The Covenant Knoxville Marathon has been held every spring since 2005, and the event reflects Knoxville’s relatively short but impressive history in the world of running.
Rarely mentioned in Knoxville’s earliest years, the footrace became more common in the late 1800s, often as an event to celebrate a holiday, like the Fourth of July or Labor Day, at Fountain City Park or Chilhowee Park, where thousands assembled for holiday picnics. Most races were very short distances of 100 yards or so.
Knoxvillian Ebenezer Alexander (1851-1910), a classics scholar who became U.S. ambassador to Greece, enthusiastically promoted the revival of the Olympic Games in Athens in 1896, and helped organize and host the successful American team. Those games included 100, 400, 800, and 1500 meter races, as well as the world’s first international Marathon. Alexander eventually moved back to Knoxville, but is not known to have organized races here.
Little changed for public competitive running until 1962, when a few running enthusiasts, hosted by Fulton High School coach B.E. Sharp, started the Knoxville Track Club.
The KTC was only a year old when it welcomed a new member, Chicago native Chuck Rohe (b. 1931), who moved to Knoxville to accept a job at the University of Tennessee’s developing track and field program.
During his time in Knoxville, Rohe pushed UT’s track program to regional and even national prominence, both for athletic excellence and popular appeal. He has been called “the Father of Track & Field in the South.”
In the early 1960s, UT didn’t even have its own track. Rohe had to take his team to other tracks in the city, like Evans-Collins Field, a community football field in the Caswell Park area of East Knoxville.
That changed thanks to a local philanthropist. Snack-food tycoon Tom Q. Black (1904-1970) had grown up in Monroe County, running two and a half miles to school. He was good at running, and competed in the early 1920s for Madisonville High, and soon afterward organized a successful track teamat Hiwassee College.
By the 1960s, Black was no longer an athlete, and was in fact a middle-aged businessman with a serious heart condition. But he loved the sport of running, and wanted to do something to help promote it. He befriended Rohe, just as UT was expanding its campus and its athletic program. Black, who was not a UT alumnus, donated a substantial amount toward establishing a modern regulation 440-yard running track. The Tom Black Track was completed in 1966.
During Rohe’s leadership, track meets became popular in Knoxville for the first time, sometimes drawing thousands who came to see both local and national stars compete. In 1969, Tom Black Track hosted a national intercollegiate track meet.
Knoxville witnessed several celebrity runners at Tom Black, including future Olympic gold medalists. In 1974, Ivory Crockett of Missouri broke the world record for the 100-yard dash at Tom Black Track. His 9-second time earned him the title “World’s Fastest Human.”
Meanwhile, the KTC organized public long-distance races, often using available routes like Cherokee Boulevard’s walking trail, along the river in Sequoyah Hills. In 1966, Alabama runner Earl Eblen broke the U.S. record for the 20-kilometer run on the boulevard. In 1972, future Boston Marathon winner Neal Cusack ran a 15-mile event on the same hilly, winding street.
A 1974 Knoxville Marathon, organized by KTC and sometimes described as Tennessee’s first, involved a loop from downtown to Fountain City, along Broadway. Because it attracted only a few participants (18 runners in the first one), runners were obliged to compete alongside traffic, and after a few tries it was deemed too dangerous. Renamed the Smoky Mountain Marathon, the race moved to Oak Ridge and later to Townsend.
Knoxville’s first durable, popular long-distance footrace was KTC’s Expo 10,000, inspired by the upcoming World’s Fair. Launched in 1978, it made a big loop around downtown Knoxville, crossing both the Gay Street and Henley Street bridges, and ending at Market Square. Its first champion was an Irish Olympian named Eddie Leddy.
Co-hosted by KTC, the first permanent Knoxville Marathon, on Mar. 20, 2005, drew 2,500 participants. The winner was Charles Kibiwot, of Kenya, with a time of two hours, 22 minutes, 54 seconds. The first female winner was Irina Bogachova, an Olympic competitor from Kyrgystan, who finished the Knoxville race in two hours, 41 minutes, 40 seconds.
It has become a major local event, but many of its thousands of participants are international. It’s a certified qualifying race for America’s most famous long-distance event, the Boston Marathon.