By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
BURKES GARDEN, Va. —
Earl Keene walked the 13.1 mile course last Saturday at the Varmint Half-Marathon.
He had no choice.
“He went with me to keep me from running...,” said Keene’s wife, Millie, with a smile.
Cancer couldn’t stop Keene, neither could surgery just two days before the most popular running event in the area.
“I wanted to run because I had been training for it, and I had to have surgery Thursday,” Keene said. “It was something unexpected. I said, ‘Can I run’ and (the doctor) said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Can I walk it’ and he said, ‘What I don’t know won’t hurt me.’”
It was 20 years ago when Millie Keene and Charity McDaniel ran in what was the very first Varmint Run. It is now two decades later, and they’re the only ones to run in all 20 events.
Well, Keene walked last year and this year, both for good reason.
“Last year I had been diagnosed with breast cancer,” Keene said. “I had gone through chemotherapy and radiation and surgery and all that so I had to walk it last year too.
“I just finished my radiation like the week before so I just finished my treatments last year so I could do it.”
Lots of miles have been toiled over the last 20 years as the Varmint Run has winded its way through the picturesque community of Burkes Garden, and it only seems to be getting more popular.
A record 437 runners took part in the event last Saturday, including 313 for the half-marathon, which is a 13.1 mile run. The other 124 competed in the 5K, which is shorter at 3.1 miles, but still a challenging event.
“I never imagined it would have kept on for 20 years,” Keene said. “It is like a tradition now. You have started it and you don’t want to miss it because me and Charity have been the only ones.
“It has been fun. We have enjoyed it, it is a good experience, we have met some nice people.”
A resident of Baptist Valley in Tazewell County, Keene survived last year’s bout with cancer, and didn’t hesitate to pull out her running shoes and began training for what she expected to be 13.1 miles last Saturday on what turned into a beautiful morning in Burkes Garden.
“I am getting better, I feel fine, they have gotten all my cancer,” she said. “I am cancer-free so I just have to go back for checkups and stuff.”
Her plans were derailed just two days before the Varmint when Keene had to undergo a preventive procedure, although she did her best to convince the doctors to wait a few more days.
“The surgery that I got this time was a repair surgery, with the risk of infection, he wanted to get on top of it right away,” Keene said. “I said, ‘My race is Saturday you know’, and he said, ‘We have to do this now.’
“Your health is more important, you have to take care of yourself.”
McDaniel has run all 20 events, but is more interested in making sure everyone else has a good time. She usually stops along the way to help where needed.
“To know that we have made it 20 years, to work on it and be out there and run it for 20 years,” McDaniel said, “I like doing that because I can see what is going on out in the field.
“Like today we ran and we needed a little bit more water at mile 6 so we stopped and we did the water stations so I just did that and hung back and just talked to people and it is just a lot of fun.”
It’s also become — in terms of sheer numbers — the most popular running event in the area.
“It does keep growing, it was great...,” said McDaniel, who is a principal in the Tazewell County school system. “It is really exciting, there is so much going on with school ending. I didn’t get out here like I wanted to check everything out, but it was a beautiful day.
“It is exciting to see it growing, and the community is really helping out with it and it has become a part of the community.”
What awaits the top three male and female finishers, and the top three in each age group in the half-marathon are sheep-shaped trophies, complete with fur. Those sheep, which are usually white, will turn to black next June.
Among the 437 runners — not to mention several walkers and a fun run for kids — were participants from seven different states for an event that has become a vital part of the close-knit area running community.
“It is good to see all the people come from so far away to run in it, but they love the sheep, that is what they come for is the sheep,” McDaniel said. “Next year is the 21st year and we will do black sheep.
“Hopefully it will continue to grow and get a lot more people involved and get a lot more community support.”
Burkes Garden is an ideal spot for such an event. The scenery is as breath-taking as the run itself, but at least the weather last Saturday was ideal for the event, following what had been two days of rain.
“It is fun, it is a nice run, we have seen all kinds of weather here,” Keene said. “We have seen it rain, sometimes you can’t even see, and then it has been hot, it has snowed, we have had every kind of weather.
“Mostly it is pretty like this, the weather is usually nice so it is really nice.”
It took Keene, and her husband, Earl, more than three hours to walk the 13.1 mile course. She relished every step of the way.
“I started with the runners, I actually wasn’t too far behind some of the walkers though,” Keene said. “(Earl) went with me to keep me from running because it is hard...It is hard to walk when you know you can run, especially since I have been training this year.
“I have already done like 13 miles running to get ready for it and then I can’t run. Anyway I got to walk it so I am happy I got to walk it and I walked it pretty fast.”
The best part?
“The goal is to complete it,” she said, with a smile.
• • •
Keene’s wasn’t the only tear-jerker of a story at the Varmint.
Ginny Fox completed the half-marathon, crossing the finish line to a delight of a collection of family members, who held a large photo of Fox’s husband, Andrew Fox, a state trooper from Tazewell, who was killed in an accident at the State Fair of Virginia last October.
According to Andrew Fox’s mother, Julie Fox, the couple had planned to run together in the Varmint. Instead, her daughter-in-law ran the Varmint for her husband, and she was joined by, among others, close family friend and fellow state trooper Derek Perkins from Pearisburg.
“They have run half-marathons before,” Julie Fox said. “This is one of the ones that they wanted to do.”
Julie Fox will always have pleasant memories of her son.
“It is wonderful to have him remembered and he has been honored in so many different arenas since his death,” Julie Fox said. “It makes me very proud of all that he accomplished.”
—Contact Brian Woodson