June 9, 2018 10:00:30 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Tom Kennedy leans over and lifts a ledger from a stack of them on his coffee table. There are five in all. The 83-year-old opens the worn, green covers of the book he holds, and there they are -- the miles he's run, meticulously recorded in line after line, number after number. Distances, duration, subtotals, lifetime totals. That's the accountant in Kennedy coming out. That he's surpassed 40,400 total miles and still going? That's the tenacious runner.
Not one to seek attention, the Columbus man has nevertheless enjoyed his share of it lately. On May 12, he achieved a unique feat by completing his 40th consecutive -- and final -- Gumtree Festival 10K race in Tupelo. The octogenarian's retirement from the 6.2-mile events, announced beforehand, attracted the Tupelo press and television station. Kennedy was even presented a handsome plaque by race organizers, engraved with all his finish times. The best was 45 minutes, eight seconds, in 1981. The competitor remembers it vividly.
"That was a classic for me, about a seven-and-a-half-minute mile," Kennedy says. "When I hit that down ramp onto McCullough Boulevard, something just flew all over me, and I floored it and broke my record."
Finish lines take longer to reach now, but then, that's not really the point.
"At first, it was about seeing how fast I could run and if I could win trophies," Kennedy says, surrounded by shelves of them in his den. "Now, the best thing is the camaraderie with runners and spectators -- the best thing is just enjoying myself."
The ledgers tell the tale: in excess of 550 race completions, 26 of them marathons, including a 28-plus-mile ultramarathon at age 78. They document Kennedy's participation in three National Senior Games: 2011 in Houston, Texas; 2015 in Minneapolis, Minnesota; and 2017 in Birmingham, Alabama. Those trips were made with longtime running friend Ray Gildea, who lives in Madison and is frequently in Columbus visiting family.
"Tom's been my mentor for many years in running," says Gildea. "He's done some pretty amazing things. He's very strong mentally; I've never seen anyone who is as resolute and stoic."
That any of it happened is almost happenstance.
Tom Kennedy did not spend his youth near Smithville nursing a passion for running. He didn't run track in high school or college. What he did do was attend Itawamba Junior College, serve two years in the Army, then earn a degree in accounting from Delta State University. He worked for the United States General Accounting Office before an accounting position with Caldwell Furniture Co. and its businesses brought him to Columbus in 1963. He still works for Caldwell Properties part-time. As for running, Kennedy would pass his 40th birthday before he became curious about it in the mid-'70s.
"Dr. Buddy Livingston and Dr. Jimmy Sams were running long distance at Magnolia Bowl, and I got interested," Kennedy says. "I decided I'd run a mile. The first two laps felt really good." He pauses and grins. "The last two laps almost killed me."
Livingston recommended a book by Kenneth Cooper, "Aerobics." After following its 13-week training schedule, Kennedy was "running three miles easily." His first race was The Commercial Dispatch 5K in 1976.
Kennedy went on to become a charter member of the Columbus Running Club, serving as treasurer for 18 years. He coordinated the club's Grand Prix race series for 13 years and has frequently timed races, charted and measured courses or served as race director for regional events.
"He always helped coach and encourage the rest of us," says fellow runner Bonnie Partridge of Columbus. "He'd prepare running schedules for us to follow when we would be training for marathons."
For the past 42 years, Kennedy has supported, organized and inspired.
And he has run.
When asked about his toughest race days, Kennedy readily recalls the 1983 Rocket City Marathon in Huntsville, Alabama.
"It was hot. It was humid. I went out too fast. I started getting severe leg cramps at 15 miles," he says, describing the pain about halfway through the 26.2-mile course. "I actually quit three times. I was going to wait on the pick-up van to get me, but I never did see one."
With no ready rescue in sight, Kennedy kept at it, in fits and starts, and eventually found himself at the finish line.
"But that was a monster," he says with feeling.
One of his fondest race memories is also from Rocket City -- his fastest marathon: three hours, 46 minutes, 35 seconds. Even the rain and 40 mph wind gusts of that day in 1982 can't dampen the satisfaction.
Yes, there have been knee injuries, hamstring problems and feet issues through the years. And these days, his legs tend to start arguing with him just a few minutes in.
"Those last five runs were rough," Kennedy admits.
But stop running? No.
Not only does he continue logging about 15 maintenance miles over four days each week, he's got his eye on a goal. Kennedy wants to record one more marathon-distance run in his ledgers.
"I've run marathons in five decades," he says. "If my legs hold up, I'm contemplating doing one more in 2020 and making it six."
His target is a 50K near Birmingham, Alabama. That's about 32 miles, but the event allows 24 hours to complete the challenge.
"You can stop to rest or eat," Kennedy says. "I hope to do at least the marathon distance."
A little advice
For anyone just getting into the sport, Kennedy has a few thoughts.
"I'd start 'em out walking and ease into running. Figure out a game plan, how many miles you want to do that week, which days you're going to run," he suggests. "We've got several good coaches around here. Find one -- and don't argue with 'em!"
From a shelf in his den filled with race photos and memorabilia, Kennedy picks up an old pair of running shoes. He ran his first marathon in them. The soles are worn and cracked, signs of the 700-plus miles they endured.
"The key is consistency," the veteran runner says. "You've got to be consistent, even on the days you don't want to."
Gildea sums it up with a high compliment to his friend: "He is pure of heart about his running."
In 1998, when Tom Kennedy logged his 25,000th mile -- more than the circumference of the earth --fellow runners threw him a party. At 40,400 miles and counting, his journey is still fulfilling, the second time around.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.