Gate River Run Jacksonville

Would You Run or Ride

We’ve always been an events town. You could set your schedule around what was happening during the year. Just about everybody knew when the Daytona 500 was happening, the Gate River Run, The Players, The Kingfish Tournament, opening weekend for the Jaguars and Florida/Georgia. Add in the Jazz Festival, the various shrimp festivals, opening of the beaches, World of Nations and a variety of other yearly events and there was always something going on.

I’d get about a dozen calls in the first three months of every year from women asking the specific date of the Florida/Georgia game. I’d pass it along and the response would always be the same.

“Good, I wanted to make sure I don’t get married that weekend.”

I always thought it was amusing that no guys called and asked me that question.

For the past few months, all of that has been gone. The number of events happening is near zero and just now organizers are exploring how to get people together for an event while keeping them apart.

“We want people to feel comfortable,” Gate River Run director Doug Alred said this week. Alred’s 1st Place Sports running organization administers the Gate River Run each year along with over 120 other races on the calendar. Since the Gate on March 7th there have been almost none. Over a hundred races and runs have been cancelled.

“I did hear about a run on the 4th of July in Ponte Vedra but we haven’t been able to put anything on,” Alred explained. “I shouldn’t say none,” he added. “We did something for Marathon High last month. We started ten people every ten minutes over two days. We told them ‘Don’t come hang around the start or the finish.’ We had 320 people participate with no problem. Chip timing helps with holding people back and not starting in one pack. They cross over the mats at the start line and go.”

Trying to figure out how to get “participation sports” back on the calendar, Alred’s organization sent out a survey last week trying to gauge what people are looking for when it comes to being in large groups. Eight percent of the respondents said they’re not coming out no matter what. Seventy percent said they’d probably participate. But almost everybody’s comfort level dropped off when the races got longer than a 5K. And if the event was more than 500 participants, interest started to wane.

“Nobody wanted to run in a 1000 person event,” Alred said of the results.

“We’re more worried about everybody’s safety, the athletes, the staff, the families,” Rich Hincapie, President of Hincapie Sports explained. Hincapie Sports puts on national bike rides around the country called “Gran Fondo’s” every year but none have happened in 2020. “We called off our Ft. Worth ride in March because we didn’t have enough knowledge at the time.”

Hincapie joined a national Cycling Event Task Force with twenty other event organizers, cyclists and medical professionals from around the country to try and figure out how to get things done. Over the last five months they’ve gone through multiple scenarios and put together a sixteen-page guide called “Race Management Guidelines for the Covid-19 Era.” It covers medical considerations, government regulations, athlete, fan and sponsorship guidelines as well as marketing ideas for the future.

“The more education we get the better,” he explained. “Having specific starting times, corrals for small groups, how to social distance at the start and the finish, all of those things that go into putting an event on safely.”

Both Hincapie and Alred agree that it’ll be an evolving consideration about how to put on events where people will feel comfortable participating.

“Things like keep your mask on until the start, or you can wear it if you want to,” Alred said. “Maybe a loosely fitting bandana. I’m sure somebody will come up with something that works for runners soon.”

“Most everybody we talked to, athletes, sponsors, volunteers had the same response: ‘Do something.’” Hincapie explained. “That’s what people are looking for, the idea that as the organizer you’ve taken the precautions, you’ve thought it out with social distancing, mask wearing, hand sanitizer, all of that.”

Using the current guidelines, organizers are trying to restart very soon. Just this week the annual “Tour de Pain” road race was moved to the beach and scheduled for August 22nd. The annual Hincapie Gran Fondo in Greenville, S.C. is on the calendar for late October.

The cost of organizing a run or a ride will be a factor in how many can happen going forward.

“We want to return to running but we’ll have to pick and choose what we can afford to do,” Alred, who has a four person, full-time organizing staff, explained.

“We can do a 250-person run on the beach because we don’t have to hire the number of police we’d need for a run on the roads.”

“Cycling events aren’t necessarily a money making proposition,” Hincapie explained. “With around two thousand riders we can use them as a marketing tool for our sportswear company.” He added that the plan to expand to ten events a year is still on the table. And Jacksonville is one place Hincapie admitted would be attractive for a future Gran Fondo.

Alred explained that the Tour de Pain will start with 250 spots open to see what kind of response they get. If it fills up they’ll have five different starting times of fifty runners each starting ten minutes apart.

“We’ll spread things out at the beach, no sense crowding up, no packet pick up and have no crowds, that’s our goal,” Alred said.

With that kind of spacing, and if there’s enough interest, they might be able to expand the number of participants. But projecting that out to 20,000 runners for the Gate River Run next March is a stretch.

“Under the current guidelines, the Gate is in peril,” Alred said. “I’ve got my fingers crossed that Covid cases are decreasing over the next few months. Even after a vaccine I think people will wait and see what happens.”

“The responsibility eventually falls to the athlete,” Hincapie said. “We’re not going to test everybody, that’s not for us to say, ‘You’re ok, go do what you want.’ There’s a small chance of transmission on a bike ride. It’s our responsibility to make things as safe as possible.”

Covid-19 Science Versus Social

Science Versus Social

In the next couple of weeks Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL are set to start or resume their 2020 seasons. The NFL plans to open training camps within the next ten days. And while the PGA Tour has been back on the schedule for just over a month, they said this week they’d play with no fans for the rest of the year.

The NFL also announced that no jersey exchanges would be allowed after games this fall. When I heard that I wondered, “Really?” Football is a game played with full contact, guys piling on each other over sixty minutes. But they can’t exchange jerseys after the game? That sounds silly.

“It is,” said Dr. Brian Turrisi, a pulmonologist who spent 40 years studying and treating viruses in Washington D.C.. Turrisi practiced at various hospitals including the ones at Georgetown and George Washington universities. “If the league wanted to worry about something, they’d worry about passing the virus under the circumstances of the playing of the game.”

Turrisi spent much of his career in ICU’s treating patients with respiratory ailments and is puzzled why sports are so concerned about their players contracting Covid-19.

“In the past six months there’s been a big learning curve about this virus,” he said. “The vast majority of people very sick or dying are over 50 and the larger group is over 70. Pro sports are played by people younger than forty.”

“It’s at the level we see with the common flu with the same demographic group,” he added. “When we confine this to young people who play sports, they’re the healthiest of all, so their death rate is near zero.”

Turisi’s thoughts are backed up by recent happenings on the PGA Tour. Several players have tested positive for the virus but have gotten better. Same with the Clemson football team where nearly forty players have tested positive with “no serious cases” according to their sports information office.

“No worse than if they had the common cold,” Turrisi explained.

Part of the problem with making decisions about public safety and safety in sports is the lack of reliable data. Scientific studies are showing that the infection rate in the general population is much higher than originally thought. Testing now available is revealing positive results with no symptoms. And the number of fatalities, from a percentage standpoint, is substantially lower than originally predicted. It’s hard to get facts not colored by some political agenda.

“We should be doing everything we can to have sports out there. It’s important,” said Turrisi, who crossed paths with Dr. Anthony Fauci during his career in D.C., of the need for psychological as well as physical health.

“When we talk about people’s health, we have to talk about their psychological health. Part of living in this society is waking up and saying, ‘I want to go to a sporting event this weekend.’ Drug use, suicide, domestic abuse all are up because people haven’t been able to live their normal lives.”

While the PGA Tour is traveling from city to city with strict guidelines about health qualifications to play, the NBA is staying in one place, creating a campus “bubble” in Orlando to play their games. Still, players have tested positive and some have left the bubble to possibly be exposed. Originally, the NBA tested 302 players with 16 testing positive.

“It’s not alarming based on what we’re seeing in the broader population,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told Time. “In many ways, it was somewhat predictable. Where I’m most relieved … is that among those 16 positive tests, there are no severe cases.”

Still, Silver says the league will stop playing if they have “a lot of cases.” He hasn’t quantified what that number might be but added; “It’s never ‘full steam no matter what.'”

Several NBA players have already opted out of playing in Orlando. The league and MLB are giving players a chance to ‘opt out’ of playing this year.

Baseball has had several stars already say they’re not playing in 2020. Buster Posey, Ryan Zimmerman, Joe Ross, and David Price among others. Some citing “personal reasons,” others for family concerns:: Parents with preexisting conditions, pregnancy or out of an abundance of caution for their children.

With a short, 60-game season, the possibility of an entire team testing positive and not playing puts the whole MLB plan in jeopardy.

“I think the way that I think about it is in the vein of competitive integrity, in a 60-game season,” Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said this week in a radio interview. .
“If we have a team or two that’s really decimated with a number of people who had the virus and can’t play for any significant period of time, it could have a real impact on the competition and we’d have to think very, very hard about what we’re doing.”
Playing the games in a bubble is one thing, having fans attend is something totally different. The Jaguars announced this week that they’d allow twenty-five percent capacity in the stadium at their home games this fall.
“That’s a guess,” Dr. Turrisi theorized. “Is 30% worse than 25%? Open sporting events and let people come. People in the vulnerable population shouldn’t go. It’s about personal responsibility.”

And what’s the turning point? Is the vaccine the panacea that will change how sports are played and how fans can attend? Most scientists believe it is not the end-all, be-all answer. For some people it won’t work and the availability worldwide is not in the near future.

“We know the flu better than anything else,” Dr. Turrisi explained. “All viruses have a weird way they can auto mutate. The virus wants to infect people but not kill off everybody. With he Spanish flu in 1918 and 1919, a hundred million people died worldwide. That flu just kind of petered out. It stopped killing people.”

Will there be a turning point where sports and sporting events look like they used to?

“This virus isn’t coming out six months from now and hold up a big sign that says ‘I’m done,’ Dr. Turrisi added. “What’s going to turn the tide when we learn how to live with this? It’s a psychological problem. We’ve created a fear of something that has proven to not be that scary from a scientific standpoint.”

“There’s a problem with social media and news coverage. Why did this happen? Social media makes information travel faster before the actual facts come out. So all kinds of bad and false information got out there early. And all of the models were wrong. And wrong by an exponential factor. So people got very scared early on.”

Greater Jacksonville Kingfish Tournament

Fish Tales

After the early news broadcast one night in 1981 the phone at my desk rang and it was Don Brewer. Don was well known and active in the community so when he asked me to come meet him at some trailers on Beach Blvd, I didn’t think twice.

“We’re going to have a fishing tournament,” he exclaimed as we made our way through a temporary, makeshift office.

Spread out on some tables in the room was plans for the tournament as Don explained the idea. Don, Ed Bell,, John Lowe, Pete Loftin, Bob Gipson, Bob Pittman, Charlie Hamaker, Dave Workman Sr. and Gene Leary were all well known names in town and especially in the fishing community. They came up with the idea in 1980 and put the first tournament together a year later with Don as the chairman. And the Greater Jacksonville Kingfish Tournament was born.

“This is a tournament that everybody can fish,” he continued, likening it to other tournaments. “No matter what kind of boat you have, you can get in this tournament.”

“I need to call the station,” I told him explaining that I wanted to get the story on the late news.

“Use my phone,” he said, pointing to the edge of the table.

I looked around but there wasn’t a phone in sight. I must have had this perplexed look on my face because Don laughed and said, “It’s in the briefcase.”

That’s when I laughed, opening the briefcase looking for some kind of “Slimline Princess” phone inside. Instead, it looked like something from the “Get Smart” TV show: A handle, a cord and a rotary dial.

“It’s a mobile phone, use it,” Don said as he gestured to the parts.

It was the first cell phone I had ever seen, remember this was 1981, and the first one I ever used. I did call the station and even remember saying, “Can you hear me?” when they answered.

When you hang around long enough you reach certain milestones. This is the 40th Annual Greater Jacksonville Kingfish Tournament. I’ve attended and covered and reported on every one. I’ve seen the ups and downs, the moves, the trials and triumphs of every iteration of the GJKT.

That first year the tournament was at Beach Marine. A long run from the ocean to weigh fish, but over 500 boats registered. Everything from fifteen to fifty-footers were entered. I saw one guy drop his fish in the water handing it over from the barge to the dock. He dove for it for the next ten minutes until they made him come out.

For a few years the tournament was housed at the Pablo Creek Marina. Those years were highlighted by a dedicated home for the tournament and unprecedented growth. Everybody wanted to be in the tournament or just part of the social atmosphere. It was kind of like the TPC, but different at the same time. Anyway you looked at it though, it was a big deal.

While at Pablo Creek, the tournament committee consulted the Coast Guard one year when three guys in a ski boat wanted to weight a fish they had caught in the “Chum Hole” just outside the Mayport Jetties. Their motor quit heading to the weigh-in on the Intracoastal. So they started swimming the boat to the marina.

“If the tide wasn’t coming this way,” the tournament chairman told me, “We’d have never let them do that.” Imagine, three guys, all with lines to the boat, swimming it under the Intracoastal Bridge at Atlantic Boulevard to the dock. It was quite a sight.

I’ve covered the tournament from a helicopter, seeing hundreds of boats around the “Chum Hole.” I’ve watch a wild scramble of boats coming out of the jetties, and a “Bimini” start with boats lined up along the beach. I’ve covered it from a boat and even fished in it a few years, with no success. And on Friday of the tournament in 1990, my wife called me while I was a couple of miles offshore (I had a cell phone that looked like something out of WWII) to say she was in labor. I had to get a special ruling to allow me to get off the boat and to allow the rest of the crew continue to fish and not be disqualified. I headed to the hospital and our youngest was born that night.

Over the 40 years of the GJKT, it’s had ups and downs some related to the economy, the competition, tournament leadership and location. From having to put a limit of 1,000 boats, this year’s tournament hopes to have 300 or so.

“We had no idea what to expect with the corona virus,” this year’s tournament chairman Glenn Morningstar sad this week. “We’re excited because we’re ahead of last year and if the weather looks good, we’ll have a lot of boats register before Thursday.”

Morningstar is determined to bring the tournament back to what it once was. In a way they’ve gone back to their roots with the “High Roller” tournament on Monday and the Jr. Angler kids day on Tuesday. They’re adding a past champions tournament as well.

“I’ll seek the advice of the captains and the fishermen in the area,” Morningstar said of his chairmanship. “They know what’s going on out there. They fish these tournaments and they can make it better.”

In recent years the GJKT has tried to level the competition by added a single engine class and creating north and south boundaries.

Last Wednesday I fished aboard the “Ankle Shot” with my long-time friend Billie Nimnicht in the media day tournament. We actually caught fish! Billie’s back as a sponsor of the tournament this year despite the smaller numbers expected.

“We’re just back this year,” he explained. “When my dad was running the dealership, It was the Big 5 and Big 6 Chevy dealers who were the big sponsors.”

The Nimnicht family has always been civic minded since opening their first business on Riverside Avenue in 1941. Billie’s mother Anne is a former Chairman of The Players. His uncle Ed was chairman of the GJKT. So there’s a community involvement background that ties him to the tournament, but he says it’s practical as well.

“It’s the perfect demographic for our potential customers,” he said. “They have nice boats and want to have a good-looking truck to pull it.”

As the boats got bigger, and the motors multiplied, fishermen from all over, and especially the Carolina’s showed up at the GJKT and started dominating. No longer was a ski boat in the chum hole competitive. That’s one of the things that caused the GJKT’s boat number to dwindle.

“I’m leaning on the experts on our board who are fishermen to give us things we can do to make the tournament better for fishermen,” Morningstar explained.

A one-day tournament with an affordable entry fee, a limited fishing area and a great prize turned out to be the exact formula for a successful tournament this year. The “Old School Kingfish Shootout” happened on June 13 with perfect weather, a three-mile offshore limit, and defined fishing area and a $250 entry fee.

This year’s “Old School Kingfish Shootout” was such a success, organizer Paul Dozier is hoping that rubs off on the GJKT.

“It would be good for everybody,” he said. “The better everybody does, the better it is for everybody,” he added.

With nearly 650 boats registered in their first year, the Old School Shootout’s success was a surprise to everybody.

“The fishermen spoke and showed up in droves,” Dozier explained. “I had no idea, (it would be as big as it was) it just worked out perfectly, the weather, the fishing, It was everything we needed. Maybe it was everybody wanting to get out after being stuck at home. It was families fishing together, everybody having fun. We had the small guys competing with the big guys on a level playing field.”

My memories of the Kingfish Tournament are pretty special. The people I’ve met, the friends I’ve made. Those would have never happened without this weekend in July.

Walking through the aptly named “Liar’s Tent” at the GJKT was always a treat, especially in the early years of the tournament when Anheuser-Busch was involved. It wasn’t unusual to see Joe Frazier, Mickey Mantle or a number of other sports celebrities who were sponsored by the brewery. Frazier even won the VIP tournament one year.

Taking a polygraph has become part of tournament fishing prize winning. There’s a lot at stake and organizers want to keep things on the up and up. One night the tournament winner called me to complain that he had been harassed that night in the Liar’s Tent after taking his polygraph.

“You know it’s called the “Liar’s Tent” right?” I asked. “At a fishing tournament?”

He understood and eventually laughed it off.

It was always amazing to watch Jim King identify the boats and the captains and even the fish from a stand on the dock at the new Sisters Creek Park. I knew he had a little crib sheet on the stand and an assistant but he barely ever looked at it. He was doing that well before he ran for public office and served in the state capitol. He knew everybody and their boats by name. The park was built with funds raised by the tournament. That why, rightfully, the park now bears his name.

It was a great idea forty years ago and it still has a chance to be a fun summer weekend for competitors and spectators alike.

Dozier says the Shootout will return next year without much change.

“I’m not going to change much,” he said. “We’ll expand what we’re doing for women and kids in the future to encourage those people to keep fishing together.

Morningstar says the lessons learned from the Shootout will rub off on the GJKT, but agreed, people fishing together is the key.

“The best part is the kids day, the Jr. Angler. They’re the future of the tournament.”

There are a couple of changes to the weigh-in procedure to accommodate social distancing. You might be surprised they’re holding the tournament at all in the current public health climate. Morningstar says not to worry.

“We’re having the tournament with the current Covid orders in mind,” he explained. We know the fishing community wants to fish so we’re following the orders and we’re going to fish.”

What Are You Watching?

While we’re waiting for a vaccine and to see if some professional sports will start, or others will continue, what are you watching?

We’ve gone into unknown territory when it comes to a lack of professional sports on TV. On of the great trivia questions I was asked during the “Stump Sam” days was, ‘What are the two days there are no professional sports played during the calendar year? I got the answer, only because it’s a trick question: ‘The day before and the day after the Major League Baseball All-Star Game” is the answer. Those were the only days of the year no sports were scheduled. Sports are scheduled, and shown on television on all holidays, overlapping one another and fighting for viewers.

If you only count the NFL, MLB, the NBA and the NHL, 1918 was the last year we went this long without any of those sports being played. The NFL and NBA hadn’t formed yet and there were 101 days between the end of the World Series in September that year and the start of the NHL season in December. We blew past that number two weeks ago.

If the schedule goes as planned, it’ll be 134 days between the last NBA and NHL games played in 2020 on March 11th and the start of the MLB season on July 23rd.

Obviously we’ve been many nights without sports to watch. But we’re all still watching something. Viewership numbers are up across the board in every category.

But no sports.

Sports on television is the ultimate reality show. There’s competition, drama, personalities and the outcome is unknown. How many times have you heard somebody say, “Well, I’ve been around a long time, and I’ve never seen that before!”

With some down time, I’ve been scanning through the channels to see if there’s anything interesting.

It’s hard to watch any news. Nationally it’s all about which side of the political spectrum you’re on, coverage of protests and counter-protests. Locally, they’re still trying to tell us how important the same weather is six different ways every hour. We already know it’s going to rain around five o’clock for the next three months. We live here.

Looking at the sports channels, I saw two guys fake arguing about something. I watched for a minute to see how good of an actor either was. Then I realized they really didn’t know what they were talking about at all, weren’t very good actors either and moved on. That format repeated itself a few times on other networks, which only made me laugh harder.

There were some radio shows being shown live. Opinionated, minutiae mongering, and making up lists just to have lists, none of it was very compelling television. There’s a reason they’re on radio.

I’m really not interested in years-old games, no matter how “classic” they are purported to be. I did stop and watch part of the 1971 MLB All-Star Game only because it had more than 25 future Hall of Famers on both rosters, possibly the greatest collection of baseball talent on one field in history.

No matter how “live” it is, I’m sorry, I’m not watching corn hole. Even if it’s the championship game.

My choices this week were all over the place. Who knew there was Spanish League Basketball broadcast live here in the US? I know it’s on but I’m not getting up at five o’clock to watch Korean League Baseball. Old college football, baseball and basketball games keep me for about 30 seconds just to see some current pro superstar back in their college days. I’ve watched some European Soccer and I have been impressed with the sound engineers ability to make the matches sound like they have fans in the stands. I’ll watch some of the top teams compete but Brighton Hove Albion vs. Watford isn’t keeping me for long.

There are a lot of fishing shows on now. I like to fish so I’ll stop to see what they’re catching, but knowing a lot about television production, I see that the show really belongs to the editor in post-production. Three long days of fishing can make a pretty compelling 30-minute television show.

I don’t hunt but the shows now on make it pretty exciting. A lot of my friends hunt and away from the hours and hours of sheer boredom for the possibility of 20-seconds of excitement, most of their stories are about just-misses or the evening activities that involve beer and brown liquor. They don’t show any of that on TV.

Looking for something live, I came across some thoroughbred racing. I like racing and watched that for a while. In person the time between races gives you some time to study and get to the window. On television the interval is terminal. And I came across something I’d never seen before on that network. It resembled barrel racing except with four horses, a wagon, a “driver” and two other people on the wagon. Clearly highly skilled competitors and highly trained horses. But not for me.

“Live” I suppose, is a relative term. There were two guys playing a video game being televised “live.” Really?

And I found some live tennis. It looked like a weekday match in somebody’s backyard. It was an exhibition for charity and I did recognize some of the names but none were Federer (I know he’s rehabbing his knee) nor Nadal nor Djokovic. I appreciated the effort but after a few minutes I had the remote going again.

As I was scanning the other night I did catch the second half of “DodgeBall.” It seemed kind of sports-y and it certainly lightened the mood. We occasionally re-watch some movies at my house. You do catch some things you didn’t see the first time, especially if the plot is based on dialogue.

I’m trying to justify “The Big Lebowski” as a sports movie because it’s based around the bowling. But that would be disingenuous. Anytime it’s on, the next two hours of my life are spoken for. I don’t have any control over that. And any guy who doesn’t stop what they’re doing and watch “Caddyshack” when it crosses their scan hasn’t figure out how life works yet.

Keep scanning. Have some time available though. You never know what might catch your eye. Unless you come across “Caddyshack II.” Then get up off the couch and go do something.