RUNNING: 8 Tuff Miles run mixes pain, joy

March 4, 2004

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BY DOUG KURTIS
FREE PRESS COLUMNIST

By now I should expect the unexpected. So often opportunities have seemingly come out of nowhere. Last week, while vacationing on St. John, I became aware that it was hosting the biggest road race in the British and U.S. Virgin Islands -- the 8 Tuff Miles.

The forewarning gave me time to check out the course and run parts of it. The race started at a playfield in Cruz Bay and wandered its way along Route 10 to Coral Bay. It began at sea level, reached an elevation of 1,100 feet and returned to sea level. The course measures 8 3/8 miles, and its ups and downs in the first five miles result in a total elevation gain of 1,400 feet.

I found myself walking at numerous points along the way during my practice runs. Once I caught my breath, walking seemed almost as difficult as running. To complicate matters, the roads, although well paved, were narrow, and cars drive on the opposite side to what we do in the continental United States. Drivers beep their horns as they begin to traverse the many blind curves.

On race morning, I arrived at the starting area as many others were walking off a shuttle boat from St. Thomas. The setting seemed casual except for the nervous anticipation of several kids who were trying to keep their place on the front line before the local hotshots took their honored place. Six of the children would be recipients of $4,600 in college scholarships donated by the Dittmer Foundation.

Eight Tuff Miles celebrated its eighth year. Participation has steadily climbed from 21 entrants in 1997. Despite the difficult course, 98 percent of a field of 530 completed the race. Runners seemed to be drawn by the challenge and maybe the opportunity to spend time on a non-touristy island that has white sandy beaches and excellent snorkeling.

I'm not sure what part of the course hurts more. The steep upgrades suck the air out of you. The downgrades jam your toes and cause heels to burn as you try to slow your momentum. The fastest runners made it to the finish before the temperatures hit 80. Twelve water stops and musical entertainment were a huge help.

The awards ceremony on the horseshoe tournament stage of the Skinny Legs Bar was packed with a raucous, hand-clapping crowd. The steady-flowing Red Stripe beer might have helped feed the enthusiasm.

Men's winner Jeremy Zuber, an Iowa transplant working as an activities director for a St. John hotel, averaged 5:55 per mile (49:32) and broke the course record by almost three minutes. His colorful singlet and logo were created by his mother to match the large tattoo on his arm.

Zuber's good nature and bravado seemed to encompass the very nature of the event, one that will encourage many to return for a visit.

Contact DOUG KURTIS at Detroit Free Press, 600 W. Fort St., Detroit 48226 or dkurtis@earthlink.com.

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