The Color Guard crossed the finish line at the Virginia 10 Miler on Saturday morning without the man who for 23 years had run at its helm. Steve Bozeman, who formed the Guard in 2021 and decided this year at age 77 to hand over the reins and run at his own, slower pace, was nowhere in sight. 

But while crowds outside E.C. Glass High School dwindled and awards ceremonies got underway for the day’s top finishers, the Color Guard silently slipped away. To meet Bozeman near the top of Farm Basket Hill. 

They saluted their leader, the Marine veteran who was awarded two Purple Hearts for his service in Vietnam, the man who started the Color Guard after the Sept. 11 attacks as a way to honor those stationed in harm’s way. And then they began escorting Bozeman and his wife Debbie to the finish line. 

“I thought, man, I’m gonna start crying here because it’s so emotional,” Bozeman said. 

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They headed back toward the finish line, stretching out along Langhorne Road on an overcast day when more than 2,400 participants from the 10 Miler, 4+ Miler and 4+ Mile Walk already had crossed the finish line.

Bozeman was grateful, but he had one more request.

“I just wish the sun would shine right about now,” he said. 

Cue blue skies. 

“Within minutes the sun started shining, the clouds broke,” said Color Guard member and Lynchburg Fire Chief Greg Wormser, who, along with Chief of Police Ryan Zuidema, has agreed to take over as head of the Guard. “So just a great way to honor him and what he’s done for us.”

By the time the group crested the hill, they were bathed in sunlight. Bozeman finished in 1,119th place in the 10 Miler. Only 14 people finished behind him. But placing high on the list was never the goal; in his 46th 10 Miler, after battling an injury and health issues, Bozeman only wanted to finish strong. The Color Guard, with ‘Oorah’ and other chants, made sure of it. 

“Thank you, Lord, for letting me finish and I’m so appreciative to everyone who has helped me these many years. It’s been a journey that I will treasure for the rest of my life,” Bozeman said. 

That development was just one highlight of Saturday’s 49th running of the Virginia 10 Miler. A pack of male elite runners six strong at Rivermont Avenue was whittled down to a quartet by the time they climbed Farm Basket, and 29-year-old champion Paunel Mkungo, of Kenya, broke away over the final mile to finish at 47 minutes, 50 seconds. 

On the women’s side, 24-year-old Sarah Naibei, of Kenya, set a new course record by finishing at 53 minutes, 12 seconds, eclipsing by four seconds the old mark of 53:16 set last year by Monicah Ngige. 

Naibei had her heart set on the record. Saturday morning’s temperature at the beginning of the race was in the mid-60s though, much different than the cooler conditions in which Ngige set her record one year ago. And the humidity was high, too, which especially affected runners as the morning wore on. But Naibei had made up her mind already. 

“I’m so happy,” she said. “Yesterday I said, ‘Can I try to do it?” 

Not only try, but succeed. Naibei has now won the women’s title twice (2021 and ’23). She also placed second last year. Finishing 18th overall on Saturday, she spread her arms wide at the finish line and clinched her eyes shut in a look of exasperated relief. 

“It’s hard. So hard,” Naibei said of the 10 Miler course known for its undulating hills. “That last mile gave me some challenges.”

She vowed to return to the race next year to defend her title. 

Mkungo had thoughts about the men’s record, too. They were fleeting, however. Rod Dixon’s 1981 mark of 46:50 is still safe. 

“Mile 10, that’s when I looked at my watch and said, ‘Oh, can I do something new to try to [break] the course record?’ But unfortunately, I was late,” Mkungo said, “so I tried a little bit to climb the hill, but it’s very tough. The last hill, it’s really tough. Really challenging.”

Gunning for his sixth win at the 10 Miler in 11 tries, Kenyan Julius Kogo placed eighth. 

The Color Guard finished as a group around the 2:09 mark. With them was Meegan Bryson, daughter of Steve and Debbie Bozeman, who carried the American flag, the one Steve carried for decades. 

When the Guard returned to the finish line with Steve in tow, his granddaughter, Reagan Reynolds, held it high. For a moment, they both carried it, Meegan with her left hand and Steve with his right. 

And by his side all day was his wife Debbie, who has run with her husband in marathons, 50-milers and triathlons. She’s participated at the 10 Miler off and on since 1979, but Saturday was her first time back in a while. She was there as a steadying presence and as support. Steve said an ankle “acted up” a couple times. When it did, he reached out to Debbie. 

“I needed to come back today,” Debbie Bozeman said, ” because I knew he wasn’t gonna be with the Color Guard. They usually are there for him to lean on. And I was like, ‘If he’s gonna be out there by himself, I’m gonna sign up and be with him.'”

Every step of the way. 

Staff reporter Emily Brown contributed.