Lead workers in Run Thru History pass the baton

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 11, 2010

In 17-degree temperature, Mack Varner and Robert Sadler set out for Jackson on Saturday to run the Mississippi Blues Marathon.

That’s a prime example of how they, along with Bobby Abraham and Hays Latham — the four men credited with organizing and operating Vicksburg’s Run Thru History for 23 years — are not deterred from competitive racing by meteorological obstacles.

But this year, the group has surrendered the reins of Vicksburg’s March event — one that annually attracts more than 1,000 to the Vicksburg National Military Park and is considered the granddaddy — and often the largest — Mississippi event for competitive running and walking enthusiasts.

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If you go

The 2010 Run Thru History, the 31st, will be March 6 in the Vicksburg National Military Park. Mail registration must be postmarked no later than March 1. For more information, contact the Vicksburg YMCA at caseycuster@vicksburgymca.com, 601-638-1071, fax 601-634-0918; or Vicksburg Run Thru History, 267 YMCA Place, Vicksburg, MS 39183.

The new managers will be a six-man committee of local professionals working under the auspices of the local YMCA.

“I love running,” said Varner, an attorney. “But, when I honestly think about it, this is my least favorite time of year. There are so many headaches, so much work that has to be done.”

Age, he admits, was also a factor in the decision to relinquish the Run.

Varner is 65. Abraham and Sadler, both dentists, are 62 and 60. Latham, a businessman and the self-described “baby of the group,” is 56.

“I think we all agreed that it was time for some younger guys to have a shot at this thing,” Varner said.

“And time for some fresh ideas,” added Abraham.

The “younger guys” are Jeb Blackburn, Dustin Blount, John Duett, Bill Fulcher, Briggs Hopson III, Casey Custer, Mike McMillan, Andy Oakes and Blake Teller. TheYMCA will formally administer the event, according to Blount, the Y’s program director.

There are “fresh ideas,” too, but they won’t be known to the public until the day of the RTH, Blount said.

“There is a minor thing and one big thing that we think is going to make the race better,” he said. “We want to keep it a surprise. Other than that, it’s going to be the same race.”

RTH devotees have demonstrated an ability to reverse changes they don’t like.

In 2000, the design of the trophies for winners was altered after a decade as miniature replicas of the Civil War cannon that dot the race’s course.

“We thought, ‘Well, we’ve had the cannon for a while now, let’s try to do something different,’” Sadler, who was responsible for ordering the awards, said. He arranged for laser-etched Plexiglass trophies that resembled park monuments.

“You’d have thought a revolution was about to break out at the awards ceremony,” Abraham said. The next year, the cannon returned.

Other changes have been more warmly received.

The event began as a special promotion to kick off Vicksburg’s annual spring pilgrimage, a tour of homes. When Abraham, Latham, Sadler and Varner took over the RTH, it included only a 10-kilometer run. Race participants suggested that the organizers add a walk to open the event to people who couldn’t run or didn’t like to.

“We were all type-A-plus runner guys,” Abraham said. “We weren’t sure about this walking idea at first.”

But a 10-kilometer race walk was added in 1989 and shortened to a 5K in 1990. “Now, it’s almost as popular as the run,” Varner said.

The RTH, begun in 1980 as the brainchild of former Battlefield Inn owner Warner Byrum, has had the same format since that 1990 race walk alteration. In addition to the 10-kilometer race and 5-kilometer race walk, there’s a children’s fun run officially known as the Blue/Gray one-miler.

In return for fees ranging from $14 to $27, racers sweat out the events, receive T-shirts and socks and enjoy post-race food, beverages and music by The Chill.

The RTH is generally regarded as among the most difficult races in the state, due to a hilly course that winds through the ravines of the Vicksburg National Military Park and finishes in the Battlefield Inn parking lot. The early March weather can also enhance the challenges. It has been run on rainy, cold days and in perfect spring sunshine.

Nevertheless, the event has been labeled the largest road race of any endorsed by the Mississippi Track Club. “That’s amazing,” Varner said, “especially for a 10K.”

Abraham, Latham, Sadler and Varner got involved in the RTH in 1987, three years after running the New York marathon together.

“We were stupid kids,” Varner said. “There was this running craze that was really nationwide at the time, and we were into it so big that we just knew that this would be a lot of fun to do.”

The amount of work required became fully apparent only later, he said.

“Right off the bat, you have to raise money,” Abraham said. “You cannot put on a quality event on the entry fee alone.”

When the race began, the committee was raising an average of about $4,000 per year to support it. Last year, they garnered nearly $15,000.

The main source of financing has been Vicksburg’s business community. Last year, company insignia on RTH pamphlets indicated contributions from Ameristar Casino, BancorpSouth, Battlefield Inn, CellularSouth, the City of Vicksburg, Falco Lime, Neill Gas Inc., River Region Health System, Regions Bank, Southern Beverage Co., Trustmark Bank and Waring Oil Co.

Roughly 150 volunteers perform tasks such as manning the race course, preparing food and stuffing race packets. Ronnie Andrews makes sure that the course’s water stations are adequately supplied. Mac Ferris helps with logo design. The Knights of Columbus sends volunteers to cook hot dogs.

“And don’t forget the park,” Varner said. “We have enjoyed incredible support from every superintendent we’ve worked with at the Vicksburg National Military Park. Without them, no Run Thru History would exist.”

Two dollars from every race entry fee goes toward park maintenance.

“It’s just a good community event,” Abraham said. “A lot of people in the community help put it on, and it gives back to the community. It is a Vicksburg institution.”

Contact Ben Bryant at bbryant@vicksburgpost.com