JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It's a well-told story but worth repeating. When American running legend Bill Rodgers won the first Gate River Run, he went out and ran the course a second time: to get in some more training.
Rodgers helped put the "run" on the map as a "race." In the time since, it's gone from a local event to an internationally known race with premier prize money and a distinctive course.
At the same time, it's become a rite of spring and for a lot of locals, a yearly fitness test. Again in 2015, the registration numbers will set a record with no end in sight.
"If we get to 20,000, we'll probably have to cut it off," race director Doug Alred said recently. "The roads in San Marco and in St. Nicholas couldn't handle more than that."
Doug's right about that. Having run the "Gate" numerous times, somewhere in the middle of the pack, it's as much of a social event as anything else. It has to be. The crowds along the neighborhoods who are IN the race kind of carry you along.
The crowds in the neighborhoods who have set up lawn chairs, signs and make-shift water stations are usually shouting encouragement. Bands have lined the course. Marines and Army personnel have run in step as a unit, doing "double time" for 9.3 miles.
It's become a thing for part of the more than 15,000 runners recently to make a splash in costume.
I've seen "Thing 1 and Thing 2" running side-by-side. One guy ran in a banana costume. Firefighters in full battle gear. Somebody in one of those full body suits. One full cow costume, a chicken suit and every superhero imaginable.
This year, two guys will run inside a replica of the USS Adams to promote and honor the retired naval vessel that could be a museum on the Jacksonville riverfront in the future.
It's a fun day, for most, and it's a target for local runners and fitness buffs every spring. Where will I finish in comparison to last year? Will I run a PR?
Every time I ran (before Channel 4 started to televise the race) I finished somewhere in the middle. If there were 5,000 runners, I finished 2,500th. If there were 15,000 runners, I finished 7,500th. Because my times were always somewhere between 82 and 90 minutes.
"You're barely moving!" one of my serious running friends exclaimed when he saw my time one year. Which is OK. Because I was running with everybody else.
A majority of the finishers are going to cross the line somewhere between 75 and 95 minutes. That's the Gate River "Run."
But there is a race involved, for sure. At the front of the pack, two-time defending champ Ben True will be a heavy favorite and even has been specifically training for this race.
"I've had 42.22 on my mind," True told me on Thursday. "I've been focusing on that number but with the weather forecast, that might be a challenge."
True was referring to the American record time for 15K that two-time Olympian Todd Williams set in 1995. It was so fast that Alred went out and measured the course again to make sure it wasn't short.
"I caught a perfect day," Todd said this week. "I was training right, the wind was down, it was about 45 degrees and I felt great. You need that kind of a situation to pull that off."
Williams' record is the longest standing track and field mark in the books.
"I love this race and being a part of the community," Todd continued.
Growing up in Michigan, he moved here from Tennessee and has made Jacksonville his home. "The way this race has taken off from the first national championship in 1994 to now is phenomenal. People love to run the Gate and around the country and the world, the running community knows about the Gate."
This is such a landmark for the year, I've never understood why the city government hasn't embraced it more openly.
With nearly 20,000 runners and another 20,000 spectators and family members downtown, why not take advantage of the built-in audience and make it a festival.
In fact, in the early ‘80's the city make the run part of "River Day" that included a full celebration of the river on the North and South banks with festivals, concerts and the like.
Recently when the race is over the message has been, "go home."
For all the talk of creating a vibrant city core, why not show it off to the people who are already there?
A set-up similar to what we did with the Super Bowl would fit perfectly with the tens of thousands of people who are already downtown. I've talked about this with the last 5 mayors and all have said it's a "good idea."
How about we put that idea into action? Who knows, people might stay downtown.