You’d think he ran a marathon the other day or something.
He did, and he won. On Oct. 27, Penny, 26, won the Atlanta Marathon in 2 hours, 39 minutes, 4 seconds, which was about 12 minutes faster than his closest competitor. The race had just less than 1,000 finishers, and gave Penny a prime opportunity to break his personal-best time over the 26.2-mile distance. He’d previously run a 2:45 marathon a few years before and was eager going into the race to have a chance to smash his time. Smash it he did.
Early on in the race, around the two-mile mark, he found himself in the place distance runners refer to as “no man’s land,” where no one is around you, and you’re really only racing yourself and the clock. Knowing he didn’t have to worry about anything but the rolling hills of the course, he was able to stick to his plan of negative-splitting the race, where you run the second half quicker than the first half. This is a much easier task in shorter races, but Penny accomplished exactly what he set out to do, going through the midway point in 1:19:56 and bringing it home in 1:19:08 for the second half.
Penny hit a faster second half even though he hit what marathoners call “the wall,” which is where the body shuts down from exhaustion and muscles don’t fire the same way they did earlier on. The best way to combat, or at least delay, this fatigue is to take in as many high-quality carbohydrates in your system as possible.
Penny, a physical therapist by profession, said he was taking as many forms of energy into his body as he could. He ate energy gels and bars in the early and mid-stages. He said he got the biggest boost when his wife, Lenora, handed him some fuel at the 12-mile mark, where he was also able to see his baby girl, Emerson. His GPS watch readout says for miles 15-19, he hit 5:42, 5:41, 5:49, 5:57 and 5:44, clearly on his way to a solid finish.
After eating a banana at mile 20, he held as close to six-minute flat miles as possible, only slowing on the hills in the last few miles. When he crossed the line, his 2:39:04 carried an average of about 6:04 per mile, almost 25 minutes quicker than the Boston Marathon qualifying time for someone of his age.
This wasn’t Penny’s first race. He’s been running in races since he was a youngster, collecting state records over various distances through his early age. His parents, Mike and Debra, he said, were a wealth of support and are the reason he’s where he is today.
He took a little time away from running around the beginning of high school to participate in other sports, but came into running form for his junior and senior years at David Crockett High School under coach Mike Sweeney and hit his stride. He established himself as one of the region’s standout distance runners and went on to sign with East Tennessee State University under legendary coach Dave Walker.
“He’s a great man. He taught me how to win,” Penny says of Walker. “It’s not the details. Winning was the bottom line, and that includes winning in the classroom, too.”
To say ETSU runners have an impressive history under Walker would be understating it by a mile.
Just to name a few Walker-trained ETSU athletes who continued onto running greatness, Ray Flynn represented Ireland in two Olympic Games, logging a personal best of 3:49 in the mile. He’s still a world record holder in the 4x1-mile record relay, which has survived since 1985. Mark Finucane was one of the fastest marathoners on the planet in the early 1980s alongside of Louis Kenny, who was the Irish record holder at the marathon distance.
The accolades of former running Bucs are out of this world. But they also pride themselves in staying in touch with today’s distance squads.
This year’s set of harriers are carrying on that successful tradition of winning. The men’s cross county team is competing today for its second consecutive conference championship. Winning the conference title is something Penny knows well.
Penny said the highlight of his college career started in the fall of his junior year, when he and his Bucs took the Atlantic Sun Conference title in cross country, before winning in both indoor and outdoor track to win what Penny called “the triple crown.”
These accomplishments are immortalized on a fat conference championship ring Penny wears when the mood strikes him.
The winning didn’t stop in college. Penny’s won almost every one of the area’s top-tier races, including the Bluegrass Half Marathon on three occasions, the Haunted Half Marathon, the Chasing Snakes 10K, the Eastman 10K Road Race, the Blue Plum 5K, the Up and At ’Em Turkey Trot and more. He’s the course record holder of the Bluegrass Half Marathon and Chasing Snakes 10K races, and boasts personal-best times of 15:25 for the 5K and 70:48 for the half marathon distance.
Traveling to races near and far away have been fun for the Penny family. Mrs. Penny said she loves all the places J’s running has brought them and has given them a good opportunity to show their daughter different places on the map.
As for those quick times, Penny attributes any success he’s had to the area in which he grew up. Unlike other areas in the country, he says, there’s really no dead period here for runners, saying it always seems there are three races to choose from on any given weekend.
Penny’s winning ways have been recognized by one of the area’s most prominent race directors, Hank Brown of We Run Events. Brown grew up racing in the area, much like Penny, tallying victories in local road races.
“As long as I can remember, we’ve always had great runners in this area,” Brown said. “J pretty much grew up running the local road races and helped continue that tradition.”
Since graduating from ETSU, Penny’s life has changed quite a bit, but he still gets out the door for runs.
“It’s a whole different world, getting married, having a kid, working a full-time job, getting a new house,” Penny said. “It’s harder to get your butt out of bed in the morning for a run.”
But getting his butt out of bed hasn’t been a problem. Penny still carries his “quality over quantity” training regime from college, running most of his miles at nearly his marathon pace, taking a few days off a week instead of logging junk mileage.
What’s next for Penny? He’s already signed up for another marathon in just a few months, and plans on lowering that marathon time even more.