Ortega River Run celebrates 40th anniversary

Ortega River Run celebrates 40th anniversary
Four of the original Ortega River Run organizers – Wirt Beard, Rev. Barnum McCarty, Tom Donahoo, Sr. and Fred Miller

With the learning curve well behind them, what’s left for four of the six masterminds behind the annual Ortega River Run are chuckles about early mishaps and a sense of pride about the beloved local 5-mile run, the fourth oldest in Jacksonville.

Back in 1978, seven months after the Gate 15K River Run began, Wirt Beard, Rev. Barnum McCarty, Tom Donahoo, Sr., Russell Walthour, Bill Ketchum, Sr. and Fred Miller decided to organize a race “for the fun of it,” said Donahoo. “It was kind of a spin-off of the downtown race’s popularity.”

They also hoped they wouldn’t lose any money. Instead, a profit of $1,838.91 was donated to St. Mark’s Episcopal Day School scholarship fund that first year. Now, four decades later, thousands of dollars have been raised to help provide tuition assistance for hundreds of students.

“In the lifespan of the race, we’ve had just two goof-ups that I know of,” recalled Miller, 75, owner of Fred Miller Group, a real estate firm in the heart of Old Ortega, just a block from the school.

With two bridges crossing the Ortega River and a significant number of boaters in the community, the inaugural race committee was concerned about unexpected drawbridge raisings during the race and sent flyers around to the upstream boating community asking for cooperation. “That first race we had someone standing next to the bridge tender with $20 at the ready to encourage him not to raise it,” joked Beard.

Jokes about bribing the bridge tender aside, the Ortega River Bridge did go up during one of the early runs to allow boats to pass through. Fortunately, all the runners were stopped for the five-minute wait so no one got the jump on the lead.

The other mishap Miller shared was when a JSO lead car once took a wrong turn, reducing the course distance for the runners who followed.

Tom Donahoo, Sr., 78, said it was Barnum McCarty, rector for St. Mark’s Episcopal Church at the time, who recommended getting cooperation from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and did so by reaching out to Sheriff Dale Carson and Mayor Hans Tanzler, both Woodmere residents.

Now race committees ensure road closure permits are in place and the JSO sets up road blocks to keep the race flowing as smoothly as the water under the bridges.

Originally the race course traversed Ortega Point early on, but now runners shoot out of the starting gate at St. Mark’s to cross the first of two bridges before taking the streets through Fairfax Manor, running behind the Roosevelt Square Mall to ascend the Roosevelt Boulevard/U.S. 17 bridge, then traversing McGirts Boulevard to Ortega Point and finishing at St. Mark’s.

“There was a push to make the race a 5, 10 or 15K,” said Miller, “but we could not figure out how to make it a fun course in an even ‘K’ so we ended up with a 5-mile race.”

To calibrate the course, Miller and Beard followed Jay Birmingham, an ultra-distance runner who currently coaches track at St. Johns County Day School, to note mile markers.

“Jay was instrumental in the beginning,” said Beard, 72. “He set it up so runners lined up according to their time.”

Although Miller, Donahoo and McCarty ran many of the races, not all of the first race organizers participated in that way. Beard said he was in charge of procuring a starter for the first race. “I got a cannon from the Florida Yacht Club,” he said, also recalling his 7-year-old son, Charlie, first ran the 1-mile fun run in the inaugural race, then ran the 5-mile race.

Miller ran the first 10 years, and “I ran the races until Tommy beat me,” laughed McCarty, 87.

The first two years the Ortega River Run was held in the fall and Beard estimated there were 600 to 800 runners. Since then, the annual precursor to the Gate River Run is held in late February or early March, “when dogwood and azaleas are blooming,” said Beard. “Now there are 2,000 or more runners.”

The 40th Annual Ortega River Run, presented by St. Vincent’s HealthCare and Digestive Disease Consultants, is scheduled to be held Saturday, Feb. 24. This year’s race committee hopes Beard, Donahoo, McCarty and Miller will be there even if they aren’t pinning on race bibs and lacing up running shoes.

For registration and race information visit www.stmarksdayschool.org/page/supporting-st-marks/ortega-river-run.

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

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