Debbie Gates was always an active young lady, but it wasn’t
until she started running as a junior at UTC did she really define herself as
an outstanding amateur athlete.
She’s a 1975 graduate of Chattanooga High School – better known
as City High back in the day – and she earned a BS degree in psychology from UTC in December 1981.
Debbie is the fourth of five children, including three older
sisters and one younger brother, the infamous Bo Watson.
Debbie was a typical
teenager where she was a cheerleader for the Dynamos during her high school
days, but there came a time in the spring of 1979 when she made a life-changing
“I was trying to escape a lifestyle I wasn’t proud of and I
had gained a few pounds, so I went to the Red Bank track and ran my first mile,”
Gates said Wednesday evening while relaxing on the screened-in porch at her
home in Red Bank.
“I didn’t care how painful it was, I was going to run that
mile no matter what. That was the day I
met Judy Stoller,” she recalled the start of her running career.
“I decided to replace smoking with running and I went to
that track almost every day. It seemed
like it was a few years before I ever lost any weight, but running saved my
life. I had to have something to feel
good about myself and I had to back away from some good friends, but that was
the decision I made,” she continued.
Those were the early days of the running boom when Provident
was sponsoring the Great Heart Run and the series of running clinics designed
to introduce folks to running and the benefits it could offer.
“My first race was the two-miler in the Heart Run that
started and finished at McCallie School.
I knew nothing about running at that time, but I’ll never forget seeing
Alice Evans finishing that 10K and being so impressed with how good she looked,”
It didn’t take long for her to catch the running bug, but
when she did, she became the dominant female runner in the Chattanooga
area. The Chickamauga Chase, Chattanooga
Chase, Missionary Ridge and Chickamauga Battlefield Marathons are just four
races she mentioned as among her favorites, but she had great results at all of
them as she posted some really fast times.
“I’ll never forget the first time I ran the Chickamauga
Chase, back in the day when the face finished on that long road right before
you get back to the museum. I actually
got an age group award that day and I was really surprised when they called out
my name. There weren’t that many women
running in those days.
“I don’t remember much about that first race there, but I
was sitting there with my friend Katye Kelley afterward. Katye was a whole lot more competitive than I
was and it always came so natural to her.
I really had to put a lot of effort into the results I got,” she nodded.
While the seed had been planted with those early trips to
the Red Bank track, it was a new job at the Athletic Attic at Eastgate Mall
that ultimately pushed her to the top.
“I went to work at the Attic when I was a senior at UTC and
that’s where I got to be good friends with people like Jerry Grahn, Gary Crews,
Jane Harvey and Dick Dillard. I later
got to know Paul Southerland as we worked at the outlet over at Four Squares on
Mountain Creek Road.
“Those folks really influenced my running. Paul paced me through the Chickamauga Chase
in 1984 when I won with a 58:15. I ran
even faster the next year, including a 10K personal record during the race,
when I had a 57:15. Despite those times,
I had no concept of what that meant.
“I think the 15K was my favorite distance as you could work
yourself up to a good pace. I also liked
the loop course there,” she smiled.
Debbie was a fast runner, but she was also strong as she
loved hilly courses. Maybe that explains
how she dominated at the Rock City 10K where she was the women’s winner four
years in a row.
“That was another race where Katye and I really battled it
out. I don’t remember my times, but
could always attack an uphill pretty good.
I’m not very good on the downhills,” she explained.
Debbie also had success on another course with rolling hills
at Missionary Ridge. She won there in
1982 with a 30:43 before posting an impressive 29:06 as the women’s winner two
She later got into the marathon mode where she ran a 3:12:44
in her first attempt at the distance on the double loop course at Chickamauga
when the marathon finished at Gordon Lee High School. Not too shabby for a first-timer.
She and her husband Phil ran Boston in 1989 where she had a
3:22. The other seven were all under
3:10, including a PR of 3:06:48 at Chickamauga.
“The marathon I suffered the most was the only one I won at
Chickamauga. It seemed like I was by
myself the whole time and I kept asking Phil if I was still moving forward.
“I never wanted to red-line it in the marathon because I
didn’t want to take the chance of blowing up.
I wasn’t much of a risk taker as I just basically went out and ran my
training pace, but I always tried to run negative splits,” she nodded,
referring to the concept of running faster as the race progresses.
It’s been several years since she ran a race, but she still
runs about 25 miles a week, mostly through the backroads in Red Bank. Her long run is a 10-miler from home on
She had serious surgery on her ankle four years ago and lost
more than a year from her running routine, but she seems to have fully
recovered from that now. She does most
of her running alone and she still likes a good hill from time to time.
She also runs with her friend Jennifer McIntyre on a regular
basis, who is trying to talk her into the Four Bridges Half-Marathon in
October. She hasn’t committed to that
one way or the other just yet.
Today, she’s still happily married to Phil – they’ll
celebrate their 31st anniversary in September – and she’s an
administrative assistant at Parkridge Outpatient Physical Therapy.
She and Phil don’t have any children, but it’s like going to
the Old McDonald Farm – E-I-E-I-O—when you go to their house and observe all of
the animals, including four dogs, three cats and two miniature donkeys named
Shorty and Tater.
Two miniature donkeys?
How did they enter the picture?
“We were keeping my
sister’s horse over here a few years back and got the first one as a companion
animal for the horse. The second one
came from the Red Bank Police Department as they thought ours had escaped and
they brought him back. As it turned out,
the original owners weren’t very responsible, so that’s when we got the second
one,” she laughed.
It was really fun to sit and talk about those early days
with Phil and Debbie, recalling training runs and various races we ran
together. What started out as a one-hour
interview turned into a three-hour visit, but what a wonderful time we had
remembering those early days.
Life is treating Phil and Debbie really good these days and
Debbie says she has nothing on her bucket list that she can think of.
“I really enjoy the life we have these days,” she concluded.
(This is the 21st in the series of runners in the
Chattanooga area, including members of the Chattanooga Track Club. If you have someone who you think might make
an interesting story, email John Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org)