The annual Karen Lawrence Run for St. Jude has become the Chris Berry New Year's Eve Cruise.
The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga senior runner followed up his recent appearance in the NCAA Division I cross country meet by winning the 33rd Lawrence Run in downtown Chattanooga for the second year in a row and the third time in four years Saturday evening. He didn't participate in 2009.
Berry's winning time in the race billed as a 4-miler but stretching at least 4.5 this year was 21 minutes, 56 seconds. He won in 20:09 last year and 21:07 in 2008.
For the second year in a row his closest challenger was from the Lee University program, this time recent Flame Caleb Morgan from Walker Valley in 23:35, following Mike Walker as the 2010 runner-up. Patrick Hall was third in 23:56.
The women's winner Saturday was a repeat victor also, albeit seven years since her last time in the race. That was Atlanta's Leah Moore Thomas, a 34-year-old former UTC athlete who married local Mocs runner Dwight Thomas and had two children since her 2004 Lawrence triumph.
While Berry just began getting back to full training this week following his marriage to the Lady Mocs' Tara Gietema, Thomas was making a return to competitive running in her 27:29, 15th-overall showing. She's been a pacer for runners in the Atlanta Marathon and Half Marathon and has run some 5ks "for fun," but this was her first effort at a competitive win in years.
"My watch had the course as 4.6 miles," she said, "so I was real happy with my time. It's been so long since I put myself out there, so this was a good effort for me."
Her husband and children were on the course cheering her on, and her father-in-law, Doyle Thomas, ran the race.
"I like the length and it comes at a good time, when we're up here visiting my husband's family, so this was nice," Leah Thomas said.
Berry also spoke fondly of the holiday event.
"I've always enjoyed it," the 22-year-old from Murfreesboro said. "It comes at a good time as we shift from cross country to track, and it's a nice course. And I really like it at night."
With remarkable weather, the main race's field exceeded last year's by more than 100 runners, according to race director Benji Cordell - "We're really happy about that," he said - but no one threatened Berry.
"I just kind of went out from the gun and didn't really slow down," Berry said. "I've been building up mileage this week. After I cool down from this race, I'll be at about 85 miles for this week."
The Mocs' first indoor track event will be the second week in January.