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Charlotte Amalie
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Runners Gear Up for the 25th Anniversary of 8 Tuff Miles on Feb. 24

Runners set out from near the National Park Visitors Center Cruz Bay. (Photo by Steve Simonsen)

If all goes as planned on Feb. 24, up to 1,500 runners, joggers, and walkers will burst across the starting line near the National Park Visitor Center in Cruz Bay for the 25th anniversary of 8 Tuff Miles, St. John’s legendary road race.

It’s the first time the race has been officially held since 2020, and race director Peter Alter is thrilled that more than 800 individuals from the Virgin Islands, 44 states and three foreign countries have already signed up.

Peter Alter is promoting the 25th Anniversary of 8 Tuff Miles, the event he created in 1997. (Source photo by Amy H. Roberts)

They don’t sign up for the prize money. The top male finisher wins a $300 tab at the St. John Brewers Tap Room, and the top female gets $300 in cash, which means competitive runners from all over the world don’t swoop in to try to set records.

Supporters wave flags representing the countries of participants at the start of the race. (Photo by Steve Simonsen)

Youngsters, however, can win college scholarships ranging from $300 to $1,000, depending on their age. More than $50,000 has been awarded in scholarships so far. “Community sponsorship makes this possible,” Alter said

Participants generally join the race for the sheer, mad joy of taking on a challenge. The course runs for 8.38 miles up and down Centerline Road; at one point, runners reach an elevation of 999 feet (the maximum Alter’s altimeter’s gauge was capable of measuring) before they start the long knee-hobbling descent into Coral Bay.

Runners start up the first of many hills on Centerline Road.

But as Alter cheerfully points out, “Everybody is smiling at the finish line.”

Runners reach the finish line in Coral Bay. (Photo by Steve Simonsen)

More than 300 volunteers  – sometimes in festive costumes –  show up to assist at the starting and finishing lines and to hand out water, Gatorade and even cold grapes at nine stations along the route.

Gary “Sinbad” Cox, Cid Hamling, and Teri Wine hand out grapes at the “Grape-full to You & 8TM” water station. (Submitted photo)

Registration remains open online at the race’s website through Wednesday, Feb. 21. Participants can also come to the Tap Room at Mongoose Junction on Tuesdays from 4 to 8 p.m. to register in person (with payment by cash only) and to pick up their bibs with timing devices.

During the week before the race – Sunday, Feb. 18 through Thursday, Feb. 22 – Alter will also be at the Tap Room for registration and bib distribution from 4 to 8 p.m.

The registration fee is $75 for adults, $35 for seniors, and $20 for children.

Alter, who is now a senior himself, first ran the course on Dec. 29, 1996, as a way of “punishing myself for smoking.”  Figuring it was time to quit the habit and get in shape, he set out from Connections in Cruz Bay with a single water bottle and made it to Coral Bay in 1:20. Pleased with his results, he started running as a regular practice.

Peter Alter heads to the finish line in 2019. (Photo by Steve Simonsen)

Around that time, Alter sat in on a meeting of the St. John Action Committee, an informal group of island residents who were meeting to brainstorm ways to increase tourism.

St. John had not yet recovered from the damage wrought by Hurricane Marilyn in September 1995. The Action Committee thought they could draw visitors, at least from St. Thomas, by organizing events like food fairs and concerts on the last Saturday of every month.

When Alter proposed the road race, he was first met with skepticism, but he went ahead and printed up 25 t-shirts. Twenty-one runners and walkers showed up on Feb. 22, 1997, and all 21 finished. Charles Morton won the race at 1:01:10.

One of those participants was Chris Meyer, the only person aside from Alter who has taken part in every official race as well as the three unofficial ones that followed the COVID epidemic.

Back in 1996, Meyer was 37 years old; she was just beginning to run as a way of reducing stress from managing the popular Lime Inn restaurant, overseeing rental properties, and raising two young daughters.

Chris Meyer and her daughter Chelsea Baranowski pose for a photo after completing the course. (Submitted photo)

“When I heard there was a group getting ready to run from Cruz Bay to Coral Bay, I remember thinking it was the craziest thing I ever heard, but being who I am, I thought I had to try it.”

“It was extremely difficult,” Meyer recalled, and there was little fanfare as they reached the finish line. “Just us clapping for each other.”

Now that she’s completed the course 28 times, she knows what to expect, but at age 65, the physical challenge remains. She says running helps her find solutions to life’s problems. “Pumping all that blood changes the way you see things,” she said.

Meyer has passed on the love of running to her daughter Chelsea Baranowski, who went on to start a running club for students at the Gifft Hill School and the Julius E. Sprauve School. Several of those youngsters plan to participate.

Dr. Brad Kappel, a chiropractor and youth sports coach, is a St. Thomas resident who is planning to run the course; it will be his 19th time.

“I initially ran the race for the challenge,” Kappel said. “Then it became the race that I wanted to improve my time on. Competitively, you’re always thinking, ‘How can I run this race faster? How should I train differently? What’s my strategy for my mile splits during the race?’”

Now, he says, the race has become a tradition. “I don’t take it so seriously. It’s a fun community event. You see many of the same people year after year. And Peter has done a great job growing this race year after year for the benefit of St. John and the greater Virgin Islands community, and that’s something I hope I can continue to support as a participant.”

Over the years, Kappel has urged many people to participate. “I tell them the same thing.  Start running ridiculously slow and try to keep it up. But you’re probably going to walk at some point which is fine. It’s a long difficult race.”

The race hit its peak of popularity in 2013 when 1,472 registered and more than a thousand people finished the race. Charles Riddle of Cincinnati, Ohio, set the men’s course record that year at 45:46. Jessica Rice, of Needham, Massachusetts, set the women’s record at 56:03 in 2014.

There’s no doubt that the event boosts the local economy.

Most of the runners fly in early in the week to take a few days to adjust to the relative heat, Alter said. Plane fares, hotels, meals, and taxi rides increase the territory’s revenue.

But in recent years, low-cost accommodations have become increasingly scarce on St. John, especially at the peak of the tourist season. Participants from off-island have to have deeper pockets.

In 2018, after Hurricane Irma decimated much of St. John, Alter did not advertise the race, but hundreds of runners showed up anyway.

Photographer Steve Simonsen used a drone to capture the scene in Coral Bay. (Photo by Steve Simonsen)

Registration rebounded in 2019 and again in 2020 (the 24th official race,)  and then the COVID pandemic hit. Alter canceled the 2021 and 2022 races, but he and a group of others still ran the course on the last Saturday in February.

After that break, Alter decided to try to sell the race to someone who wanted to take on the multiple challenges of producing the event. He worked with runner Jeff Miller to produce a 40-page manual that spelled out everything a buyer might need to know  – everything from retooling the website to getting government permits to mark off the miles along Centerline Road to ordering 6,000 safety pins to secure the runners’ bibs.

“There are great opportunities to market the event and to make money,” Alter said. “A number of people were interested, but they didn’t offer what I was looking for. By October 2022, when the offers had faded, it was too late for me to reorganize in time for a 2023 race. It takes a full year.” But people showed up anyway.

The event is still for sale. Alter is now asking $250,000. In the meantime, he’s doing what he can to make the 25th anniversary event even better. He’s using technology to keep registrants informed; he’s engaging community organizations, like Island Green Living, to collect any discarded plastic water bottles for recycling.

And he’s making sure warnings go out to visitors who need to catch a ferry and then a plane to let them know that portions of Centerline Road will be closed for several hours on Feb. 24 starting at 7 a.m.

 

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