Six men and a boy from the Millen area, joined at times by others, such as military veterans who are students at Georgia Southern University, will take turns running, crossing Georgia in the fourth annual Benning to Gordon Relay.
No one runner covers the whole distance, but the relay will span about 250 miles, Thursday through Sunday, from Buena Vista, near Fort Benning in metro-Columbus, to Ford Gordon near Augusta. There the relay will end, with some check presentations at the Fisher House outside Eisenhower Army Medical Center.
“When we get to Fort Gordon, last year they had maybe 75 soldiers to meet us that actually lined the street going into the Fisher House, and the commanding officer from the Eisenhower Army Medical Center was there,” said Ray Miller, one of the relay’s founders and, at 68, its senior runner.
The Benning to Gordon Relay serves as a fundraiser for donations to both the Fisher House and Fort Gordon’s Warrior Transition Battalion.
Much as the Ronald McDonald Houses serve children’s families at civilian hospitals, the Fisher House Foundation provides comfort homes for families of patients at military and veterans hospitals. The Warrior Transition Battalion is a unit for wounded, ill or injured soldiers.
When Miller and friends organized the first relay, they thought to raise money for a national group, but then they chose the Fisher House and Warrior Transition Battalion so the money would benefit soldiers and their families in Georgia.
“That’s one of the things that got us started, trying to do something locally, because there are a lot of places people can send their money,” Miller said, “but we’ve done some research and those two seem to be really, really good.”
The relay raised $20,135 in its first three years, including more than $12,000 last year alone, Miller reports.
If the relay remains on schedule, the runners will arrive in Portal at roughly 1:30 p.m. next Saturday. There, a brief stop is planned while the organizers receive a presentation from Statesboro’s American Legion Dexter Allen Post 90.
For much of the route, the runners will run one at a time, about three miles at a go. Then the van will pick up that runner and drop off another, who will cover another three miles.
So it goes, usually. Sometimes things go awry, but Coach Hugh Yaughn, who drives the van, knows a play or two to get things back on schedule. Last year, the van broke down and one runner, not knowing where it was, reportedly ran 13 miles, alone, from Swainsboro to Twin City.
To make up the lost time, Yaughn then deposited five runners at a go, three miles apart. Then he looped back and collected them as each runner reached the point where the next runner had started.
When arriving at a town, the whole group runs together.
Both Miller and Yaughn, who is 67, have long experience as coaches of multiple sports in area schools. During a 40-year career, Yaughn coached in Tattnall County, in Jenkins County, at Blackshear High School and, for seven of those years, at Southeast Bulloch High School.
Miller was an educator for 37 years, including 31 years as a coach and administrator in Jenkins County, then six years at Edmund Burke Academy in Waynesboro, where he still volunteers with sports such as elementary cross-country.
Miller and Randy Brannen, cross-country coach at Faith Christian Academy, also in Waynesboro, have long been running buddies. They have participated in marathons and shorter races from Washington, D.C. to Savannah. They planned the first Benning to Gordon Relay, and it was Brannen who ran that unexpected Swainsboro-Twin City half marathon last year when the van broke down.
Most of the other team members were coached or taught by Miller or Yaughn in high school. This year’s adult runners are Brannen, Miller, Rob Sharkey, Chad Waters, Rick Lane and, for the first time, Craig Brackin.
“I’ll do maybe 12 miles a day,” Miller said. “Some of the younger guys will do probably 15 to 18 miles a day.”
Rick Lane’s son River Lane, 10, has also joined the team, making its age range 10 to 68.
At various points along the way, other runners will briefly join the relay, usually running alongside one or more members of the team.
For the Bulloch County leg of the relay, at Portal, members of the Student Veterans Association at Georgia Southern University will run, joined this year by some cadets from the Reserve Officer Training Corps, said Jordan Huerta, 25, secretary of the GSU Student Veterans Association. Last year, Huerta was one of three SVA members whs participated.
“This year it’s going to be at least 10 (Georgia Southern students),” Huerta said. “The number is still being finalized, but we’re going to be having representatives not only from the SVA, but from the ROTC battalion.”
The Relay has an account for donations at the Queensborough Bank in Millen. Donations can also be made through the Facebook page for the Benning to Gordon Relay, by clicking on the “shop now” button on the main picture. This reveals suggested donation amounts and colorful T-shirts for sale, with the relay map on the back.
Runners, as well as donors, are also welcome to meet the group along the way, Miller said. A banner is displayed at major stops.
“The more people we can involve, the more people, obviously, will know what we’re trying to do here with the Warrior Transition Battalion and with the Fisher House, and I can run slowly enough I can tell some stories,” he said.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.