Jesse Smarr pushed through the miles and the hills of the Governor’s Cup Road Race 23 of the past 25 years, and those two years he didn’t run probably were the most difficult for him.
In his first involvement with the race in 1989, he was a last-minute recruit in charge of setting up the water stops along the course just a few weeks after Hurricane Hugo hit. “It was harder than running,” Smarr said.
Then, after running in the event 23 years in a row, he had to sit out last year’s race with a hamstring injury. “I went out and watched them run by on Trenholm (Road) and cheered them on,” Smarr said. “I felt left out.”
That made him determined to return to the race this year, at age 77.
In many ways, Smarr is typical of the many avid runners who enter an event every couple of weeks. He admits to being addicted to the way running affects his body, and he loves competing against himself as well as the others in his age group.
In other ways, he’s atypical. He didn’t get into the sport until he was in his 50s. And while his times have slowed in his 70s, his activity hasn’t. He has participated in more than 300 races, including biathlons, triathlons and 10 marathons.
“Once I picked it up, I really picked it up,” Smarr said of the running bug. “You can call it an addiction if you want to, but it keeps you healthy.”
Smarr always was athletic. He was a Shrine Bowl selection as a running back at Columbia High School, but his football career ended with a knee injury before he got in a game at the University of South Carolina. Dr. Austin T. Moore, founder of the Moore Clinic, did such a great job on the surgery that more than 50 years later, it’s the other knee that bothers Smarr after a tough training session.
Smarr stayed active as a football referee, and he’s one of the few who has played in and officiated a Shrine Bowl game. But he stopped officiating to concentrate on his job in sales in his 40s. A longtime smoker, he was heading in the wrong direction in terms of health.
Then his daughter Lisa Smarr stepped in. He credits her with nagging him to quit smoking and to be more active. As director at Caughman Road Park, Lisa also coordinated the annual Snowman Run. Her parents came to the race one year to support her work, and Jesse decided he would run in it the next year. He says Lisa was the inspiration. She says the idea scared her.
Lisa knew her father didn’t do anything halfway, and she worried about him taking on too much in his first distance race. “I was all stewed up,” Lisa recalled. “I called Momma and said ‘Don’t let Dad run the Snowman Run. It’ll kill him.’”
They talked Jesse down from the 5-mile run to the 2-mile walk/run. With little training, he couldn’t finish without slowing to a walk. “He saw women with children in strollers passing him,” Lisa said. “I think he thought, ‘Hmmm, maybe I do need to get in shape.’”
That was all the motivation he needed. He started running almost daily, and two years later he finished the 15.5-mile run in the Governor’s Cup. He also has become such a healthy eating fanatic that he gave Lisa a hard time for eating a hot dog after completing the recent Ray Tanner Home Run.
These days, he weighs 181 pounds, slightly under his high school football playing weight. He mostly runs 5K or 10K events. The injury that kept him out of last year’s Governor’s Cup cropped up when he tried an even shorter race – a 200-meter dash at the state Senior Games. The Governor’s Cup is one of the few longer events on his schedule, prompting longer daily training runs through his Northeast Richland neighborhood throughout October.
“There aren’t but about a half a dozen guys in my age group in South Carolina that can run a half marathon,” he said. “I just wish there were more people my age doing it.”
He’s likely to place in the 75-older class this year. He recalls the 1997 Governor’s Cup as one of his best, when he finished third in the 60-over category with a time of 1:57:22. He’s much slower now, but the legs are still churning.
“I couldn’t run a marathon now if I had to,” he said, “but I could probably walk one.”