Tennessee may be the perfect place to trail run. The rolling terrain of the Smoky Mountains is a natural playground that has inspired many runners to run farther and farther. Count Tony Owens among those who have taken their running to the next level by competing in ultra marathons.
“In a phrase, laid back,” says Tony, when asked to explain the vibe of the east Tennessee running scene. “And that’s the biggest difference between off-road running and on-road running, especially when you get to the more competitive level. When you get to the competitive level for road runners, it’s all about the nutrition and the time and the miles, whereas ultra runners, trail runners, mountain runners, you know, we’re all laid back, even the fast ones, we don’t worry about what we eat, we all drink to excess, (laughs) not really, but uhm, the culture itself is a whole lot more relaxed, especially when you get to the people who run mountains and longer distances. I’m not sure if the long distances distill out all the nonsense or what, but they’re super laid back and you’re generally not gonna get them bent out of shape or anything, and they’re a lot friendlier. At a mountain race, everybody’s talking to everybody. After the race, everyone goes over to the cooler, cracks open a beer, and talks about whatever.”
Part of what makes the outdoors community so tight is the relationship between athletes, specifically runners and mountain bikers.
“What’s also unique about this area is that runners and mountain bikers have a really good, almost symbiotic relationship, partially because mountain bikers are motivated to build trails, that way they can ride on them,” says Owens “Whereas if horseback riders or runners build trails, you get what like happened in the Smokies, the horseback riders were really involved in the building of trails in the Smokies and lobbied early early on, when Roosevelt was involved, so they could ride horses on them (exclusively). Runners build a lot of the trails. Our trail series is all non-profit, 50% of the proceeds from the last couple of years have gone to the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club, because they do a lot of the trail building for us.”
Owens is as much focused on the community as he is his own running goals. When asked what some of his more memorable events have been, he said, “From a mountain running/trail running perspective, probably my first 100 miler. Just because it was so far beyond what I thought I could do. Once your brain figures out you can do something, you’re good, but the first time you do something like that, you’re brain’s telling you you can’t do this, you’ve never done this before, or whatever, so it was tough. It was down in Alabama, on the Pinhoti 100, and it’s still probably one of the few hundos that I’d do again.”
Tony continues to run races of all distances and when asked what his goals are for the future, it’s no surprise that some of the marquee ultra marathons far from home came to mind.
“I’d like to do Western States, it’s a hundred miler in California, wouldn’t mind doing the Leadville, a hundred miler in Colorado,” says Owens. “The Vermont Trail 100 is on my bucket list.”
As a final thought, RootsRated asked Tony if running 100 mile races is as crazy as some people think it is.
“They might be right (laughs). I was talking to Stewart Ellington who’s a local roadrunning star—he’s won the Knoxville Marathon a couple times—I was talking to him after the state cross country meet and he thinks we’re nuts and he runs marathons—really fast! But I mean, if you’re doing this it’s because you enjoy it. You enjoy being in the mountains. You enjoy the challenge. You enjoy your brain telling you that you can’t do it and you telling your brain, oh yes I can. And it’s therapy.”