JOHN HUNT: Remembering John Bruner 10 Years Later

Talented Dalton Runner Died At Missionary Ridge In 2007

Saturday, August 12, 2017 - by John Hunt

August 4 was just another typical hot Saturday in 2007 when several hundred running enthusiasts gathered at Bragg Reservation for the annual Missionary Ridge Road Race.

It was hot and humid and the sun was out, meaning that weather conditions would be challenging for this popular 4.7-mile race that has become one of the most popular on the Chattanooga Track Club’s schedule.

What started out as a normal late summer morning certainly didn’t end up that way, especially for Dalton’s 19-year-old John Bruner, who was getting ready to head back to Georgia College for his sophomore year as a member of their cross country and track team.

Bruner had come to this race with his parents Margie and Greg and they were all participants that day.  Young John had started out at a fairly fast pace, which had become the norm for him, but he started having problems about the midway point. 

His parents eventually caught up with him and encouraged him to slow down and to even walk, not having any idea of the real problem he was dealing with.

John Bruner never made it to the finish line at Bragg Reservation. 

He collapsed as he rounded the last curve on South Crest Road, probably less than 50 feet before the entrance to the last leg of the race that includes a final loop to the finish line.

There were medical personnel on site and they were quick to come to his aid.  An ambulance was called and it wasn’t long until he had been taken away to a local hospital.

Unfortunately, John Bruner’s life ended that afternoon.

And now as we prepare for the 45th running of this event on Saturday, August 12, we remember John Bruner and the life he led.

I’ve been a sports writer for the past 38 years, but I’m sorry to say that our paths didn’t cross.  He had been a track and cross country standout for the Dalton Catamounts and was obviously a talented runner.

He was also a fine young man.  He was an honor student and an Eagle scout.  He was the kind of young man you hope your daughter brings home from college one weekend.

Even though I didn’t know him personally, his untimely death had a profound impact on my life. I have a son about two years older and I don’t see how parents survive when one of their children dies before his time, especially when he’s done things the right way, has been willing to help others and led the kind of life we all aspire to lead.

The Bruners are a close-knit family.  John was the middle of three children with sister Megan being two years older than John and brother Andrew three years younger. 

One thing I’ve learned is that a strong faith plays a vital role and that’s certainly the case for this family.  Lots of prayer, love and support of family and friends and that faith has carried them through the most difficult period in their lives.

Sadly, John’s life ended long before it should have, but his memory has been carried forward since that time and many other people, including a lot of young runners, have been impacted by his life in a positive way.

Team Bruner was formed after this happened and it’s a foundation that provides two scholarships for individuals, one for high school and one for college. 

In addition, the “Run For John 5K” has been held in Dalton for the past 10 years where the proceeds from that race pay entry fees to another run in Dalton for inner-city youngsters who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford it.

The local Boy Scout troop has also been involved.  Shortly after John’s death, an open-air chapel was built at Camp Sidney Dew in the pocket wilderness area just west of Calhoun.  It was built in John’s memory.

So as you can see, John Bruner’s death was not in vain and his legacy continues in a positive way.

When someone brought to my attention that this is the 10th anniversary of that event, I quickly agreed to do a story remembering John and the impact that this event had on the running community in Chattanooga in a general way and more specifically the impact it’s had on his family and other close friends.

Michael Green was the first person I contacted.

Michael is an outstanding runner from Dalton who currently works at Fast Break Athletics.  He coached John in high school and was one of his regular training partners.  Michael has known the Bruners for a number of years, so I asked him to contact Greg and Margie to see if they were receptive to this idea.

They were and I called them to set up an interview and visit.  Then I called Dan Bailey, who was the race director at the Ridge race that year.

As you might expect, it was certainly an emotional experience talking to all four of these fine folks, but it turned out better than I would have ever expected.  We laughed and we cried, but at the end, it was one of the most significant visits and interviews I’ve ever been associated with.

“It doesn’t seem like it’s been 10 years.  I wasn’t at the race that day as I was working, but I was really saddened and shocked to hear what happened,” Michael said earlier this week before the first customer entered the popular running store on Cherokee Boulevard.

“John started running with us when he was in middle school and we ran year round.  It didn’t matter if it was 100 degrees or snowing, we ran almost every day and he was always right there with us.  He was  home from college that summer and we really did some serious training as he prepared to go back.  He was right there with us most of the time.

“I could tell that he wasn’t running as strong that week as he had previously, but I just figured it was because of the heat and humidity and that maybe he was a bit dehydrated.

“I’ll never forget the crowd that gathered for his funeral.  I’ve never seen that many people at anybody’s funeral, but John was a model athlete and student and his life impacted a lot of people,” Michael added.

Greg and Margie were the most welcoming folks you would ever want to meet.  Granted, it’s never easy to talk about the loss of a child, but they were very open to talking about it and recalling the blur of a day that has to rank as the saddest day of their lives.

Margie has had her own medical issues as she’s been battling cancer in recent years.  It’s tough for her to verbalize just how she feels about that experience 10 years ago, but it was also really obvious just how much she loved her son and how his untimely death has created a huge void in her life.

“John always started off fast and that was the case that day, but we caught up with him right before the turnaround as he was struggling,” Greg remembered.

“We didn’t have any idea at the time just how serious his problem was, so we just encouraged him to slow down and possibly walk back.  We didn’t give it a second thought until we finished and heard that a runner was down near the end.

“We later found out that John had a birth defect in his heart.  The pressure from the extra exertion caused it to malfunction and that was his cause of death.  It was the same thing that killed Pistol Pete Maravich,” Greg added.

Margie was the women’s masters winner that day with a time of 36:26 while Greg finished 27 seconds later. 

Greg has been back every year since then and has led a pre-race prayer every time.  You want to talk about courage and powerful words that were timely and significant.

Margie has never been back to that race as the memory is still fresh and the pain simply too great.

That day was one of those life experiences that Bailey will never forget.

“I’ll never forget that day and how bad I felt for John and his family,” he said earlier this week by telephone.

“One of my biggest regrets is that we didn’t have an ambulance there that day.  We had lots of medical people, but it seemed like nothing could be done and it was a shame for it to end the way it did.

“We didn’t have an awards ceremony that day and everybody understood why.  My wife Irene and I went to the hospital as soon as we left that day and just felt terrible about what had happened. 

“We also went to his funeral and it must have been 100 degrees that day, but I’ll never forget the huge crowd.  I never knew before that time what a great athlete John had been, but it was obvious that he made a huge impact on many people.

“I later went down a took part in the Run For John.  The shocking part is that I finished third in my age group,” Bailey added.

“We just want to remember all he stood for and to remember all he accomplished.  We encourage all of that through his name and it’s a real honor for us to be able to do that,” Greg concluded.

Saturday’s race will go on as planned, just as every other ridge event has done since 2007.  No question, it will be hot and runners will be challenged, but many will head home with smiles on their faces, knowing they stepped to the starting line and did the absolute best they could.

John Bruner won’t be there in person, but he’s surely there in spirit.

And the spirit of this young man will continue for many years to come as a result of the running communities in Chattanooga and Dalton.

And hopefully, that will bring a smile to your face and take away some of the pain that we’ve all been feeling since that fateful day 10 years ago.

(Email John Hunt at nomarathonmoose@gmail.com)



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