but deceptively difficult course because the wind was always in your face one way or the other. And as runners got strung out in the later miles, you could see the lighthouse (finish line) on the horizon but it never seemed to get any closer. That would begin to work on your mind. And miles 13-16 reminded me of a lonely lunar moonscape. You were all alone, there was no one ahead of you who you could see and the landscape, as beautiful as the marshes are, started to lose their charm and appear featureless after several hours of pounding the pavement.
My best training buddy back then was a guy named Mike Johns (presently of Boca Raton). Mike had made it clear a long time earlier that every training run, like every race, was all out, especially near the finish. Ask no quarter, give no quarter, no talk about tying or jogging it in, never. Heck, Mike would race his old lady to the refrigerator and elbow her out of the way if he wanted something that she was going after. He wasn’t any better to his kids, he was one competitive guy. So we are down at St. Marks, around 1982 and getting ready to race the 30K. My strategy was to let Mike go out and kill himself and I would reel him in somewhere after the turn around. At the turn around Mike is about 2 minutes ahead of me, but I’m on cruise control, no problems. I start to open it up after the turn around. After a while I can see Mike way ahead, but I can actually see him now. I am starting to reel him in. Soon I can see that he is wearing shorts and no shirt. Then, getting closer, I can see the color of his shorts. Then I can see the contractions of his calf muscles. The road is long and straight and my plan is working perfectly. Eventually at around Mile 16 we are side by side. I pull up to him and he gives this little snort and tries to surge. I meet his surge and up the ante. We are flying now, eating up the roadway, each of us surging, the other covering that surge and throwing in his own surge. Dropping back is now out of the question. I am starting to see spots before my eyes and Mike’s breathing sounds like the death throes of a runaway steam locomotive.
The lighthouse is coming up fast and the finish line is on a dike, perpendicular to the lighthouse road. We make the turn and have about 150 straight yards to go now. We are going back and forth, passing each other just to be passed back again. I give it my all and pull ahead, but about 10 feet from the finish line he barrels past me, literally by a nose. The race director said that it was a tie, but he and I knew that he had won. I want to say something about that but I am on my hands and knees, having the dry heaves. I feel like my insides are going to implode. I look over at Mike, to my left, and he is crawling on all fours, hurling whatever had remained in his stomach. We look at each other and start to laugh. That was a race! Ultimately he was given the place and credited with 1:57:44, while I was officially listed as 1:57:45.
I knew that I would never run that fast again, but I plotted for an entire year to beat Mike. The next year I decided to simply let him get ahead and then blow by him at the end. He was stubborn as a mule and I knew that he would never willingly let me get past him any time during the race, so all I had to do was to keep the pressure on for 18.6 miles. It worked perfectly for about 17.5 miles as we just pounded each other the entire way, but I guess he had the same plan that I did and he executed his better. He ran another 1:57+ and I ran a 1:58+. All of this was totally eclipsed by our third training partner, Dr. Karl Hempel, who, one of those two years, ran 1:51. And who always beat us like a drum at every race anywhere, at any distance.
Maybe there is a lesson somewhere in all of this: You younger race horses might try to remember that some of us silver backs could run at one time and perhaps put you to shame, comparing results age to age. What is more important however is that you be able to look back many years from now, still running, although slower, and warmly remember your running buddies wherever they may be, and your epic running battles, with good humor. If you see me at an aid station now, handing out drinks instead of laboring with you on the course, you’ll see me smiling and laughing because my running has spanned a lifetime, and the friendships I have made through running will live with me forever.