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Soon enough, a lei of colorful plastic flowers holding a hot-pink piece of cardboard stamped with the number 200 would hang around his neck. Friends, family and onlookers would clap and cheer. The race announcer at the Erlanger Chattanooga Marathon would say something about "The Truman Show."

But first, 73-year-old Truman Smith of Hixson had to officially cross the finish line just outside the First Horizon Pavilion on Sunday afternoon, which would be the 200th time he had completed a 26.2-mile race, having entered his first marathon in 1987.

"This is the greatest feeling on earth, finishing one alive," he would say upon completing the race in a solid time of five hours, 25 minutes and 12 seconds. "I always feel awesome when I finish."

Finishing the fifth annual Chattanooga Marathon in less than six hours (the time limit for the result to count) was the goal of more than 1,500 folks from as far away as Idaho and as close as East Ridge. When Smith first began running marathons in the late 1980s, his goal was to complete them in four hours or less. Now the goal is five hours, which he accomplished a year ago with a time of 4:57.

"I got out too fast this time," he said. "The secret is being able to hold back at the beginning."

The real beginning of his love of distance running began from a desire to obtain a Peachtree Road Race T-shirt.

"This was back in 1983," Smith recalled. "The only way you could get a T-shirt was to finish the race."

A 10-kilometer race through downtown Atlanta that annually attracts more than 60,000 participants on the Fourth of July, Smith eventually ran in 20 straight Peachtree Road Races, with makes for a pretty good collection of T-shirts.

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Staff photo / Hixson's Truman Smith, shown in 2010, has run a marathon not only in each of the 50 states in this country but at least one on each of the seven continents.

His first marathon came four years later with the Chattanooga Track Club's Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon in 1987, when he was 40. He ran six more marathons over the next five or six years before taking an extended break to watch his and Cheryl's three children — Matthew, David and Anna — grow up, which means he has completed 193 marathons since 2003, when he returned to running.

"I average about 12 a year," Smith said. "I guess my new goal would be to finish 300, but I don't know if I have time left to do it. So far, I've been blessed with good body parts. But a bad knee, a bad ankle could end all this."

The 200 marathons to date have taken him all over the world, to all seven continents.

"My favorite was probably Big Sur (in California)," he said. "The toughest was the Great Wall of China. I'm a street runner as opposed to a trail runner. And that was a really rough course. You really had to pick up your feet."

A longtime teacher at both Nolan and Thrasher elementary schools on Signal Mountain, Cheryl's job has kept her from traveling with Truman on most of his out-of-town trips. So his bride of 48 years missed the six days he lived in a tent during his Mount Kilimanjaro Marathon in Tanzania. As well as his marathon in Antarctica. The one in Berlin. And Rio.

"But I loved Iceland," she said. "It was wonderful, not at all what I'd expected."

Given his somewhat modest athletic accomplishments prior to running, no one could have predicted that Smith, a retired electrical engineer who worked at TVA and first moved to Chattanooga 50 years ago, would become such a fixture on the Scenic City's track scene.

"I played side-yard football growing up in Jasper, Alabama," said Smith, who was born in Texas. "When I came here, I got involved in power (weight) lifting in the 198-pound class. I could bench press 330, squat 395 and dead lift 455."

But as he approached his 40s, he noticed the largest number of entrants in the distance races were men in their mid-30s to mid-40s.

"I think that's when you start worrying about your health," he said.

Plus, there were all those cool T-shirts to win. So he started running, not unlike the movie character Forrest Gump, another product of Alabama.

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Staff photo / Truman Smith is shown in April 2013, not long after running a marathon in Antarctica to complete at least one 26.2-mile race on each of the seven continents.

And on a chilly Sunday morning beneath a clear blue sky, Smith reached a milestone achieved by few, cheered on by his fellow racers, friends and family, including grandchildren Luke, Evan, Callie, Christopher, Caroline, Susanna, Preston and Ryder. A post-race party in his honor at Naked River Brewing Company was planned to continue the fun, including cupcakes that were to feature his face on them.

Said 69-year-old friend and fellow runner Mike Martin, who finished the race in 5:17.51 while decked out in his beloved University of Virginia attire: "That's my hero."

In an age of growing obesity and the long-term health problems that come with it, anyone choosing to embrace a healthy, active lifestyle should be viewed as a hero of sorts.

But at 73, now 200 completed marathons in the books and his knees and ankles still strong, why keep going? After all, even he admits the Kilimanjaro and Antarctica marathons later gave him pause to consider, "If anything were to happen to me, I'm a minimum of five or six hours from finding medical treatment."

But something else, something all great athletes seem to possess, drives him on. Showing his wide, easy smile as he cooled down, Smith said, "You always think this might be that special day when you run the perfect race."

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

 

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