Geno Phillips isn't a very big guy physically, but when he approaches the starting line at a road race, folks up front pay extra attention, including younger runners who think they have a shot at winning.
Phillips is a 42-year-old runner from Leland, Mississippi who has been in Chattanooga for the past 12 years. He's a middle school social studies teacher who started at Franklin Middle for two years before moving to Brown for the next nine. And now he's in his first year at the brand new Red Bank Middle.
The former Delta State graduate didn't start running in high school as he spent most of his time concentrating on football and tennis. But after his first year at Delta State, he had gained some weight and made the decision to let running be his way back into shape.
It all began in the spring of 1990.
"I had gained the freshman 40 and decided to start running to lose weight," Phillips said earlier this week during a break from teaching.
"I made it around the block the first time. I didn't feel good, but I wanted to prove to myself I could do it. Running a race hadn't crossed my mind at that point, but my college roommate's mother put on a 10K race in Natchez and I entered. That was February 1991.
"My time was 37 something as I finished ninth overall, but that got the juices flowing and I was hooked. Ever since that time, I've always wanted to see just how much faster I could get," he added.
His times have certainly gotten faster and he's won more races than he can remember. Even now some 24 years later as a masters runner, Phillips is still a force to be reckoned with when the horn sounds to start a race.
He's completed 13 marathons with a personal best of 2:34 in 1999. To show how strong he's running these days, he posted a 2:36 at Huntsville in 2012.
He's been to Boston five times with a PR on that course of 2:37 in 2002. He also had his slowest time of 2:56 at Boston.
His first marathon experience came in 1996 when he won the Mississippi Marathon in Jackson with a 2:50.
"I just wanted to finish that day as it wasn't very big race, but I won. It seems like I ran by myself the whole way," Phillips recalled.
He's on the comeback trail after suffering a stress fracture in his hip following the Scenic City Half-Marathon in February. Despite some incredible pain for the last four or five miles, he still managed to finish third with a 1:15.
"I had a sharp pain in my hip during that race and those last few miles really hurt. I couldn't walk the next day and that's when I found out that I had a stress fracture. I took eight weeks off to heal and I just started back at the end of April. I'm hoping to do some races in August, maybe Missionary Ridge. And I'm looking at maybe going back to Huntsville in December," he nodded, noting that he was the masters champion there in 2012,
"I'm trying to get 60-65 miles a week and that's about my range as I start breaking down if I do much more than that. I do most of my runs in the downtown area and I'm hoping to get back on the track soon to resume my speed work.
"Most of my running is done alone as I guess 95 percent is done by myself. I like to keep a 6:30 pace on training runs and most folks don't want to run that far that fast," he added.
Phillips has run and won a lot of races in Chattanooga, but the Chickamauga Chase 15K gets the nod as his favorite.
"I think I've run that race five times and won it in 2009 and 2012. My PR of 50:01 was on that course, but I didn't win that year. I was second last year with a 51:17. Being a history teacher, I love running in the battlefield. And nobody does a better job of directing a race than George Skonberg. His race is first-class in every respect and they also give some of the most cherished awards," Geno said.
Another of his favorites is the Joe Johnson 10K, which is one of the flattest races on the Chattanooga Track Club schedule.
"I've won that one twice with a PR or 32:50 in 2005. If you're in shape, you can fly on that course because it's so flat," he reasoned.
Phillips and Paige, his wife of 19 years, live in the downtown area so that's why he does most of his training there.
"There's nothing better than running in downtown Chattanooga in the early morning when the sun is about to come up. I need to renew my track club membership, but right now, I just want to get healthy again.
"I still want to win and I still enjoy winning. Even though I've gotten older, my times haven't dropped off yet. I know it's coming, but you appreciate your ability to run even more when you're hurt and can't run.
"I don't think anyone works as hard as I do. I've done something right along the way and I take a lot of pride in it," he concluded.
Geno Phillips is an articulate young man who loves what he does. He enjoys landscaping and he also likes spending time with his three labs, Beulah, Delta and Pope.
But running is what he does best. And those young guys at the starting line take notice when he lines up for a race because they know he's a serious competitor.
And he wants it to stay that way.
(This is the 13th in a series of features on runners in the Chattanooga area, including members of the Chattanooga Track Club. If you know of someone deserving of a story, email John Hunt at nomarathonmoose@Comcast.net)