Guy Thomas is standing against traffic in the biker’s lane on the Edison Bridge yelling into a megaphone.
“Twenty-five minutes down! 20 minutes to go!”
To his left on the walkway are his Dunbar boys cross country runners, all eight of them, which is unusual because it’s November and the Tigers are never practicing this late in the season.
But of course, there is a significance: For the first time since the school reopened in 2000, the boys qualified for the state meet. The Tigers finished second at the Region 2A-3 meet at Holloway Park in Lakeland on Saturday, beating rivals Immokalee and LaBelle.
“It’s fun to be a part of something like this,” said junior Ralph Claude, who finished 12th in the race in 17:41.
The bridge workout comes just four days before Saturday’s Class 2A cross country championships at Florida State University, and Thomas is pushing his team through what seems like their hardest workout of the season … only maybe not?
“That seemed easier this time?” said Claude, who Thomas hopes can run under 17 minutes in the title race.
“Yeah, that’s because it was,” Thomas said. “Your body completely exhausted itself the first time we did it. Now it’s adapting.”
These 45 minutes are not lost on the Dunbar runners, or on Thomas. When he first was hired to help Dunbar change its running programs in 2009, only four boys showed up.
Now they’re up to 30 between the girls and boys teams. Claude is joined on Tuesday’s workout by seniors Trevor McDaniel, Abdallah Seleiman and Wilder Fenelue, along with sophomores Damien Simmonds and Terrell White. Two JV runners, Jean Joseph and Wesley Sauveur, tag along.
“It’s a brotherhood now,” White said. “We started connecting and coming together this season. And that took us to where we are now.”
Thomas says he hopes to have his top two runners, McDaniel and Claude, under 17 minutes and his next two runners under 18 minutes. If they do that, the Tigers may finish within the top five teams at state and could overcome Lely, which they haven’t beat this season.
“Going into this race now, we’re not focusing on state, we’re not focusing on any other team,”” Thomas said. “The only team we’re focusing on is Lely.”
One of Thomas’ main objectives when he took the job was to give student-athletes an opportunity to earn college educations through running. Many of his scholarships have originated from track and field, but he believes there are many others who can excel in distance running.
“I wanted to tell these guys, you can take your talent in track and get to college,” Thomas said. “And it will pay your way.”
Feet on the street
Thomas takes his team through weekly routes through Dunbar, a predominantly black neighborhood that has issues with violence, because, “I want kids to see our runners and ask, ‘What are you running for?’ And when they answer, I want to see the smile on the kids’ faces.”
Thomas previously taught at Three Oaks Middle School. He coached Kacy Smith — an Estero alum who runs for Mississippi — and had an opportunity to move his efforts to Estero, but he chose to teach and coach in Dunbar because he wanted to make a difference.
You can see that when the team run longs on Veronica Shoemaker. Drivers will wave or clap or beep in support, Thomas says.
“This community needs help,” he said. “And if you take all the good people out and leave the bad people, of course it’ll be what it is.”
Success hasn’t always been preordained. Dunbar’s racing style has caused many to look on in bewilderment, or question Thomas’ methods, whose strength is track and field.
The team’s race strategy usually resembles a three-act play: A fast rise, a middle fall and a lackluster ending.
In one of the team’s first meets, they finished 10th at the DDD Invitational at Estero Recreational Park, finishing no runner in the top 70 — at least two raced to the front in the first 400 meters. At a meet in Fort Myers the next week, the Tigers were 16th, struggling to place anyone in the top 50.
The runners defend their strategy, saying they’re sprinters first and distance runners second.
“Our background is in sprinting,” said McDaniel. “Any day of the week, we can out-sprint anyone.”
But even they have begun to take a lesson from their own style. In recent meets, the Tigers have begun to run in packs. At regions, McDaniel and Claude finished back-to-back in 11th and 12th.
“It might not work for everyone else,” Thomas says of his coaching.
New day dawns
Once the Lee County Athletic Conference race arrived in October, things changed. Dunbar finished fourth, getting two athletes in the top 25, and then it was fourth at District 2A-12 three weeks later.
“I tell my guys, ‘I say listen, you go to Miami, there are different routes you can take,'” Thomas said. “’You can take 95, you can take 41, but the whole thing is getting to that destination.’ Everyone doesn’t have the same objective, everyone doesn’t have the same talent, everyone doesn’t have the same dedication.”
This season has been different for a few reasons, but mostly because of the buy-in factor. All eight of Thomas’ runners on Tuesday are buying into this bridge workout.
“Coming to states, it’s time for us to get serious,” White said. “We want to build a legacy at states. We don’t want to go there just to say we go there.”
Thomas is watching silently as his athletes run silently up and down the bridge, stopping frequently to look at his watch.
He rarely uses the megaphone, maybe only to call out the time remaining.
And then he spots Simmonds, his body upright and his pace dragging.
“Move those arms,” Thomas said. “Stay relaxed! You’re too tight!”
And in a flash, Simmonds is a new runner again.