Rodney Stoker is hard to beat and it doesn’t matter if it’s on a road or a slick trail on the side of Lookout Mountain.
The 41-year-old Stoker won the Sports Barn Turkey Trot 8K on Thanksgiving and he made his return to the 33rd annual Wauhatchie Trail Run on Saturday a successful one as he caught 10-time winner Tim Ensign in the final quarter mile to win the challenging and scenic 6.7-mile trail run with an official time of 36 minutes, two seconds.
Ensign was second some 10 seconds later while Nashville’s Hunter Hall was third overall in 39:20.
Lisa Logan, that friendly and outgoing 45-year-old assistant principal at Ringgold High School, was the female overall winner as she finished eighth with a time of 41:44 to beat runner-up Jennifer Huwe, who was next in 43:24. Mary Ballinger was third in 46:10 and 15th overall.
This race is unique in that it's handicapped by age and gender. It's also held on the side of Lookout Mountain with several challenging climbs, although the start and finish at the Chattanooga Nature Center are both relatively flat.
It was bone-chilling cold when the first runners took off, but there was plenty of sunshine and very little wind, so conditions were actually pretty close to perfect.
The 55-year-old Ensign had a head start of 7:30 while Stoker was only given an advantage of 2:45. The former UTC star who is now working in the summer camp program at McCallie openly said before the race began that he “absolutely will not be able to catch Tim Ensign today.”
Stoker put forth his best effort and really shifted into another gear on the downhills, but he didn’t pass Ensign until the final quarter mile when the finish line was in sight.
“That hurt,” said Stoker, who was the overall winner in this race in 2000 and currently has the second and third fastest times on the course.
“I tried to be as quiet as I could, but he turned back in the last mile and saw me coming. I was pretty aggressive from the start and I really suffered going up that first long hill, but I went as hard as I could on the downhills.
“Even with less than two miles to go, I really didn’t think I would catch him, but I went as hard as I could and caught him with about 200 meters to go. I’m sure I’ll be sore tomorrow, but that was fun,” the former coach at Bryan College and UT-Knoxville expressed.
Ensign had won this race 10 times in previous years, including five in a row from 2010-14. Even at the age of 55, he’s still really fast and doesn’t need an advantage. He thought that the 4:45 jump on Stoker would be enough, but he couldn’t quite hold his friend off at the end.
“That was a tough one and a bitter way to lose,” Ensign said while relaxing inside after the race ended.
“I never saw him the entire time, but Rodney is a great runner and I shouldn’t be surprised that he caught me. I fell along the way and that sort of took me out of my rhythm, but Rodney ran a great race and I don’t feel too bad losing to him,” Ensign nodded.
Logan is a regular at Chattanooga Track Club events and she prefers running on the road most of the time, but she’s run this race for the past six years and was finally rewarded for another strong effort.
“I’m really excited as I never expected to be the women’s overall winner,” she blurted shortly after crossing the finish line.
“The weather was a little cold at the start, but it was about perfect for running after I got warm. I was all by myself about the halfway mark when about eight or 10 deer ran across the trail in front of me. That was a wonderful experience.
“Now that this race is out of the way, I’m ready for Christmas now. I thought one of those younger girls would catch me at the end, so I ran as hard as I could for the last mile and a half,” Logan nodded.
Jennifer Huwe is a 28-year-old Chattanoogan who works in quality control at Little Debbie. Like Ensign, she took a tumble along the way, but didn’t lose much time because of it.
“That was a great race for me today. I started off cold, but got warmer the further we went. I fell about the halfway mark on some frosted leaves, but I never saw her,” she said in reference to Logan finishing right in front of her.
Jennifer’s husband Kevin was sixth overall in 41:08, so combined with her time of 43:24, they were the overall family winner.
“I went by Fast Break earlier this week and Joey Howe told me that the Cheeseman’s wouldn’t be running this year. We knew we had a shot, so we worked really hard to win it,” Jennifer smiled, referring to Carter Cheeseman and his mother Cathy, who now live in Texas after winning the family award in 2016.
Stoker was Hall’s college coach at Bryan. The 29-year-old Hall ran a 2:31 marathon in Indianapolis about six weeks ago, but he ran his best time ever on this course Saturday.
“I love this race as it has become a Christmas tradition for me, the Fleet Feet sales associate explained later.
“I ran this course on Thanksgiving with my dog and I did a few hill repeats, but today was my best time here. I just wanted to come out and run hard. That’s what I did,” he said.
While Stoker and the Huwes earned the prestigious Golden Antler trophies as the two big winners, 71-year-old Sue Anne Brown captured the Jean McHugh Horgan Award as the first participant to reach the one-mile mark.
Mrs. Horgan passed away in August at the tender age of 89, but was a long-time participant in this race and had been the first runner to past the one-mile mark five times. Her family decided to honor her with this award.
“This is a hard run, but I felt great most of the way. However, I was ready to be finished when I got to the end. I really had a good run, even though I’ve gotten slower over the years. At least I didn’t fall and get hurt,” she said in reference to the race in 1997 when she fell about midway and broke her arm.
Brown had a head start of 30:45 and finished 32nd overall with a time of 53:35.
Dean Thompson and Jan Gautier were the defending champions, but neither were present on Saturday.
(Email John Hunt at email@example.com)