History of the Red Mule Runners
by Sherri Cuffe
October 11, 2000

Nearly every weekend, during the birth of the “running craze” in the late 1970's, a group of dedicated Brooksville runners participated in races held through the state. As their numbers grew, they formed their own local running club under the direction of Radiologist, Dr. Jim Cuffe. Since they gathered together after runs, and held their meetings at the Red Mule Pub in Brooksville, they chose the name Red Mule Runners Club.

In order for the club to be sanctioned by the Road Runners Club of America, it was the duty of each club to sponsor a race in their area. The Brooksville race course was dreamed up in Jim Cuffe’s head while running a FLAT beach course in St. Petersburg. Running through his mind were the thoughts of runners complaining whenever there was the slightest incline in a course and all the hills of Brooksville that he ran everyday He couldn’t wait to go back home to attach a pedometer to his bike to accurately measure the 6.2 mile course.

The Red Mule Runners loved the unique idea of the hilly course, and began to think of a name for the race. Weiland Rogers actually coined the name “Flatlanders Challenge” after the discussion that the hills would be quite a “challenge” to runners who are used to running on the “flat land” of Florida!

At first, the late Police Chief, Ron Novy, was hesitant to issue the necessary permits because road races were so new to the area, that he thought the club wanted a permit for a car race through the streets of Brooksville! Chief Novy loved the idea when it was explained to him and he was very supportive. Finding a major sponsor was the next big hurtle to overcome. Because his adult children and their spouses were involved, Bank Chairman, Clarence Eppley, persuaded First Federal Savings to be the main sponsor.

Thus, the first race, the First Federal Flatlanders Challenge was held in December 1978, in conjunction with the annual Brooksville Christmas Parade. It was a freezing 28 degrees! The race itself was a huge success, but a real disaster trying to combine with the parade. From then on, every race has been held after the Christmas Parade and on a date all its own.

Two days before the first race, John Baker, a member of the Hernando High School Cross Country team and active club member, was killed in a car accident. Following the first award ceremony, the Red Mule Runners attended his funeral. The “John Baker Award” was established at the first race and is given to the first high school finisher of the Flatlanders Challenge. John’s friend, Rocky Heatherly, received the first “John Baker Award” and it is still awarded today in his memory.

When a local artist failed to meet the deadline date for the T-shirt logo, Sherri Cuffe stayed up all night the night before, to come up with the original logo for the first race. Drawn within a circle that was traced from a Cuffe dinner plate, it featured a barefooted hillbilly running up a hill!

The RRCA then passed a ruling that each club must hold at least two races a year. Thus, the first Lykes Memorial Hospital 5K was held at McKethan Lake in 1982. This race is now known as the Labor Day McKethan Lake 5K, directed each year by Coach Ernie Chatman, one of the original club members.

Through the years, many hundreds of runners have been challenged by the hills of Brooksville. During Judy Hensley’s Club Presidency, international and Olympic running celebrities, such as Bill Rogers and Frank Shorter, have enjoyed running here as well.

Numerous Brooksville community members and businesses have volunteered and worked for the Red Mule Runners in order to host these successful events year after year. The race course must now be moved out of the downtown area due to the growth and traffic congestion. The new course will also encompass the hills of Brooksville and continue to be a FLATLANDERS CHALLENGE!