Those were the words of longtime Crazy 8s 8K road race director Hank Brown when he was informed last week that Fun Fest would not be happening this year because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The 2020 Crazy 8s would have been the 31st edition of the Kingsport tradition, which actually got its start as the opening event of Fun Fest in 1981.
“I remember running the very first race,” Brown said. “It actually started as a 4-mile race up on Bays Mountain. I had nothing to do with it at the time and was still in pretty good running shape.”
The race moved to downtown Kingsport in 1982. It started at the Fort Henry Mall, went down to Church Circle and came back. The race name was then the “Midnight 5 Miler.”
“It was a pretty simple course. I remember one of my friends was working it and he told me they didn’t expect very many people on the opening Friday night of Fun Fest for a race that began at midnight,” Brown said. “Sure enough, people started rolling in at about 10:30 and 11 o’clock and they were instantly overwhelmed.”
Brown and Ben Chaney, then his co-worker, decided to try to take control of the race beginning in 1990.
“We did a lot of brainstorming and one of the first ideas that we had was to change the race distance to 8K. It was a certified distance for state and world records as opposed to 5 miles,” he said. “Then it kind of manifested into how we could incorporate the number eight into everything and that’s where we came up with the name and the figure-eight course.”
Brown moved the start and finish lines to the Green Acres Shopping Center on Eastman Road and pushed race day to Saturday night, starting at about 10 p.m.
“I have to give Ben the credit for the idea of putting the luminaries out on the streets,” Brown noted. “The runners were running on really dark streets at night and I didn’t think anyone would really do it that first year. Sure enough, it caught on pretty quickly and the tradition has just grown from there.
“One of the big things early on that we really weren’t expecting was the crisscross at the halfway point with the faster runners lapping the slower runners. It became more evident as the years went by and the faster runners got faster.”
“A MAGICAL NIGHT”
The 1996 Crazy 8s saw one of those rare cooler nights in the Model City.
Kenya’s Peter Githuka was about to make history.
“The first elite we got that year was Thomas O’Gara, who won in 1990, and then Keith Brantley, who was the last American winner in 1994,” Brown said. “We knew Peter was coming and we knew he was good. He got fourth at Peachtree (Road Race) like two weeks before.
“He broke away very early in the race and he just had one of those magical nights.”
Githuka — who missed out on Kenya’s 1996 Atlanta Olympic team — was far ahead of world record pace by 2.5 miles. Going up Wilcox Drive, he lost a little bit of momentum but was still ahead by about a second.
“We were coming up Eastman Road and he was weaving in and out of the slower runners and I was in the press truck at the time calling the race over a cellphone to the finish line,” Brown said. “They knew Peter was ahead of pace by the time he was getting to the finish line. When we got there, it was a complete mob scene. There was no crowd control and he got confused on where he should go.
“I actually jumped off the press truck and directed him to where he should go. I never saw him finish. All I knew was that when he apparently crossed the finish line, there was a huge burst of excitement, so I assumed he had beaten the record.”
Githuka’s official finish time was 22:02.3, but in road racing, times are rounded up. His event record of 22:03 still stands, but the world record has since dropped to 21:45 as recently as 2018.
In 2001, Ethiopia’s Alene Emere came within two seconds of beating the record.
“He was ahead of pace the entire time and for some reason by like the fourth mile, he eased up,” Brown said. “That was a really close finish because he had to outsprint two other runners just to win the race.”
The next year, Kenya’s Daniel Komen — the only man ever break eight minutes for 2 miles — ran the race and Brown thought the record was in the bag.
“Daniel is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet and he actually came a week ahead of time,” Brown said. “He was all everything at that point having run under 13 minutes for the 5K and running the world record 3K, but he only ended up third.”
Also in 2002, Asmae Leghzaoui of Morocco broke the women’s world record by crossing in 24:27.0.
“Asmae didn’t speak a word of English and that was definitely an exciting night, too,” Brown said. “However, she was suspended the next year for doping, so we have to put an asterisk by that record even though there is no way to know whether or not she cheated when she ran what she did in Kingsport.”
A NEW DIRECTION
The race course changed again in 2006, moving to a start on Fort Henry Drive outside of Dobyns-Bennett and a finish inside J. Fred Johnson Stadium.
“That first year in J. Fred was nerve-racking,” Brown said. “We went through a lot of trouble with the people at Green Acres in 2005 and we just said we weren’t going back. It turned out to be a great move for us.”
Last year, the Crazy 8s unveiled a new course and received rave reviews.
“We heard nothing but good comments from everyone,” Brown said. “We were just days away this year from announcing that Crazy 8s was going to host the USATF Men’s 8K National Championships before the coronavirus outbreak. We were really excited about the new direction of the race.
“I think that giving Kingsport that spark of hosting a national championship event was going to be something they could get behind.”