Hank Brown went from Tri-Cities road racer to world-class race organizer

Tony Casey • Sep 10, 2013 at 10:48 AM

For years, Kingsport’s Hank Brown was the guy crossing the finish line.

With a great deal of accolades as one the area’s top distance runners in the 1980s, sporting personal-best times of 15 minutes, 37 seconds, in the 5,000-meter distance and 32:39 in the 10,000 meters, Brown has moved on and assumed a different role in the local running community.

He and his wife of nearly 14 years, Natalie Whitlock, own a local race timing company, We Run Events, and are the backbone of many of the Tri-Cities’ bread and butter road races, developing some into world-class events. It was Brown, now 58, who was working for Eastman when he laid out the modern Eastman Road Race course in the early 1990s, and developed it into the site for the U.S. road 10k championships in 1993 and 1994, an endeavor of which he’s very proud.

“I didn’t know anything about U.S. track and field at the time,” Brown said. “Eastman was looking to identify itself, and I went to them to host the U.S. road 10k championships, made the calls, and they went for it and they awarded us the championships.”

From there, Brown put focus on the event he calls “his baby,” the Crazy 8s road race — a world-class nearly 5-mile race in Kingsport. From 1990, Crazy 8s’ first year, it was tweaked into a course that is well known by some of the best runners on the planet as the world’s fastest.

In the 1996 installment of the race, Kenya’s Peter Kithuka crossed the Crazy 8s’ finish line in 22:02.2 for a men’s world record at the distance, and six years later, Asmae Leghzaoui of Morocco ran 24:27.8 to set a women’s world record. Both records still stand.

Brown’s baby is an event that can include upward of 4,000 participants, but he also cherishes putting on races for as few as 60 people. He says his aim is to give back to the sport that treated him so well when he was competing.

“I like to think I do it for the right reasons,” Brown said. “Not for the money, as corny as it sounds, but I like to give back the support that’s been given to me.”

And support he gives. His timing team puts on around 60 races per year. Since road racing is a mostly weekend activity, Brown, who has a day job as an accountant at Alpha Natural Resources, doesn’t find many weekends for himself. But he says that’s the way he likes it.

Whether it’s getting participants to finish their first race or to help a charity, Brown, Whitlock and their team are always there to provide support to the running community.

Debi Secor, president of the local State of Franklin Track Club, says she does more than 20 of Brown’s races each year, and knows what she and other runners can expect from his events.

“He’s very well organized, and you know it’s always going to be a great event,” Secor said. “He’s so fast with everything he does, from the legalities of it all, to laying out courses. I think it all comes from when he raced so much growing up.”

Although week in and week out, he’s the main person putting on a large, multifaceted event, Brown says he’s often complimented as being a calm person, often being the one to coach race directors through their event.

One thing he’s been able to embrace has been change within the sport. He’s seen a surge in participation, and has had a good eye for accepting technology changes. When other timing companies were fighting tooth and nail against headphone and MP3 player use during races, Brown said he recognized early on that it wouldn’t be a fad that would die out, and allowed them in his races.

Changing technology has been a fun thing for Brown to work with even though he doesn’t consider himself a “tech guy,” giving that credit to Whitlock.

At this year’s Crazy 8s, a new feature allowing finishers to receive text messages with their results instantly as they crossed the line was a success, and something Brown sees as being a standard feature in road races of the future.

Whitlock and Brown both voice their intentions to put on the best races they can, and also help grow the sport by bringing in new participants.

“We try to reach out to the people who’ve just started running,” Whitlock said. “A 16-minute 5k runner, 30-minute 5k runner or a 45-minute 5k runner, we try to pull in everyone and make them feel welcome.”

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