They had a race for the ages at Missionary Ridge Saturday morning.
The course record of 23:07 was never in doubt, but front runners John Gilpin and Christian Thompson put on quite a show.
The Chattanooga Track Club has been holding footraces like this for more than 50 years, but never in the history of the club has an overall finish been so close.
The 31-year-old Thompson was the two-time defending champ for this popular and challenging event that starts and finishes at Bragg Reservation and runs out and back on South Crest Road.
His winning time from last August was a blistering 23:49 while Gilpin had finished a disappointing third with a time of 25:15.
These guys are two of the fastest members of the club and have great success on the roads with winning times to prove it. Saturday’s race was 4.7 miles, but the winner wasn’t determined until the final step.
Gilpin, the 27-year-old physical therapist who was a standout at UTC a few years back, was the chaser for most of the race, but never by more than two or three steps. Thompson, the talented and speedy manager at Fleet Feet, decided to make his move, trying to create a gap as the two climbed that challenging hill approaching the four-mile mark.
Thompson was ahead by a step as they rounded that final curve before making the turn into Bragg Reservation and his lead stretched another step as they raced down that stretch on the lower side. It was a gut check for them both as they tried to gain the upper hand on those last two turns less than 100 yards from the finish line.
With both young men literally running for their life at the end, it was impossible for the spectators to determine who the overall winner was. Thank goodness for electrical timing devices that awarded the victory to Gilpin with a time of 24 minutes, 32.64 seconds.
Thompson was a close, close runner-up, a hundredth of a second back.
Kevin Huwe, who was fourth a year ago, claimed third this time with a 25:26 while Joseph Wilson and Noah Cochran completed the first five with times of 26:24 and 27:54, respectively.
The women’s race was intense as well, but nothing like the guys as Haley Moody prevailed with a time of 29 minutes, 49 seconds to finish ninth overall in a field that attracted 265 finishers on a hot and muggy late summer morning.
Jennifer Huwe, Kevin’s wife who was the runner-up last year, finished second again with a time of 30:14, which was 47 seconds faster than 2018.
Rachel Nokes was third among the ladies and 22nd overall in 33:09 while Meredith Zinke and Margaret Fitch were fourth and fifth with times of 34:16 and 34:47, respectively.
Sergio Bianchini and Willard Thrash shared the Arnold Godwin Award honoring the oldest runner in the race. Both are 78. Bianchini crossed the line in 41:26 while Thrash came across in 51:06.
Last year, Thompson and his lovely wife Paige were the overall winners. Ironically, Gilpin and his girlfriend Moody were the overall winners on Saturday. Paige served as a cheerleader for her husband and the other runners as she’s pregnant with the couple’s first child due in September.
Both Gilpin and Thompson know what it takes to win under intense conditions like unfolded on Saturday. Their times may not have shown it, but both completely laid it on the line as they raced for the finish line for all they were worth.
Both had to pause for several minutes at the end to catch their breath after giving each other a post-race hug and congratulations for outstanding efforts.
“That hurt a lot,” Gilpin said a few minutes later.
“Christian was really pulling hard at the end and I almost lost my footing on that turn,” he said, pointing to the lower corner on the right of the back stretch that is deceptively steep and has a dangerous drainage pipe in the worst place.
“I just had to go as hard as I could the rest of the way. I felt like I had a chance to win if I could get around that last turn first. I just had to hang on and run absolutely as hard as I possibly could,” Gilpin suggested.
Thompson, who just turned 31 on July 2, didn’t offer any apologies for finishing second. He had come amazingly close to Adam Pinkston’s course record set in 1986 for the past two years, but weather conditions on Saturday turned the event into more of a tactical race than one of pure speed.
“That was hard,” Thompson said after pouring a cold bottle of water on his head and down his back while talking to his wife and other running buddies afterward.
“I ran slower today than I have in a while because of the humidity as I was behind for most of the race. I tried to make a move after we passed the fourth mile and was hoping to create a gap, but that just didn’t happen.
“We were both wanting the inside on those last two turns and I ran as fast as I could to get there. John was just better today. Paige and I are heading to Kiawah Island for a week and I’m sure I’ll run some there, but I’m going to take it easy for a couple of days,” he concluded.
Moody is a 30-year-old attorney who works for Miller and Martin law firm. She’s a 2011 graduate of the University of Alabama who has really been working hard to get back in race shape after a tough but successful career in Tuscaloosa.
She was third a year ago with a time of 32:16, but she was more than ready for Saturday’s challenge from the course and the weather.
“I’m just trying to catch my breath,” he expressed shortly after claiming the 100 dollar prize for being the overall female winner.
“I came here today knowing that I wanted to win, but I also knew that Jennifer would be tough to beat. We train together some and have become good friends, but I also know how fast she is. I was just thankful that I had enough of a lead to be able to hang on.
“I was hoping to be closer to 29 minutes. A faster time would have made me happier, but I’m pleased with the win,” she nodded.
Jennifer Huwe is a quality control person for McKee who “taste tests Little Debbie cakes for a living.” She’s a 29-year-old running veteran who just seems to get faster and faster as the days pass. Despite finishing second again, this young lady was all smiles after it ended.
“That was almost a minute faster than last year, so I’m happy about that,” she began.
“Haley had me from the start and I never caught up as I chased her the entire way. But for a hot and muggy morning, I’m pleased. I might have gone out faster if I had it to do over, but I’m still not sure I could have kept up,” she concluded.
Kevin Huwe has been in Colorado in recent weeks, but came back to Chattanooga in time to run the third-oldest race on the CTC schedule. He could have started faster, but under the race conditions, it might not have been a smart idea.
“I’m happy with it as I was 31 seconds faster than last year,” the 32-year-old gentleman expressed later.
“I was happy with how I felt. I really needed to start out slower. I could have run with John and Christian for a couple of miles, but I would have paid for it, so I stuck with my original plan.
“They ran slower too and I could see them for most of the race, which made running with them even more tempting than I expected. But they put the hammer down in the last mile and I couldn’t see them at all at the end,” he said.
THE TOP THREE finishers for both males and females took home prize money of $100, $65 and $35.
THE CAM RUN is the next local race and this fourth annual 5K will be held on Moccasin Bend Road on August 24. It’s held in memory of Cameron Bean, a talented Chattanooga runner who was killed by a car while on a training run four years ago. The top 25 overall male and female finishers also qualify for the Magnum Mile that will be held at GPS later that day.
(Email John Hunt at email@example.com)