Roughly 8,000 people laced up their running shoes Sunday for the 10th annual Covenant Health Knoxville Marathon, half marathon, relay, and 5K.
Patrick Cheptoek, of Bowling Green, KY, took the fastest time in the half marathon (13.1 miles), with a time of one hour, nine minutes and 12 seconds.
From the one hour, nine minutes and 12 seconds finish time to the final half marathon time of runner 2,487, who crossed the finish line at four hours, 36 minutes and 46 seconds, the course offered a challenge to those elite runners looking to set a personal record and the runners looking to see if they had what it took just to finish the race.
Yours truly finished closer to the ending time, about 50 spots from the final runner. And from this vantage point, with the not quite elite runners, I can tell you the folks who were with me in my “slow and steady” pace crossed the finish line with just as much to be proud of as those coming in at about an hour.
I talked with a woman who, as we passed the 10-mile mark, encouraged the rest of us to keep going. “It’s just a 5K left,” she said.
This was also new territory for her. In her training, she hadn’t gone farther than 10 miles. Each step forward was her own personal record.
Then there was the lady who crossed the finish line with me. With several thousand people running in the various races, she got a little confused at the starting line and ended up on the half marathon course, instead of the 5K. What’s the difference? An extra 10 miles she hadn’t prepared for. But, she kept going and, when she left Neyland Stadium that morning, she had her first half marathon under her belt.
I had started training for this race back in the fall, but a sprained ankle sidelined me for a bit. It still bothers me some. Add to that a brutal winter with ridiculously cold days, and I’m not surprised I got a little off track with my training.
In the weeks leading up to Sunday, I started to worry. I didn’t think I could make it. I was afraid I would end up re-injuring myself and end up wearing one of those oh-so-attractive boots. I didn’t want to make the friends running with me have to wait around while I took my time out on the course.
And then there were the hills. I’d heard my friends talk about this race. They run several half and full marathons during the year, and Knoxville is one they have always talked of fondly. I suppose the finish line on the 50-yard line at Neyland Stadium has something to do with it. They mentioned the hills, but I guess I didn’t realize just how hilly Knoxville is.
At the race expo on Saturday, when racers pick up their packets and get their race T-shirts, timing chips and race bibs, there is also a lot of merchandise, from T-shirts made for general running, with fun little slogans encouraging you to keep on moving, to race-specific shirts. One of them featured Noelton hill, a hill racers encounter at about mile eight on the course. It gains 155 feet in elevation over the course of a half mile.
It is tough.
And it’s not the last big hill you have to conquer before it’s all said and done. You exit a park and climb up Cumberland Ave. on “The Strip,” and turn and pull yourself up another hill to wind around Fort Sanders. And another hill. And another hill.
Then, there was my lack of preparation. I wore the wrong socks. I thought they would be great, but they weren’t. Around mile four I felt the hot spots forming on my right foot. Another runner was nice enough to offer me an adhesive bandage or two, and I thanked her. But, there were nine miles left to go and, before long, both feet were burning.
Mile six was excruciating. I got more bandages at the aid station, fueled up with some sports drink and kept moving. I willed myself up the hill, one step at a time. At the top, I spotted some steps and took the chance to add more bandages to my feet. At this point, the damage was bad. Every step forward was painful. Downhill portions hurt my feet more than the uphill portions killed my legs.
The people on the course and the people watching, handing out water, cheering from their front porches, even as slower participants filed past, helped me keep putting one foot in front of the other. Thank you, Knoxville, for being such great hosts. And to the folks with the Duck Dynasty water station, thank you. You all came along at just the right time, with your high fives and encouragement. I was just about ready to hitch a ride back to the end, pass on the medal and go ice my aching feet.
But I didn’t. And I was rewarded with a sense of accomplishment that I managed a feat many people never even attempt. I can tell you right now, Neyland Stadium never looked as beautiful to me as it did on that Sunday morning in March.
And while at times it seemed like it would take a miracle to get me across that finish line, running coach John Bingham’s famous quote was ringing in my ears.
“The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.”
Thank you to my dear friends for encouraging me to have that courage. And thank you for waiting patiently for me to cross that finish line.
I hope everyone finds the courage to start their own race — no matter what the finish line is. You may not cross first. You may cross the finish line at 2,440th place. But, that doesn’t matter. It’s all about the journey to get there, the lessons you learn along the way, and having the courage to take that first step.
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Heather Mullinix is assistant editor of the Crossville Chronicle. Her column is published on Tuesdays. She may be reached at email@example.com.