Wiedmer: Jane Ensign steals show at 50th Chattanooga Chase

And the last shall be first.

At least it sure seemed that way Monday morning at the 50th annual Chattanooga Chase event in Riverview. All but one of the 812 entrants having completed either the 8-kilometer race, 1-mile fun run or both long before 89-year-old Jane Ensign neared the finish line in the fun run, the stage was suddenly and rightfully hers alone.

At that moment, anyone and everyone within sight of the finish line began to cheer loudly and clap as Ensign - with the aid of a walker - moved briskly toward the giant inflatable arc that signaled the race's end. Exactly 26 minutes and nine seconds after she took her first steps, she completed her race, presumably setting a Tennessee state record for her age.

"It's easy to break a record if you're the only one out there," Ensign said with a grin.

Said her 49-year-old son, Peter: "She tried to run, but I wouldn't let her."

Countered Jane: "I was trying, though."

Though 54-year-old son Tim recently broke a five-minute mile for a 40th straight year, breaking his elbow at the end of that accomplishment, Jane Ensign didn't start this competitive run/walk stuff until 2011.

"I've never been athletic at all," she mused.

But she's obviously tough and tenacious, which is something of a necessity in the sport of running.

"It's a challenge, but I like challenges," said 71-year-old Sue Anne Brown, long one of Chattanooga's most passionate tennis players and runners. "Life is about ups and downs, and there's a lot of ups and downs on this race course."

This was Brown's 42nd Chattanooga Chase race. Her first one came in 1972. She estimates that no more than 60 runners participated back then. Thanks in part to race chairman Alan Outlaw, that number was more than 12 times that for the 50th.

Chattanooga Football Club chairman Tim Kelly, who recently turned 50 himself, entered the 8k "just to get the (commemorative) T-shirt."

Outlaw, who co-owns Fast Break Athletics, has certainly raised the number of Chattanooga Chase T-shirts that need printing. Two years ago there were barely 160 registered racers. Monday there were five times that, despite Outlaw's assertion that "this is not a rock 'n' roll race, this is not a Disney race. You're coming out here to breathe and focus. Hopefully, you'll love it."

Mayes Starke fell in love with East Tennessee more than 45 years ago. A native of Marietta, Ga., he graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1977, just as his father had before him and his two sons would later. He's now 61 and living on Lookout Mountain, and this was his second Chase as a participant.

"To have close to one thousand people come out on a Memorial Day weekend for this is fabulous," he said of those who ran and those who came to cheer them on. "I was shocked by all the cowbells people brought out. What a great event. I think Chattanooga is unique in that aspect."

There aren't too many runners more unique than 76-year-old Sergio Bianchini, who is on the Chattanoga Track Club's board of directors.

Though he didn't start running until he was 60, his son Marco - also a noted distance runner - couldn't beat him for 10 years. Even so, Bianchini said Monday, somewhat in jest, "Now I'm declining. I used to beat everybody 50 and up."

No one beat University of Tennessee at Chattanooga rising junior John Payne, who won the 8k with relative ease in a time of 26:53.

Asked if his parents were even alive when the first Chattanooga Chase was staged in 1967, the 20-year-old chemical engineering major said his father was.

Yet wherever these athletes of all ages finished, their stories are the ultimate beauty of running. It's really you against you as much as it is you against anyone else. Can you better your previous best? Can you find joy in those attempts, whatever your result according to a clock watch?

A few seconds after Jane Ensign crossed the finished line, a male runner in his 40s approached.

"Thank you for inspiring me," he said.

Replied Ensign with a warm smile: "I'm glad to do it."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at [email protected]