35th Karen Lawrence Run For St. Jude Tuesday At Sports Barn

Popular Year-Ending Race Still A Big Deal For Lawrence Family & Friends

Sunday, December 29, 2013 - by John Hunt

It's hard to believe that the Karen Lawrence Run For St. Jude will celebrate its 35th running in downtown Chattanooga on New Year's Eve.

There are a lot of races in this area that have been contested for more years, but none rival this when it comes to raising money for a wonderful cause on the last day of the year.

You are probably keenly aware of this story and how it unfolded back in 1979 when the running boom was in its infancy.

Karen Lawrence, the daughter of Phyllis and Larry Lawrence, twin sister to Kim and younger sister to brother Mike, was diagnosed with leukemia in May 1978, right before her 10th birthday.

Karen spent more than her share of time in Memphis at the world-famous St. Jude Children's Research Hospital as doctors worked to beat her disease.  They reached the point where they had to decide if they wanted her to get another round of chemotherapy or be transported to Seattle for a bone marrow transplant.

"Karen had just gotten back from Seattle and had a maskon her face.  Her doctors had told us that she had about a 70 percent chance of being okay, but she relapsed four months later and they told us that she didn't stand a chance," Larry recalled.

They opted for the transplant and all appeared to be headed in the right direction.  During that time, Mike had seen a billboard advertisement for an upcoming race and sought further details as to what was involved in pulling off such an event.

They contacted Bill Dunn, who owned the Running Factory, to inquire about such an idea. Karen was one fo the driving forces behind the idea and was even present to fire the gun for the first race when it was held at midnight that first year.

Sadly, Karen suffered a relapse and died in early March 1980 when she was a fifth grader at Thrasher Elementary, almost two years since her first diagnosis.

The Lawrence family has continued what has turned out to be a wonderful tradition as they keep Karen's memory alive while raising money for the hospital in Memphis.

In the past 34 years, runners, walkers and other interested parties in Chattanooga have raised more than $650,000 for St. Jude.  Add private donations and that total surpasses more than three million.

The survival rate was a gloomy 43 percent 35 years ago while the odds have gotten much better as the success rate is 92 percent now.  And as you might expect, operating expenses have gone through the roof as well.

"Back in 1979, it cost $360,000 to run the show for one day.  Today that cost has swelled to some 1.9 million," explaineded Larry.

So you can see just how important this year-ending race has become.

"I'm really nervous as I know what all is involved in getting everything ready for the event Tuesday night," Phyllis said during a visit at the downtown Sports Barn Sunday afternoon.

"We decided that a road race would be a cool thing to do and we raised $2,000 that first year when the race was held at midnight.  It has grown by leaps and bounds since that time," Karen's mother continued.

"I was 13 years old when this race began.  Kim and Karen had friends who came down to participate back then.  Now those same people bring their children down, most of them coming down every year," Mike recalled.

For many years, the race included a two-mile loop that went down Broad Street from the rear of the Sports Barn before turning right on Sixth and going to MLK before turning right on Riverfront Parkway and returning to the Sports Barn.

The course was changed a few years ago because it was becoming more and more difficult to block traffic coming off Fourth Street on New Year's Eve when people were on their way to downtown parties.

Now the race starts on Broad, crosses Market as it goes up the hill at Third before turning left on Walnut Street.  After crossing the bridge, the course turns right on Frazier before turning right on Tremont where it loops around by the Little Theater and comes back by the same route.  The four-mile race does this loop twice.

"The new route is much more scenic and we wanted to have it at night so the runners could enjoy the lights on the Walnut Street Bridge more.  And now they have a big screen down by the turnaround where each runner's name flashes up on the board with their split at that point," Mike explained.

The family had thought about discontinuing the event after the 25th race was held, but a poll was taken and they quickly found out that stopping it wasn't a good idea.

"We took a poll and it was overwhelming how many people wanted to keep it going.  It's become a family tradition for us and so many other families as well," Phyllis nodded.

"It was a hard thing to do for the first few years, but I get to revisit the memory of my sister every year.  She would be so proud that we've kept it going for this long.  Chattanooga can't forget about Karen Lawrence.  This is a healing event for us," Mike said.

At one point, Hamilton County had more patients at St. Jude than anywhere else and many of these patients would be present on New Year's Eve for this race.  Sadly, some of those have died in recent years.

"Those kids who died are the ones who helped us get to this point.  We're proud to have been associated with St. Jude all of this time as they do such good work," Mike nodded.

"They treat kids from all over the world.  This is certainly an emotional event for me and my family, but I'm proud that this race is the largest and oldest fund-raising event in the country for St. Jude," Phyllis said proudly.

"We've been doing this for 35 years and counting, but we've had great coverage by the local media during that time and we couldn't have done it without the help and cooperation of the Sports Barn.  Dusty Schweickart was in charge here then and he got it off and running," Phyllis recalled.

"The Sports Barn has been great as they go out of their way to make sure we have everything we need.  Teresa Wade is our contact person now and she is so helpful, but runners need to know that they can shower down here and still go out for the celebration after their run is over," Mike nodded.

Twin sister Kim lives in Knoxville with her family, but she'll be here early Tuesday to help get everything ready for the big event.

"I'm super excited as I still have friends who talk about Karen and they show up for this race every year.  Karen's goodwill and fighting spirit touched a lot of people.  She taught me that living life to the fullest is important and that I shouldn't take life for granted," Kim said by phone.

"She also taught me to keep smiling, even when times get tough, but she always had a smile on her face and we're lucky that we get to share her memory every year at this time.

"She's one of the reasons the cure rate is so high these days.  I'll be there early Tuesday afternoon to put up all the pictures from years past.  It's a lot of work, but it's worth it.  My kids will participate as they know just how important this event is to all of us.

"We've raised a lot of money since we started, but it doesn't seem like much when you consider how much it costs to run that hospital," Kim added.

Registration on Tuesday will be held from 4-6 p.m. with the 4.2-mile longer race set to begin at 6:30.  The 2.1-mile fun run and walk will follow at 6:45.

So if you're looking something positive to do on New Year's Eve and want to make a difference in someone's life, come on down to the Sports Barn Tuesday afternoon.

There will be plenty of entertainment by the talented singer and songwriter Tim Veazey and chances are good you'll probably run into an old friend or two.

And you'll still have time to go other places in plenty of time before 2014 gets here.

(email John Hunt at nomarathonmoose@comcast.net)

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