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You Gotta Have Hart

America's fastest dominate th e Gate River Run--but there's fun back of the pack as well.

By Hal Higdon

A low-lying fog bank smothered the surface of the St. Johns River as I drove over the Hart Bridge at 7:00 on a Saturday morning in early March. I was headed to the starting line of the Gate River Run. The skyscrapers of downtown Jacksonville several miles westward seemed suspended in a sea of gray, creating a mystical moment.

Several evenings before, I had attended a pre-race pasta party with weatherman Tim Deegan, who had predicted 100 percent humidity for the River Run's 8:30 start. He got that one right!

Tim also predicted temperatures rising to near 80 degrees by 10:00, about the time I hoped to again be crossing the Hart Bridge, this time on foot. Sure, the scenery is superb, but few runners can summon the strength at that point to look upriver. With a mile to go, we might not be so happy about the accuracy of his forecasts.

I followed Tim to the podium at the pasta party and offered my own prediction: that I would start in the back row and run only to finish. That seemingly easy goal seemed far from assured until I voiced it, because I wasn't sure I would start until a day or two before. Following a period last year when I ran seven marathons in seven months, I took January off to heal my wounds. Most of my runs in February were a mile or two at most, walking as much as jogging. Only a week into March, I was faced with the River Run. While I wanted to run the 15-K (the American championships), I didn't want to die doing it, figuratively or literally. Then I managed a five-miler on Ponte Vedra Beach. Then another, and another after that. This convinced me that I was in middling shape. Inspiration on race day should allow me to bridge the distance from five to nine miles.

A bridge too far

"Bridge" certainly has fearful connotations to the 8,000 or so who enter the Gate River Run each year. The 15-K race features two bridges over the St. Johns River, one in the early miles, one in the late miles. Near the start, the Main Street Bridge presents only a minor challenge. Near the finish, the Hart Bridge definitely seems a bridge too far. Toward the end of the eighth mile, runners turn onto the Hart and begin a half-mile climb featuring a 6 percent grade that peaks 141 feet over the river before descending. The climb punishes the lungs; the descent pummels the legs.

Nevertheless, I put on a brave front when interviewed earlier in the week by Florida Times-Union correspondent Laurie Cason, who was writing a story on the challenge imposed by the Hart Bridge. "The course is easy," I said. "Just one hill at the end." Of course, that was before I planned to run it.

Actually that hill at the end is what makes the Gate River Run unique. That and race director Doug Alred's ability to attract top American runners such as defending champions Meb Keflezhighi and Deena Drossin. Bill Rodgers, who had won the first River Run in 1978, also was on hand to celebrate the event's 25th anniversary. Although I had told the pasta party crowd that my goal was merely to finish, a secondary goal was to run the entire distance. The previous two years, I had walked on the ascent of the Hart Bridge. I didn't care how fast my time was, I just wanted to hit the top of that bridge running!

A steady if slow pace

Starting in the back row provided me with the slow start I needed to make that goal achievable. It took 5 minutes to cross the starting line. Many in front of me were walkers, but I showed no interest in dodging around them.

Across the Main Street Bridge and through San Marco, I maintained a steady if slow pace, and only began to increase the tempo of my steps in the fifth mile along Atlantic Boulevard. By then, I was catching and passing hundreds of runners who were paying the price for having started too fast. Turning onto the ramp leading onto the bridge, I skipped past the water station, not wanting to interrupt my rhythm.

My running stride was only a bit faster than those walking around me, but at least I was still running. Passing the 8-mile mark, I glanced left at downtown Jacksonville. With the sun high and the temperature now 80 as predicted by Tim Deegan, the fog was long gone, but I didn't waste much time on the scenery. I flew past people on the descent and finished feeling exhilarated by the fact that I was back running again.

Meb and Deena successfully defended their championships. Bill Rodgers, however, dropped out because of a calf injury. One more Gate River Run out of the way, and it seems a shame I have to wait another year to run it again. With no planned marathons to interfere with my next year's training, I might set my goal as not only running every mile, but running them fast.