The countdown to the 40th running of the Gate River Run has ticked down to one day. In honor of the 40-year milestone, the Times-Union takes a look back at 40 memorable/unusual/comedic moments you may or may not know about.
1. False start
A rogue balloon nearly disrupted the 1983 race before it got started. The promotional Barnett Bank balloon suddenly burst as the elite runners lined up for the start, and many of them, mistaking the pop for the starter’s gun, began running. Race director Doug Alred and other organizers had to rush in front of the surging runners and halt them so they could return for the genuine start.
2. Change of course
Whatever the stadium has been called — Gator Bowl, Jacksonville Municipal Stadium or EverBank Field — the race didn’t always begin there. At the earliest runs, the starting gun went off about a block from the Main Street Bridge, which meant that the Hart Bridge came much closer to the middle of the 15-kilometer run. The start moved to Riverplace Tower on the Southbank in 1995 and 1996 due to construction.
3. Postponed: Toppled trees, zapped power lines and flooded roads were part of wild weather that swept through Jacksonville during the 1993 Storm of the Century, the only time that conditions forced a one-day postponement. When the race finally got going, the only Sunday start in the event’s history, it was nippy: Temperature at the start was 29 degrees, with wind chills on the Hart Bridge near zero.
Gate River Run database: Results from previous years
4. Touchdown: In 2008, runners got a chance to embrace their inner Fred Taylor, racing to a finish on the football field inside the stadium. But major logistical challenges - including tons of Monster Jam dirt on the field by the time the 2009 race rolled around - meant that finish was a one-time event.
5. Splish splash: During the 1980s, the race was just one part of a weekend event called Riverfest, which included concerts, miscellaneous events like kite-flying contests - and the River Swim. The 800-meter swim crossed the St. Johns River from Bishop Kenny High School to Metropolitan Park.
6. Crazy press trucks: In 1983, the truck lost a tire in the final mile. In 2002, it was forced off course by a wheelchair racer and had to squash several orange cones to avoid men’s leader Meb Keflezighi. In 1988, the truck struck an overhead banner while turning onto River Road, bringing the banner and a supporting rope down onto lead-pack runners Steve Spence and Mark Curp. Both successfully ducked the banner, and Spence went on to win.
7. Still a record: The River Run gave Jacksonville a new claim to fame in American running - it’s now the site of both the national men’s and women’s 15K records. Todd Williams set the men’s mark in 1995, dashing clear in 42:22 in near-optimal conditions. Some 22 years later, no one has even come within 20 seconds, and only four American men’s open road records have lasted longer.
8. That’s classical: Before today’s race bands, there was the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. Inaugural race director Buck Fannin said a quartet from the symphony entertained runners during the original dash down River Road.
9. Model runner: The first big-name celebrity sighting came in 1984. Model Kim Alexis, noted for her appearances on the covers of magazines including Cosmopolitan and Vogue, ran the 15K with number 953.
10. Political trick: An even bigger visitor came in 1992, when runner number 92 came to town - and withdrew just before the race. His name: Jerry Brown, the former (and current) governor of California, who was running not just a 15K but also for the Democratic presidential nomination. As reported by the Times-Union that year, Brown entered the race in an offbeat campaign tactic the week before the crucial Florida primary. He also requested the opportunity to make a pre-race campaign speech over the public address system. When the latter request was denied, Brown’s team backed out, though he still made a campaign appearance at Friendship Fountain that night. Racing wouldn’t have made much difference: Brown received only 12 percent of Florida’s primary vote, far behind eventual president Bill Clinton as well as Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts.
11. First and 15K: When you’re starting the nation’s 15K championship, it helps to have road racing experience. Unless it doesn’t. Stanley Kebenei, men’s winner in 2016, not only hadn’t won a 15K, he had never before run an official race on open roads.
12. Home cooking: In 1985, Betty Springs became the race’s first Floridian winner. Originally from Bayshore High School in Bradenton, she also won NCAA cross country titles at North Carolina State.
13. Till death do us Hart: Slowing down on the Hart Bridge is one thing, but when runners pause for an actual mid-race marriage ceremony atop the Green Monster, it’s hard to top. That’s what Lt. Cmdr. Rich Goodwyn and Lorrie Nemecek did in 1995. It’s an ending that only happens in Hollywood - or in the Gate River Run.
14. Fast-paced: Dan Dillon and Patti Catalano crossed the line first in the 1981 race, but that’s not all they have in common. The two married in 1992, becoming one of the speediest couples on any road.
15. Mangled metrics: A 9,300-mile race? Apparently, according to the Jacksonville City Council in 1978. Before the inaugural race, the council introduced a resolution commending the organizers for scheduling the “15,000-kilometer” race - roughly 9,300 miles. The resolution would have passed, bad math and all, before Councilman Joe Carlucci recognized the error and called for an amendment.
16. International incident: Nothing like an old-fashioned American-Russian sports showdown, and fans got one in the 1992 men’s race. At a mile and a half, favorites Steve Spence - a two-time champion - and Russian Mikhail Dobrokhotov got tangled up and both tumbled to the pavement, as did Mexican Rafael Zepeda. An irate Spence chased Dobrokhotov down and poked him with an elbow. Spence finished 8th, Dobrokhotov 16th. However, World War III was successfully averted.
17. Motoring along: The pre-race favorite in 1979 made his name in a different kind of racing. The Times-Union picked Bob Varsha as the most likely men’s winner, saying the Atlanta runner “has shown strong recent form and is a favorite to win.” He didn’t. Jerry Odlin won the race’s second edition, with Varsha coming in sixth. Within a few years, though, Varsha had launched a successful broadcasting career as the voice of Formula One auto racing.
18. Wrong stop: In 1986, Kenyan Sam Ngatia led a 14-man pack down Atlantic Boulevard, when a city bus disrupted his race and almost a lot more. The bus turned well wide in front of Bishop Kenny High School, mowed down a pylon and partly entered the course, forcing Ngatia to sidestep five feet. Shaken by the close call, Ngatia soon dropped to the rear of the lead group and finished ninth, 1:09 behind winner Arturo Barrios.
19. Women rising: At the first edition, only 11 percent of finishers - 242 of 2,204 - were female. But it’s steadily climbed since. Women made up 35 percent of the field by 1995, then overtook the men in 2011. The 2016 totals: 55 percent female, 45 percent male.
20. It’s a run, right?: Not for Todd Scully, a world-class race walker who competed in 1983 and earlier represented the U.S. team in the 20K race walk at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. The unusual race walk discipline requires competitors to stay in contact with the ground at all times.
21. Olympic champs: In 1986, Grete Waitz became the first athlete with an Olympic medal at the time to claim first place in Jacksonville. The Norwegian had won silver behind American Joan Benoit, the 1979 River Run winner, at the 1984 Olympic women’s marathon in Los Angeles. In all, eight winners have also captured Olympic medals. The most recent was Shalane Flanagan (bronze, 2008, women’s 10,000).
22. The rising: The Hart Bridge rises 141 feet above the St. Johns River. It only feels like two miles up.
23. Wrong turn: In 1983, leader Mark Nenow held a razor-thin edge over Nick Rose into the final 150 yards, when a miscue cost Nenow his chance at victory. He started to follow the press truck, which was actually exiting the course to the right, while Rose continued on track. After just a few feet, Nenow realized his mistake, but it was too late - Rose sprinted clear to win by half a second.
24. Game changers: The wave start at the race’s beginning might seem familiar now, but it didn’t begin until 2012. Other parts of the race’s history that haven’t been around as long as one might think: the Equalizer Bonus for women (2004), computerized timing chips (2002), title sponsorship from Gate Petroleum (1993) and even the 8:30 a.m. start time (1986).
25. Soccer on the side: In 1981, as spectators awaited the runners’ finish beside the Daniel State Office Building, they were entertained by the North American Soccer League’s Jacksonville Tea Men, who put on a soccer clinic in the adjacent parking lot.
26. Oldie but goodie: What musical act performed immediately before the award presentations in 1985? Up With People. The upbeat squad may be best known for performing at Super Bowl halftime shows before the NFL started booking big-ticket acts in the early 1990s.
27. Clash of titans: In hindsight, no race symbolized a clash of giants like 1999, which ended in a two-man showdown: 30-year-old Todd Williams, winner of four of the previous five Gate River Runs, and 23-year-old Meb Keflezighi. Williams broke clear in the last mile to win by 2.4 seconds, his fifth and final title in the race, while runner-up Keflezighi - still a formidable force at the 2016 Olympics - went on to win six of the next eight.
28. Pasta power: The race’s early years traditionally included a ceremonial pasta dinner the night before the race, and as the race grew, that meal got bigger and bigger. By 1988, race sponsor Ronzoni furnished 500 pounds of spaghetti for the pre-race dinner at the Grand Ball Room of the Jacksonville Hotel.
29. No rhythm:How did Italian composer Gioachino Rossini, who died in 1868, indirectly delay the start of the 1985 race? Race director Doug Alred had planned to play a cassette tape with Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” for the start, but the tape went missing. The runners waited about two minutes as organizers searched, but eventually the race began without it.
30. Magnificent 7: Seven Gate River Run winners, one man and six women, have been inducted into the National Distance Running Hall of Fame in Utica, N.Y. Those winners are Bill Rodgers (1978), Kim Merritt (1978), Joan Benoit (1979), Patti Catalano Dillon (1981), Grete Waitz (1986 & 1987), Lynn Jennings (1988, 1996-1997, 1999) and Francie Larrieu Smith (1990-1991).
31. Older the better: Want proof that age is only a number in distance racing? The Gate River Run record for 49-year-old women - Tatyana Pozdnyakova’s 50:15 in 2004 - is faster than the best time for 20-year-old women.
32. Sly change: In the race’s early years, the local rock bands along the course weren’t the only source of music. In 1980, the Episcopal High School marching band motivated runners as they approached the Hart Bridge climb by playing “Gonna Fly Now,” the theme song from “Rocky.” But, displaying a sense of humor, Episcopal changed that tune for the following year. Their selection this time as runners mounted the Green Monster? Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.”
33. Can’t stop him: Even a heart attack can’t keep a race veteran off the road. In 2013, Stephen Michael - one of the 41 remaining “streakers,” the athletes to complete every race since 1978 - collapsed on the course. Immediate medical intervention saved his life. Ten months later, Michael returned to the point of his fall to complete the rest of the route along with race director Doug Alred and keep his streak going.
34. Overseas influence: Since 1994, when the Gate River Run became USA Track & Field’s 15K championship, Americans have held a monopoly on victories. In the previous years, though, it wasn’t so. England’s Jerry Odlin won the second race, and beginning with the 1982 victories of Mike Musyoki (Kenya) and Wendy Sly (Great Britain), runners from overseas dominated for nearly a decade. The peak came in 1985, when Kenyan men finished 1-2-3.
35. Another campaign: Lots of Jacksonville mayors have spoken before the race, but none actually ran the race while in office until Lenny Curry in 2016. He’s expected to join the competition again this year.
36. Outnumbered: Big entry numbers are usually a good thing at the Gate River Run - unless the actual jersey numbers run out. That’s what happened, briefly, at the expo on the Friday before the 2001 race, forcing a temporary interruption in registrations until new ones were prepared.
37. Bonus pay: Since the Equalizer Bonus started in 2004, elite women have started several minutes (the distance has varied) ahead of the men, and the first overall runner to cross the line earns a sizable bonus. That contest was never closer than in 2016, when women’s winner Tara Welling edged men’s winner Stanley Kebenei by only two seconds - which earned her an extra $5,000.
38. Double trouble: The 1987 race featured an unusual side event during its finishing stages: baseball. As the race’s slower runners crossed the line, Ohio colleges Heidelberg and Walsh were beginning a baseball game at nearby Wolfson Park, then home of the Jacksonville Expos. The teams originally came to town to play Florida Community College at Jacksonville (now FSCJ) and UNF. At the same time, massage therapists were treating aching runners on the concourse.
39. Wacky costumes: Elvis, the Blues Brothers, even the Hart Bridge. Among the most elaborate: In 1990, a group of local runners dressing as assorted Batman characters; in 1991, a man ran the course in a full-body duck costume to raise awareness for the American Cancer Society’s Great Duck Race fundraiser; in 1985, a woman wore what the Times-Union called a “black-lace camisole with matching stockings and pink-laced anklets” as “Mad Runna,” a parody of Madonna; and in 2009, a runner ran the course in full Forrest Gump garb - box of chocolates and all. In this race, you never know what you’re going to get.
40. Once you start running …: It’s hard to stop - or even slow down. Inaugural race winner Bill Rodgers placed in the top 60 overall as late as 2001, when he was 53 years old. In 2016, Patrick Gaughan, who has raced every River Run, ran a speedy 1:18:35 at age 66 - even though he had arrived only days earlier from the edge of the Sahara Desert.