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‘My strategy when I raced was trying to break everyone else mentally’

Tanner Cook • Mar 30, 2020 at 12:41 AM

This is the continuation of a special series, “BackTrack: Exploring Lost Track and Field Legends,” which looks at outstanding performers of the past in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

Chuck Brown was a man ahead of his time — and the pack — during his running days at Sullivan East in the 1970s.

Brown, who grew up during what’s considered the “running boom” in the United States, admired such legends of the time as Frank Shorter and Steve Prefontaine.

“Pre was my hero,” Brown said. “I never got to meet him, but I did get to meet guys like Frank Shorter and Marty Liquori one time at the Mason-Dixon Games in Louisville.

“My strategy when I raced was trying to break everyone else mentally,” he noted. “These guys that run now try to go for the win and don’t run all that fast. I was never one to go out, trying to pace myself and kick at the end. I wanted to go hard and get ahead of people.”

STANDING THE TEST OF TIME

Even though hundreds of runners have lined up to run either the 800 or 1,600 meters since his graduation in 1977, Brown still holds claim to those conference meet records after breaking both on the same day in 1976.

His time of 1:53 for the 880-yard run and 4:14.5 in the mile even converted still stand as the oldest meet records in a history dating fully to 1929.

In fact, Brown has the top two times in each event after running the subsequent times one year later.

To this day, Brown holds the Times News Relays meet record for the 800, a 1:54.0 that no one has come within two seconds of for nearly 30 years. The mark came in the inaugural meet in 1976 and is the oldest record in the books.

Brown’s Sullivan East records of 1:53.4 for the 800 and 4:11.3 for the 1,600 also still stand and have been widely untouched. Only 2015 Foot Locker finalist Luke Meade has come within striking distance of either.

Brown was also part of the school-record 4x800-meter relay team that ran a 8:11.6 in 1976.

“My dad started training me when I was young and one thing that he always told me was to never look back,” Brown said.

MAGICAL ’76 SEASON

Brown was a headache for competitors on the track, but he was less feared on the cross country course.

Until the summer of 1976.

“I was putting in anywhere between 15 and 22 miles a day that summer,” he said. “I would run in the morning, then again during the day and, if I felt like I had to, I’d go run at night.

“That summer is when I really started to push myself.”

Going into the fall of his senior year, Brown’s hard work started to pay dividends and he broke out of his shell. He started his postseason push by winning the Big 9 Conference meet over rival Jim Elmringer of Dobyns-Bennett at the VA Medical Center in Johnson City. Brown’s time of 15:55 for the hilly 3-mile course outdistanced Tennessee High’s Tommy Tilden by five seconds.

Brown had finished only fourth in 1974 and fifth in 1975 on the same course.

“Jim was probably the reason I pushed myself so hard that summer,” Brown said. “He had beaten my butt pretty good a few times the season before and no one likes losing. It was really satisfying to beat Jim that day and I think that gave me a lot of confidence that I had a chance at winning the state meet.”

ON TO NASHVILLE

Brown won the regional at Daniel Boone and had his eyes firmly set on the state meet. He did not disappoint that day at Percy Warner Park.

“I had looked at one of the local newspapers the morning before or the morning of the race and I wasn’t even mentioned in the article previewing the race,” he noted.

The state meet had gone to 3 miles in length only three years prior and Elmringer had come close to the individual title the year before, when Brown finished 11th. The meet wasn’t run by classifications yet.

“The state course at the time was three loops with the first part being a half-mile loop then a 1.5-mile loop and ended with a 1-mile loop,” Brown noted. “You passed the start/finish line three times. I went out in 4:30, then came back in 5:00 and finished up in 5:08.”

Brown blitzed the course early and ended up nearly 15 seconds ahead of runner-up Darrell Clemmons of Westwood, clocking a 14:38.0. The course-record time still stands as one of the top six all-time performances on the 3-mile course at Percy Warner Park.

“I remember my parents were at the chute and they couldn’t see me because of the tall hedges. I was lapping a guy and they thought I had fallen or something, but when that guy went by the start/finish line and didn’t finish, they knew I had won,” he said. “I had hand-me-down Puma shoes that I got from ETSU and they had 1-inch spikes in them. I had run so hard and I was thinking to myself on the final stretch that if I fell that I wasn’t going to get back up.

“I remember when they called my name at the awards ceremony, I was behind the stage throwing up,” Brown added. “That was the hardest I had run all season and it was the way I always ran — all out.”

The state meet, which began staging a boys competition in 1960, changed to 5,000 meters in 2006.

OTHER ACCOLADES

Brown continued his unbelievable senior season by winning the 1976 indoor 880-yard and 1-mile individual titles. He capped it by winning the 1977 outdoor mile in a then-state-record 4:14.0.

He also garnered All-America honors on the track in 1975.

COLLEGIATE CAREER

Brown attended Virginia on scholarship and graduated with a degree in psychology and a minor in astronomy. He went on to work in air traffic control, first in Miami. He transferred to Raleigh, North Carolina, after losing his home to Hurricane Andrew.

While running for the Cavaliers — who were deep in the middle and long distance at the time — Brown competed in a few races but never quite blossomed in the way that he was projected because of injuries. He did run a 1:49 for the 800 in his freshman campaign, but never bettered his times.

However, as a member of the distance medley relay team at the NCAA indoor championships in 1981 in Detroit, Brown garnered All-America honors.

Virginia finished runner-up to Villanova in 9:48.61 but crossed less than two seconds behind. Brown ran the leadoff 1,200-meter leg.

“I was pretty nervous at the start of that race,” he said. “That still remains one of the highlights of my college days, though. To get runner-up to Villanova that day was good.

“We were right with them the whole race and we had a pretty good anchor leg for the mile in Vince Draddy, but they had the great Sydney Maree on the last leg. Sydney was one of the best to do it at the time.”

DYER DOME HONORS

In December 2011, Brown was honored with a banner inside Sullivan East’s Patriot Palace immortalizing his 1977 outdoor 1-mile individual title.

Sullivan East opened in the fall of 1968 and Brown was the first individual state champion at the school.

“Having my dad at that ceremony was pretty special,” Brown said. “He passed away about five years ago and he was my mentor my whole life. He was a Florida state champion and he kind of raised me to be a runner, but I didn’t know it at the time.

“I remember going out for track at Holston Valley Middle, the coach had a mechanical stopwatch. I ran like a half-mile or something and he thought the watch was broken when I crossed the finish line. He realized it wasn’t and he said, ‘Your time is faster than the boys running at the high school.’

“I guess it was just meant to be.”

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