J Penny, the reigning Atlanta Marathon winner, is considered the favorite in today’s inaugural Mentoring Marathon.
The course will begin and end at Winged Deer Park, a 26.2-mile journey featuring a lap around Bristol Motor Speedway and a mile-long stretch of Bristol Dragway.
Penny, a former runner at East Tennessee State and David Crockett, has run 18 miles of the course in preparation.
“It’s not an easy course by any means,” he said. “If you make it to mile 22 you’ve got it beat. The last four miles from Piney Flats are not bad. ...
“At the halfway mark you’re on the dragstrip. So at least that’ll be flat.”
The marathon begins at 7 a.m. Penny would like to finish some 160 minutes later, though he says he’s not in the peak condition he displayed last fall in Atlanta.
“It was a tough winter in East Tennessee as far as running goes,” he said. “It was miserable. So I wasn’t able to keep the miles up.”
Still, Penny is confident he can set a respectable pace and triumph in the debut event.
“That’s what I want to do -— win the first one,” he said. “I did the Bluegrass (Half Marathon) for the same reason. ... But there’s no telling who might show up. There could be some guys from Asheville or Boone who can really run.”
Marathon organizer Karen Hubbs said one entrant is coming from Maryland. She said 54 had entered through Thursday. Twenty of those are running their first marathon.
Hubbs said a few who ran the Boston Marathon will apparently run today. The Mentoring Marathon is an official qualifier for next year’s Boston Marathon.
“I’ve had several emails from people that didn’t like their time in Boston and wanted to come run ours,” she said. “One of the nice things is we’re one of the only marathons in May.”
Hubbs hopes the marathon will become a staple event for a region rich in running history, much of which can be credited to the late Dave Walker, who had a Hall of Fame career coaching at ETSU.
“I think about Coach Walker about every time I put on my shoes to go run,” Penny said. “I’ll think about him when I’m out there for about two and a half hours running Saturday.”
Hubbs said businesses, non-profit organiations and volunteers will work water stations that’ll be set up a mile apart. Helping generate support, the station voted the best afterward will be given $1,000.
Future marathons will likely include cash for runners, according to Hubbs. She would like to triple or quadruple the number of participants next year.
In many respects, this is a trial run, albeit a considerable undertaking that’s required the cooperation of three police departments, planning departments and EMS units, TDOT, Summers-Taylor and Wellmont.
“We do feel like next year’s going to be bigger and better,” Hubbs said. “This year we’re ... seeing what works, what doesn’t work.”
Penny sees today’s event as the birth of a potentially special tradition, and he intends to put his brand on its beginning.
“I’m excited for the marathon,” Penny said. “I didn’t plan on running a marathon in May, by any means. But since it’s here in our backyard I figured I can’t miss out on the first year of it, for sure.”
Any marathoner makes for an inspirational sight, and Johnson City’s Allison Russell will certainly be no exception today. Russell, who has lost in excess of 100 pounds, is one of those registered for the marathon.
There is also a 5K that will use the same course, going from Winged Deer to Edgefield Road and back. It begins at 8 a.m.
Race-day registration is available for both events. Hubbs can be contacted at email@example.com