He demanded success from all of his athletes, and he found some of the best places to run in East Tennessee for his runners. He coached many great runners, including 1972 NCAA cross country individual champion and 1974 Boston Marathon champion Neil Cusack, Irish mile record-holder Ray Flynn and Olympian Ed Leddy, just to name a few.
He was also famously noted by his athletes that he kept the same weekly schedule for runs for his entire 50-year career. One of the most hallowed places to run during his coaching days was the regular Sunday runs on Holston Mountain.
According to his athletes, while Walker was transitioning from helping coach the ETSU football team in the 1960s to coaching the cross country and track teams, he drove around the surrounding area and stumbled upon one of the best and most secluded running routes. The route still remains widely unknown and is a hidden gem among the hills of Carter County.
The run begins just off Highway 19E North going toward Bristol from Elizabethton, up the paved Holston Mountain Road and into the Cherokee National Forest, onto what then became Big Creek Road. Big Creek Road, or “The Old Mountain,” as referred to by some, is a dirt and gravel road that runs about nine miles along the ridge line below the peak of Holston Mountain.
The road corkscrewed up the side of the mountain and was a constant climb for three miles until runners got the top, overlooking the breathtaking view of the valley below, almost 1,000 feet below them.
“The hardest part was the first three miles of climbing, especially if we had gone out the night before after the race,” said J Penny, class of 2009.
After finally cresting the hill, the rest of the 11-mile-long run to the four-way intersection was rolling downhill with gravel roads and a short, paved section around the six-mile mark.
“The first part of the run was survival and the second part of the run was having fun with your teammates,” said Peter Dalton, class of 2006. “There were a lot of great moments and banters on the bus rides to and from the run. We would talk about the run or about the race the day before.”
As many runners tell the story, Walker believed that the first six miles should be done at an under-six-minute-per-mile pace, up a mountain and on the gravel roads. In other words, he wanted the men to reach the six-mile mark at around 36 minutes. The women would be dropped at the three mile mark and do the eight miles to the four-way intersection.
“The mountain runs were always at 1 p.m., which gave athletes time to go to church on Sunday morning. At the beginning of the season, this meant it sometimes was the hottest part of the day,” said Mike Deren, class of 2009. “I always remember that the dust from coach’s van kicking up behind it as we tore through the mountain. Even though the runs were supposed to be ‘easy,’ no matter how slow you ran, they were always challenging with the elevation gain.”
“I remember one time Dennis Stark and I had a good run on the mountain,” said Gerry Duffy, class of 1985. “We had gotten in a fight at Poor Richards the night before and we were mad. The next morning, Dennis took off up the mountain and the others encouraged me to go after him. We were back and forth the whole way and we ran about 62 minutes across the 11 miles. We just barely missed Neil Cusack’s record at 61 minutes. The fight was forgotten about because we had such a good run.”
Coach Walker would take splits at certain points along the run and he would shout “motivational” sayings at runners if they were not running their best like, “Must’ve had too good of a Saturday night.” This was all in good fun though, at least for Walker.
The road remains widely unchanged for the past 50-plus years and is still in great condition, except for a large pothole that took out part of the paved section just before the six-mile mark in early June that has forced part of the road to be closed.
“There’s not a better place to run in East Tennessee,” Duffy said.