The 2009 Tallahassee Ultra Distance Classic – a Study in Perseverance

Gary Griffin

Over the years of running ultras I have accumulated some of my favorite quotes – some inspirational, some quirky, some thought-provoking, some useless, and some that make you just scratch your head and wonder what in the world it is that the person is talking about. A few of them grace the side of the road out at Wakulla Springs State Park on the second Saturday in December each year to help keep the demons at bay that seek to destroy the confidence of the ultrarunners who go round-and-round for hours on end, doing battle with the 31 mile and 50 mile distances. My personal favorite though is from the New Testament Book of Hebrews in which the writer encourages the recipients of the letter as follows:

“Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” (Ch. 12:1b)

This year, in the 29th running of the Tallahassee Ultra Distance Classic, perseverance was indeed the name of the game. Well, perseverance together with staying dry and warm but the latter two were out of the question from the onset. That pretty much left it to perseverance.

You can argue, and rightfully so, that this thing called perseverance is a requirement in any sort of endurance event. Battling though fatigue and discomfort is an integral part of one’s success and it is wholly necessary as one negotiates through the tiring hours, striving to reach a finish line that at times seems so distant. This year discomfort was a constant companion for it came raining down on us all – literally.

In our promotion of the TUDC we often invite our attendees to come and experience “the other Florida.” By this, we are referring to the Florida that many never see – the Florida that is made up of dense hardwood swamps, tidal marshes, pristine rivers, mile after mile of pines, and a variety of plant and animal life rivaling that of anywhere in the US. In spite of the fact that the TUDC has been blessed with some mighty fine “other Florida” running weather over the years, our guests this year quickly figured out that it isn’t always the case. No, from a meteorological standpoint race day 2009 was rather un-Florida-like, which in turn drove the perseverance factor in the hearts of runners and volunteers alike skyward.

The early morning darkness brought a glimmer of hope. It had rained during the night at Wakulla Springs but as we did the pre-race set up and awaited the runners and volunteers there was no more than a light mist in the air. Our hopes went upward all the more when one of those arriving early reported that the forecasters were saying that the south side of the viewing area would get less rain than those situated further north. (If that ended up being the case, I hope that those folks up north moved to higher ground.) Five minutes prior to the 7 a.m. start the rain began to fall and if it ever let up, I sure missed it! On top of that, some sadistic runner had mounted one of those large garden thermometers on the side of a truck that was parked alongside the course so that we could all be reminded every 2.07 miles that the temperature was stuck on 40 degrees. I enjoy running in the rain a great deal, provided it is July and the temperature is in the 90s. To paraphrase the words from the 2009 Millers Landing Madness race shirt, “this was not that day.” Not by a long shot. It was downright miserable for those who didn’t have the sense to get out of the rain, and even for those who did.

Yet, some who lacked the aforementioned good sense persevered and ran the race that was set before them. Dann Fisher, Susan Lance, Jon Williams and Jane Johnson, and those who chased after them were prime examples.

Dann returned to Wakulla Springs from his home in Manhattan, KS and ably defended his 2008 title in the 50M by running 6:48:43 – only seconds off of his 2008 winning time. His ability to run so well while battling the elements was a tribute to his perseverance but also his patience — for at the 50K mark he trailed Ryan Thompson of Charleston, SC by 25 minutes. Ryan breezed through the 50K mark in 3:46 before Dann reeled him in during lap 22 of the 24 lap race. Nonetheless, Ryan hung on gamely to finish second with the only other sub-7 hour time of the day in 6:56:36. Susan Lance of Whitesburg, GA, a perennial top finisher at the TUDC (and everywhere that she races), was 3rd overall and took home the winner’s crown with a fine 7:58:10 effort. Susan was steady and determined the entire day and a model in perseverance. The masters crowns went to Scott Ludwig of Peachtree City, GA and the defending women’s champ Ann Burke of St. Petersburg, FL. Only 7 of the 25 who started the 50-mile race completed the course – a testimony to the difficulties of the day and the determination of those who hung in there. Well done – all of you!

The 50K race was somewhat of a mirror of the 50M race in the way that it played out at the front. Cameron Wheeler, the 16 year old son of TUDC-regular Kathleen Wheeler of St. Petersburg, led the race pretty much from the start. Cameron, the holder of the under 15 TUDC AG record set 2 years ago knocked off 14 minute laps time after time and held a 5 minute lead over his nearest challenger, Miamian Jon Williams, at the end of lap 13 (mile 27). But Jon persevered and with a 6:24/mile pace final lap, caught Cameron in the closing strides to win by 15 seconds in a fine 3:43:22. It was a terrific effort by each of them. GWTC’s Jane Johnson, who won the women’s 50K at the TUDC in 1998 at age 39 and who has continued to be one of the finest masters endurance runners in the US ever since, came back to Wakulla Springs and made her way through the deluge to again win the women’s title with a time of 4:05:40. Jane was also third overall among a field of 53 finishers and only 5 minutes off the USATF 50-54 national women’s age group mark. Quite a performance! The men’s master’s winner was St. Petersburg’s amazing Joe Burgasser, who at age 71 lowered his USATF pending 70-74 AG record set at the 2008 TUDC by over 5 minutes! He gets better and better and we hope that he’ll be back with us in 2010 to take a shot at the world mark. Both Jane and Joe set new course age group records, as did Frank Bozanich of Reno, NV in the men’s 65-69 AG. It was an honor to have Frank, the holder of the TUDC 50-mile record of 5:14:40 set way back in 1982 with us once again. GWTC’s Lisa Cox, in her first ultra effort, captured the women’s 50K master’s title with a time of 5:02:59.

In summary, it was a day that we will talk about for a good while. In spite of the all day cold and rain that brought a good bit of misery upon runners and volunteers alike, our largest field of runners since 1986 was not deterred in the goal to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” None of it would have happened without the determined efforts of our loyal and dedicated volunteers who show up down at Wakulla Springs every year, rain or shine, and not only deal with the logistics of the event but encourage the runners to reach those goals that they aspire to. On behalf of Peg and I, and so many of the runners who have contacted us since the race, we thank you all.