cover_story (2007-03)

Health & Fitness Issue (continued)

"Has anyone seen a mile marker?” shouts the lanky gentleman who’s about three strides ahead of me. All the runners within earshot chuckle, their attention diverted for a moment from the cruel reality of what is: It’s 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday in mid-January, and we’re only a minute and a half into a group run that will span anywhere between four and 16 miles, depending on where we are in our individual marathon training programs.

I’m sitting pretty on the lower end of the spectrum, thank God. Right about now, the contents of last night’s 2 a.m. sushi dinner—and the magnum of Shiraz that inspired it—are splashing around in my stomach with all the enthusiasm of a washing machine in the throes of its spin cycle. When the alarm clock went off this morning, I could scarcely hear it through the pounding of my head; that I managed to pry myself out of bed seems baffling to me now. I run if for no other reason than there’s no way I can possibly feel worse than I already do.

This morning’s run, sponsored by the Knoxville Track Club and Knoxville Orthopedic Clinic, is one of several scheduled to take place between now and the Knoxville Marathon on Sunday, April 1. Each weekend, the runs grow longer, gradually preparing the marathoners and half-marathoners to go the full distance: 26.2 miles and 13.1 miles respectively. Proper preparation can take months, if not years, but rushing the process is a fast track to a lifetime of malfunctioning knees and bulk purchases of extra-strength BenGay.

Already, the 50-strong pack is separating. The veteran runners bound ahead like spandex-clad antelopes, their tennis shoes clearly rigged with springs. The rest of us plod along steadily and with great determination, closer resembling a scene from March of the Penguins . I suppose gravity keeps some people on a tighter leash, which is fine with me, especially if the upchuck soup that’s sloshing around in my stomach is willing to comply.

The gentleman who was cracking jokes at the beginning of the run has since picked up his pace to keep up with the faster, leggier crowd. As he disappears around a distant bend in the Alcoa/Maryville greenway, the woman jogging beside me mutters, “There’s goes our comic relief.”

She introduces herself as Taylor Slemmer, a group-run newbie in training for her first half-marathon. She says she started running last July, after watching her older sister run last year’s Country Music Half-marathon in Nashville and deciding she needed to make some healthy changes in her own life. Now they train together when they can, and her excitement about the upcoming race—she’s either going to run the Knoxville Marathon or one in Washington D.C.—is contagious.

If you asked a hundred different marathoners why they do it, you’d probably get a hundred different responses. Maybe they run because they can’t help not running. Or maybe, like Slemmer, they could go their whole lives without running a step, but they make a choice to do so because they want to be healthy and active. Maybe they feel like they have something to prove.

The path in front of me unfolds like a carpet, unraveling through the woods. In my peripheral vision, the scenery blurs, trees and mist and kudzu melting into a solitary watercolor smear of bluish-green. I concentrate on the rhythmic thud of rubber soles striking asphalt, one foot after the other, one step at a time. Left right left. Right left right.  

Only four miles to go. 

Elsewhere in and around Knoxville, runners of all ages and ambitions are taking advantage of the crisp January morning. They run in groups and alone, along city streets and country back roads; there’s even a one-mile youth run taking place at the zoo, kicking off the Knoxville Marathon’s Cariten Kid’s Run program.

“I love this time of year,” says Jason Altman, a co-director of the marathon who also works at the Runner’s Market. “It’s 7 a.m. and you see all these people out running.”

Altman says early registration numbers are pointing to a bigger race day than ever this year—he predicts there will be over 4,000  participants in the five events. (In addition to the marathon and half-marathon, there’s a four-person relay, 5k, and kids’ fun run.) That’s up from 3,600 participants last year, representing all 50 states, and 3,200 the year before.

“The race has a kind of regional flavor,” Altman explains when asked about its appeal. “The course is designed to showcase some of our historic neighborhoods—Fort Sanders, Sequoyah Hills, Fourth and Gill, Island Home—and you finish on the 50-yard line at Neyland Stadium, which speaks for itself (a video of the runners crossing the finish line is shown on the Jumbotron). Knoxville can be a little bit of a destination marathon.”

This year’s course will be similar to those of years past, starting at the Sunsphere and winding its way through some of the city’s most picturesque areas—boulevards along the river, greenways through the woods, city streets downtown, and neighborhoods that can feel like battery chargers for worn-down marathoners.   

“There’s so much support out there,” Altman says. “Early on that Sunday morning, people pull chairs out into their front lawns and cheer people on, hold up signs. Chances are they’ll have a friend, co-worker or someone out there they can support.”

Another way Knoxvillians can support the marathon is to volunteer. Altman says that it will take over 1,000 volunteers to man this year’s race, helping out at the start line, making sure people don’t go off course, and handing out medals at the finish line, among other tasks. “You can’t have enough volunteers,” he explains. “The more the merrier.” (Interested individuals can email or call (865) 684-4294 for more information.)

Dani Huff, an employee at the Runner’s Market, volunteered last year as a timer for the relay race. She and coworker Michael Delisle reiterate the importance of a strong volunteer crew, especially since this year’s race looks to be the biggest yet. Even though the marathon is still two-and-a-half months out, the store has been busy with runners stocking up on gear. “You can tell a huge difference, especially in the week before the race,” Huff says. “Everyone’s coming in to get their goos and power gels.”

The store doubles as a place the local running community can turn to for information and advice. “You get experienced marathoners who are doing it for the third year and they want to talk about the course, and you get people who’ve never done a race in their life,” Altman says. “You can see their excitement—this is their maiden voyage into the running world. I like feeding off that energy. It keeps me motivated.”

There’s a Boston Marathon poster hanging in the Runner’s Market, above the shoe display, that reads, “Everybody wins. Some just a little sooner than others.” And when it comes to running a marathon, that’s the truth. But it’s not only about the thrill of crossing the finish line. It’s about the various incarnations of heaven and hell you have to run through to get there.

When I decided a couple of years ago to run my first half in the inaugural Knoxville Marathon, I had no idea what a pounding not only my body, but also my mind, was about to take. Of course there were the months of training, which were trying in and of themselves, but it all came to a head on race day, which I still like to think of as both the best and the worst day of my life.

8:03 a.m. That’s what time I woke up on March 20, 2005, exactly one hour and three minutes after the gun signaling the start of the 7 a.m. race went off (I’m not a morning person). After about three minutes’ worth of confusion and denial followed by furious weeping, I pulled on my shorts, laced up my tennis shoes and, living downtown, ran to the start line, which was being disassembled. “Good luck!” someone shouted as I took off onto the quiet, empty course.

It was nothing as I had dreamt it would be. The cheering crowds had long since dispersed. Along the path were remnants of those who’d come before—sweatshirts, cotton gloves. Even the water stations were abandoned. I counted how many miles I’d gone by the number of plastic cup explosions through which I’d run.

It was mile nine before I caught up with any other runners, and it was mile eleven before there was enough commotion swirling around that it actually felt like a race. But during that last half hour before I reached the finish, I strangely found myself longing for the solitude of those few miles when the end seemed so far away and the realization that I was the only one who could get me there weighed so heavily on my mind. It was a stern, and somehow comforting, reminder that in the face of this big, unpredictable and sometimes lonely world, the one thing we do have control of is ourselves.

Recounting the story of my own experience to Slemmer, the woman I’ve found myself running alongside since the beginning of this morning’s run, I suddenly remember why I’m out here torturing myself in the first place. It’s not even about the finish line. It’s about the roads you take to get there. Today’s road just happens to be slick with wine and littered with last night’s sushi leftovers.

We round one last bend, and forty-three sweaty minutes after we started, the parking lot is in sight. Now on the homestretch, we pick up the pace, despite our quietly protesting quads. Mind over matter, as they say. 

Slemmer and I high-five at the finish. Before leaving, she quips, “See you next week?” It sounds more like a statement than a question.

For more information on participating in the Knoxville Marathon as a competitor or a volunteer, visit .

Health & Fitness Issue (continued)