Hard Habit to Break: Runners Unite with a Shared Passion

In the pre-dawn hours, before the onslaught of morning commuters, the Snell Isle Bridge rests. Long before the first rays of morning sun hit the tops of the tallest palms, figures emerge in the dark distance, one by one. Ghostlike, they come from every direction, gaining focus as streetlights reflect off the silver strips of their shoes and tank tops.

Who gets up this early?

It’s the morning runners. And they do mean runners; call them joggers at your peril. If you don’t know them, you might not understand. But if you know one, you probably know most of them – this tight-knit group of elite competitors for whom “going on a run” can mean 15 miles or more.

The one who knows everyone is Old Northeast resident Jonathan Dunford… “JD” to his comrades. The group started in the mid-1990s, and Dunford became a fixture at the bridge shortly after the Cleveland native moved to St. Pete in 1996. Dunford and his wife Sharon are both chefs who trained at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America and work in food distribution. He ran his first marathon when he was an 18-year-old Marine stationed in Okinawa. Four decades later, he’ll run his 25th consecutive Boston Marathon in April. That’s no easy feat considering that to race in Boston – one of the world’s most elite marathons – you must earn the coveted BQ (Boston qualifier) each year by placing in the top tier of your age group at a sanctioned marathon. It’s a goal – or accomplishment – shared by many of his fellow runners, who race on the blood and sweat of the 60-to-80 miles of training they put in every week.

The group has fluctuated in size, from a handful to more than a dozen, with many fresh faces coming and going over the years.

There’s Pila. She’s always smiling, no matter the weather. She’s run over 200 marathons. Naturally, Pia works at a running store, and dispenses shoe advice freely, occasionally recruiting a serious customer to come out to the bridge.

Kerri is the social chair, organizing birthday celebrations and holiday gatherings. She works in IT sales, runs a race travel company and coaches the Canterbury cross-country team. She’s the reason every baby born to the group has a Green Bay Packers onesie and no milestone is missed.

They come from all walks of life. Gilbert works for Amtrak. Jennifer has a Ph.D. in nursing and works in gastroenterology. Aaron owns a growing HVAC company. They all have one thing in common: a love for running.

At the 2021 Boston Marathon, with face masks of Coach Joe
Burgasser. [Photo by Kerri Dienhart]

Tampa may boast the longest contiguous sidewalk, with its four-and-a-half miles of pavement along Bayshore Boulevard, but the contours of St. Pete’s waterfront are said to measure more than seven miles. This offers runners a unique opportunity to cover a lot of ground without encountering much traffic, while enjoying spectacular views and (perhaps equally important) public restrooms. St. Pete’s distance runners know which doors are unlocked and which water fountains are coldest. Intervals between water fountains benefit the group’s cohesion, as runners of different paces and distances regroup periodically along the route.

Dunford is quick to mention how nice it is to have the pier back, saying it “has always been a staple of our running route and the new pier exceeded our expectations.” Their predawn ritual also gives them frequent views of the Janet Echelman sculpture when it is lit and most spectacular. They’ve seen a lot over the years, from cars in Coffee Pot Bayou to serial flashers. They’ve even taken in a couple of stray dogs.

On “long days,” when these elite athletes are going 15 to 22 miles, they find stashes of water and Gatorade in coolers along the route, placed by the man they call “Coach.” Coach Joe Burgasser is the 83-year-old running legend who holds records in more age groups and on more courses than can be counted. Burgasser runs the Florida Forerunners Track Club. Each month, Coach goes over each runner’s training numbers, checks in on any injuries, and gives them their plan for the coming month. Chances are he thinks you can go faster.

Each runner in this loose band has their own motivation and idiosyncrasy. Some also train at North Shore Pool or on the bike for Ironman races. Others are trying to qualify for their first Boston Marathon. For most, it’s a way of life and an extended family. When one of the group’s three Wendys (aka “Wendy Two”) had her first baby, the team showered her with gifts at the Shuffleboard Club. Her son was treated to his first “jogging stroller” ride on Christmas morning.

On New Year’s Day, they journey out for a beach run and refreshing winter plunge. When they need some hills, they carpool to Pasco County. They do “speed work” in Coach’s neighborhood, which sits – perhaps not coincidentally – on a quarter-mile loop. When they run a local 5K, 10K, or half-marathon, they dominate the podium, or they’re friendly with the ones who beat them.

As the pandemic turned the country’s race schedule on its head, many races have been canceled, postponed, or made virtual, leaving only a few smaller BQ-certified marathons available. And even some of those got called off at the eleventh hour.

In addition to fighting the ever-shifting sands of a pandemic marathon schedule, Dunford also found himself battling injuries in 2021. As the qualifying season for the 2022 Boston Marathon wrapped up, he was still looking for a race to get the time he needed to qualify for his age group. Hot weather didn’t favor a fast time at an upstart race in Sebring, Florida, which began inauspiciously when the lead bike took the pack down a wrong turn, requiring a restart for the whole field.

A big pre-pandemic New Year’s morning at Pass-a-Grille [Photo by Kerrie Dienhard]

In a true Hollywood-style turn, just as the qualifying window closed, Dunford flew to the Indianapolis Marathon where he crossed the line with a two-minute cushion to secure his 25th straight bib for Boston. Fellow Forerunner Walt Sieg showed his support, joining Dunford on the trip and running his third marathon in two months.

Dunford avoids attention that comes with the milestone. He’d rather talk about someone else’s shot at the Olympic trials or their podium finish at an important race. But his consistency is an example to everyone and it’s a big reason why people always show up at the bridge.

“Some years there are up to 20 people from The Forerunners in Boston,” he says about the group that always stays at The Lenox Hotel, adjacent to the finish line. “There were only three of us the year after the bombing,” he added, referring to the 2013 tragedy. For Dunford, his Boston Marathon streak “took on more importance after 2013.”

Next time you see runners treading along Coffee Pot during your 7 a.m. commute, and you think, “Boy, wouldn’t it be nice if I had time to run this morning,” remember that they’re probably finishing up mile 10. If you’re ready to lace up and see what it’s about, Wednesday and Fridays are the best days for newbies. Be warned: You may develop a hard habit to break.