The Charleston Distance Run continues as an annual race for Gary Smith, the longest-tenured participant in the event, but perhaps the most rewarding years have been the most recent as it's also marked the start of a new family tradition.
At 59 years old, Smith will take part in the 41st annual Charleston Distance Run at 7:30 a.m. Saturday. The race marks his 40th consecutive participation in the event, though in recent years his youngest son, Zack Smith, has joined him in marking the special occasion.
"It's unbelievable to me how awesome he is at it," Zack said of his father. "For someone his age, in his late 50s, to do the distance that he does and the time he does, with the consistency that he does it, it's unbelievable to me. One of my hopes in life is that when I'm his age I can still do that, that I'm in good enough health. I'm 22 and he's more than twice my age, and I'm sure he's going to smoke me time-wise in the Distance Run."
Last year, Zack completed his first Distance Run with a time of 2:31:49 while Gary finished ahead in 2:17:09. Both aspire to improve upon last year's mark. As Gary aims to best last year's time, Zack said he wishes to do the same and to finish as close to two hours as he can.
No matter the resulting time, crossing the finish marks a huge milestone for each man.
For Gary, the race represents endurance and longevity of health as many of his past running friends and partners have dropped this strenuous pursuit.
"I think it's a testament to luck to go that long and not have an injury that keeps you from participating," Gary said. "A lot of guys that I ran with when I was in my 20s don't run anymore because they got injured."
Gary's continued attendance at the Distance Run is also a testament to his wife, Gary said with a laugh, as the annual race occurs near or on the couple's anniversary every year. They were married Sunday, Sept. 4, 1988, on Labor Day weekend, one day following the Charleston Distance Run that year.
As Gary, a race committee member and two-time director, has continued to add to his running resume with each successive event, Zack's participation in the sport recently began when he was a student at Marshall University.
"Actually, it was really strange because for 18 years of my life I lived with my dad, and he was always very healthy and very active, and in a lot of ways I was exactly the opposite," Zack said. "My parents, they never pressured me to go get into sports or anything like that. They knew I wasn't very big into athletics quite as much as I was into staying at home and reading or watching a good movie."
He gave running a shot a few times as a child, though it never stuck, Zack said.
That changed during his freshman year at Marshall, though. At 5-foot-9, 235 pounds, Zack said he was looking to lose some weight. When his college roommate began going to the university's recreation center, Zack joined, too.
"We would always start out with cardio and go for a run on the track at the Marshall Rec Center, then we would go into working different muscle groups and lifting weights," Zack said. "I hated lifting weights. It just never did it for me. It wasn't my thing, although I really enjoyed running.