Can’t Measure Heart


There’s been a lot of talk recently about the measureables of athletes: height weight, 40-time, shuttle run, bench press. And some talk about production and “getting to the next level.”

As anyone who’s played anything knows one of the best cliché’s in sports is “you can’t measure heart.”

Because you can’t.

That’s why Donnie Horner III and Sharon Siegel-Cohen are such great competitors. One’s an athlete and one’s not. They don’t have much these days in terms of “measureables.”

But they have heart.

Donnie has a form of MS. Sharon has a form of ALS. Yet both compete everyday, get out of their comfort zone, motivate other people and make a difference.

I’ve worked on and off with Sharon for the past 38 years. She’s one of the rare, good people in TV, but you wouldn’t know her if you passed her on the street. She’s what the industry calls a “producer” whose job basically is to make the people on-air look good. And Sharon’s an expert at it.

Never one to get bogged down in the details, she didn’t think a thing of it when during a family trip to NY in June of 2017 she tripped on a sidewalk in the city.

“Everybody trips on the sidewalk in New York,” she told me. “Even though the swelling in my ankle went down I was still limping around in November.”

As the orthopedists and the physical therapists were trying figure out what was wrong with her, Sharon started walking with a cane in February of last year. Eventually they did a nerve conduction study and she ended up at a neuromuscular specialist who diagnosed her nearly a year later with a form of ALS.

Right now, Sharon’s lost the use of her legs and gets around in a wheelchair. “Whether it gets worse, I don’t know,” she said. “I can type and talk. It’s my new reality.”

Her sister Frances, a pretty good athlete in her younger days, now has MS. She jokingly gave Sharon some family ribbing and encouragement noting, “You weren’t much of an athlete anyway!”

Sharon laughed telling me that story, saying, and “She was trying to make me feel good. And she’s right, I was president of the service club and the drama club. It wasn’t that big a thing for girls to be involved in sports when I was younger. I think people with this disease all have a sense of humor.”

Commonly known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease” ALS has been in public view since the Yankee first baseman retired, making his “I’m the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” speech in 1939.

“That’s 80 years ago,” Sharon remarked. “It’s time something got done.”

That’s why at the recent ALS walk, Sharon was asked to speak and paraphrased Gehrig’s speech in her remarks.

“Today, despite this physical limitation, I feel like the luckiest woman alive,” she said. “I’m surrounded by family friends, colleagues, college friends I haven’t seen in 40 years. I’m buoyed by the love and support I’m getting.”

We often hear announcers refer to the “courage” it takes to hit that shot or the “guts” it takes to make that tackle. That’s amusing when you consider the courage and guts Sharon and others like her have everyday, competing against this kind of disease.

Sharon’s somebody who always sees the big picture. As a producer, she doesn’t sweat the details and lets people do their job. So it was a conscious decision that took some courage to get “in front” of the camera, so to speak, after being in the background her entire career.

“If I can lend my voice, I’ll do it,” she explained. “This disease isn’t incurable, it’s just underfunded.”

Last night, Sharon received the Courage Award at the Augie’s Quest banquet.

“I don’t want to dwell on it,” she added. “I want to stay active, working, reading.”

While September 11th has meaning to all Americans, Donnie Horner III remembers that day in 2009 when he was diagnosed with MS. Horner was an elite athlete, played hockey at the Naval Academy as a four-year starter. He delivered the game ball on the field for the Army/Navy game in his senior year. Club sport athlete of the year, an all-star game starter, Horner was in, as he describes it, “the best shape of my life.”

Then shortly after graduation, as an Ensign on watch aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard during workups for his first deployment, Horner felt his first symptoms of MS. “It felt like my legs had fallen asleep. I thought it was vibration from the steel-toed boots from the vibration of the ship. When it didn’t go away, I decided to get checked out.”

For Horner, the diagnosis was quick. Neurology at NAS Jax, MRI, Cat scan and spinal tap, second opinion at Mayo Clinic. After a promising athletic and academic career, he was retired from the Navy in April of 2010 with relapsing, remitting MS.

“I was cocky as a junior officer but this brought me back to earth,” he explained. “I threw myself into research, I refused to believe that this wasn’t something I could deal with.”

But despite his previous success competing and excelling in athletic competition, this confident, bright, “meet things head on” young Navy officer lost his edge.

“I was a low self-esteem, didn’t know what I was going to do kind of person,” he recalled. “I had to walk with a cane for months. I didn’t know how to give myself a shot. I was scared; I didn’t believe in myself at all. I felt bad physically, mentally and emotionally.”

That’s when he called on his athletic background to restart his life.

“The first five years were brutally hard. I couldn’t recognize I was dealing with insecurity or low self-esteem because I hadn’t ever been that,” he said. “Time has a way of contextualizing things. It was five years before I figured out how to act with this disease.”

So with encouragement from his wife Kristen and his family, some medical and spiritual help, Horner says he’s back at a “good place.”

So good that two weeks ago, Donnie, despite having MS, ran the Boston Marathon.

How is that possible? Courage. Guts.

“I wanted to live my best life,” he explained. “I looked into diet, and exercise. I go to mental health counseling, I took my spiritual affairs seriously.”

Last August, Horner decided he wanted to run the Boston Marathon. Despite the numbness in his leg that’s always there, the tingling and vibrations that come and go, he was diligent in his training. But admits part of it is luck.

“The week before the Boston Marathon I couldn’t get out of bed because of a relapse. Literally. Three days later I felt OK and went back to training,” he explained.

“I’m at my best when I set my goal and get things done,” he added. “The competitiveness and wanting to succeed all comes from playing sports. I enjoy being part of a team. I want to do whatever it takes.”

The “Strides Against MS” team raised $220,000 at the Boston Marathon. Horner alone raised over $9,000. Last weekend he competed in Jacksonville’s version of “Dancing with the Stars.”

“It’s a challenge,” he said of his active lifestyle despite living with MS. “I believe my background as an athlete has contributed to my well being as an MS patient.

And how’d he feel after competing in the Boston Marathon and seeing Kristen at the finish line?

“Like I scored a hat trick. Maybe ten goals! Never been happier since my wedding day.”

Gate River Run Prep

If you’ve been training for this week’s Gate River Run and you’re worried about the last week of training, don’t be. If it’s your first Gate, you’ll be fine. Unless you’re trying to qualify for a national team or prepping for some of the top ten-prize money or the equalizer bonus, you’ll be fine no matter what you’ve done. That’s because the Gate River Run is a giant social event. It’s the second biggest one-day party in town, right behind Georgia-Florida.

If you want to run the whole 15K, you probably did some training over the last couple of months. That’ll be enough. The size of the field of runners, the atmosphere and the excitement of the day will carry you through the 9.3 miles. There’s a band every mile. The residents of San Marco, Empire Point and all along the route will be out cheering you on, offering water, champagne, cocktails and even mimosas. It’ll be fun. (Also donuts)

It’s one of the reasons the city should be taking more advantage of bringing over 30,000 people downtown. There’s some beer drinking at the Fairgrounds after the GRR but the general message when the run is over and the awards are handed out is: Go Home. It should be one of the two days the city rolls out the red carpet, closes Bay Street, brings food trucks downtown and entertains people for the day. (The other is Georgia/Florida). But since “River Day” went away in the early ‘80’s, that hasn’t happened.

There was a time when the Gasparilla race in Tampa was competing for a spot in the hearts of the running community. Both were in early spring and both were 15K. But the one thing both races had in common was a huge participation element from the locals.

Thee are two events happening at the same time on the day of the GRR. There’s the 15K “race,” the National Championship for elite runners from around the world. There are all kinds of prizes for the race. Based on historical times, the elite women start six minutes in front of the elite men. An “Equalizer Bonus” of $5000 is given to the first finisher, man or woman. Another $1,000 is awarded to the fastest runner in the final mile. This in addition to the $65,000 available prize money.

And there’s the “run” for the rest of us. Starting at the stadium, the 9.3-mile route showcases some of the scenic parts of Jacksonville around the river. From the stadium downtown, runners go over the main street bridge, through San Marco, over to Empire Point, up Atlantic Boulevard, over the Hart Bridge and finish on the north side of the stadium.

The staggered, “wave” start gives runners a chance to run with people going about the same speed. No bobbing and weaving around, or being passed by everybody from start to finish. Don’t worry; you’ll get to the Hart Bridge before the 2.5 hour cut off. The Hart Bridge is a 6% incline, a half-mile to the top and a mile from there to the finish line.

Six charities benefit from the GRR and there are more than 1,000 volunteers helping make the race happen. There are 20,000 bagels available at the post-race party at the Fairgrounds. You’ll see 1,200 traffic cones employed and 160,000 cups of water, 700 gallons at each water station, are available.

Don’t worry about being fast. When I was hosting the live TV coverage, I always argued that we were missing the biggest portion of the race by going off the air at 10AM. That’s because the average run time is about a 10 minute per mile pace, finishing after ten o’clock. Half the field is still on the course. So take your time.

Anytime the temperature is above 60 degrees F it’s warm and even feels hot during the race. Don’t outrun yourself in the first part of the race. Drink at each water station. When you turn from St. Nicholas at Mayfair east onto Atlantic Boulevard the sun will be right in your eyes. A hat or visor helps but if you’re not interested in that, stay in your lane and cruise up to the Hart Bridge ramp.

That ramp is a little steeper than the bridge itself and it leads to a mild grade at the foot of the bridge. Take advantage of that little respite after the ramp. Being a Florida runner, the Hart Bridge is like nothing you’ve trained for. So slog your way up to the top. Once you’re there, take a deep breath and look around. The view from there is spectacular. The final mile starts downhill, also a foreign stride to Florida runners, so be careful.

And when you turn the corner for the final 200 yards to the finish line on the north side of the stadium, see what’s happening. People will be cheering, music will be playing; the announcer will be talking about the finish. Keep moving and pick up your medal and drink some water.

You’ve finished!

Doug Alred “Runs” the Gate River Run

Starting in 1978, with running for fitness in its infancy, The Jacksonville River Run, as it was called, was more of a competitive race than a fun “run.” Race organizer Buck Fannin recruited the Times Union and Jacksonville Journal as the sponsors, drumming up publicity and support for the run.

Using the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta as a model, the first race had about 2,600 participants. A pretty good start. Peachtree is 10K, and Jacksonville wanted something a little different. So they settled on 15K.

Marathon icon Bill Rodgers was recruited for the first race. He won, but then did the course again to complete his training for the day. Organizers paid him about $1,000 under the table so he could keep his amateur status.

Doug Alred ran that first race in 1978 and the next four as well. That same year, Alred, a CPA by trade, and his wife Jane had opened a store on Baymeadows calling it, “1st Place Sports.” They had sign out front labeling the store as “Your Running and Snow Ski Headquarters.” They knew only selling running stuff wouldn’t keep them in business.

“We had a store and were wondering how to get people in the store,” Alred said this week. “So we got involved in the River Run.”

It was a business that followed their passion for running. Doug was a pretty good competitive runner and wanted to keep it up. This was before running became a fitness craze, before Nike became Nike and Adidas was still a European phenomenon.

But to get the store open, Alred knew he needed the latest equipment, and Nike was about to boom.

“I knew we needed Nike in the store, so I met with their sales rep at my apartment and put together a big order to get us going,” he recalled. “But Athletic Attic got wind of the order and told Nike not to sell to us. So the salesman called and said, ‘Sorry Doug, we have to cancel.’’

Thinking he’d never get the store off the ground, Alred went to meet with his business partner Doug Milne to give him the bad news.

“I told Doug Nike wouldn’t sell to us because Athletic Attic put the squeeze on them. He didn’t say a word, didn’t flinch. He just turned around in his chair with his back to me and started dialing the phone. I heard him say ‘Hi Bill’ and tell the story. When he was finished he turned around and said, ‘You’ll have Nike next week.’ Turns out his college roommate was Bill Bowerman at Oregon, (the founder of Nike.) What are the odds!”

It was in 1983 that Doug and Jane were asked to be the race directors for the River Run as the day, the sport, the run and the business of running began to explode.

“River Run was born out of the first running boom. A competitive boom. It was a competitive race,” Alred recalled. “The first one had a very high percentage of out of town runners.”

Icons like Rodgers, Joan Benoit, Greta Waitz, Meb Keflezigi, Todd Williams, and Denna Drossin raised the profile of the Gate River Run to international status. Williams set the 15K American record in 1996 at 42:22. A time so fast that Alred went out and re-measured the course.

In 1994 USA Track and Field designated it as the 15K National Championship. Also in ‘94 Herb Peyton decided to get involved, putting up prize money to put “Gate” in front of “River Run.”

“We’ve gone through the dominance of so many countries and continents when it comes to winning the race,” Alred said of the GRR, now in it’s 42nd year

“The English dominated, the Mexicans, then the Americans and the Kenyans. We created the ‘American Cup’ awarding $2,000 to the first American finisher and helped to keep developing American runners. That led to the National Championship designation. Then we were fortunate to have Todd (Williams) and Meb (Keflezigi) dominate for so long.”

Now known in the running world as the “Gate,” the 15K here every March has established itself as one of the premier races on the international running calendar.

“One thing I wanted to do along the way was to keep it as a competition,” Alred said. “It started as that but there’s the fitness component. We try to roll everything into one race.”

While the GRR has an international reputation, it’s the local runners who fortify the day.

“We’ll have 85 elite runners in the field this year,” Alred explained, “But the number of first-time runners every year is a very high percentage. It’s more of a social event. It’s a bucket list item.”

River Run in 1978 had about 2,600 runners. The 2019 Gate River Run version will have over 20,000 participants.

“The biggest boom in running happened when women started running,” Alred said. “That changed the business. The first River Run had 85% men. This year’s Gate will be 57% women.”

Now in his 37th year as race director, Alred has a full-time staff of five dedicated to the GRR and the nearly 100 races they organize and operate ever year. Jane runs the now five stores that make up 1st Place Sports on the retail side of running.

It’s safe to say the GRR wouldn’t be what it is without Doug and Jane at the helm. Do they have an exit strategy?

“We’ve been working that way,” Doug said with a laugh.

Mt. Acosta Classic Is Something Special

Now in it’s fifth year, the Mt. Acosta Classic might be the most unique and interesting running/cycling/endurance event in North Florida.

“To be able to have the bridge shut down and not have any vehicles on the road gives everybody an appreciation of how beautiful the city is,” said Marie McMaster the Race Director and an architect at the Haskell Company.

Well-known triathlete Jared Bynum was killed in Nocatee when he was run over by a car while on his bike training for his next race. Bynum was very involved in helping at-risk kids in North Florida graduate from high school and helping them continue their education. The Mt. Acosta Classic is held in his memory and through this year will have raised over $50,000 for the scholarship fund. Here’s how the organizers describe it:

“This scholarship fund was established to help students who complete the mentoring program at Julia Landon College Preparatory and Leadership School, go on to finish high school in four years and are accepted to college. It will help them go to college and achieve their dreams. Jared believed in being an encouraging and supporting role model for the young students that were a part of the school’s mentoring program. This scholarship focuses on those students who have overcome early childhood challenges and continued on through high school and to college. These students want to be something that they and their families can be proud of, something that brings joy to others.”

There are one loop (2.2 miles), one hour and three hour options, all starting at 4:30 PM for both cyclists and runners.

“As a participant in the run myself, the bridge is entirely different running on the road than running on the sidewalk,” McMaster explained. “The event is closed to traffic, every cyclist is aware of what to look for and we need the community to look after us as well.”

There is race day registration and the organizers say they’ll try to squeeze in everybody who shows up.

“One hundred percent of the money goes to the kids in this community, the future leaders of Jacksonville.”

And I can tell you from personal experience, this is a great event. Without any hills or mountains here in the Jacksonville area, there are cyclists and runners on the Acosta Bridge all the time. To get a chance to traverse the span, unencumbered by traffic, is something special.