By Doug Hawley
Five years ago, distance running could not have been further from George Kopcsak’s mind.
But Kopcsak, who was principal at New Hope Middle School at the time, had an athletic past. He wrestled at George Mason University and played football and tennis in high school in Virginia.
That past was brought back to Kopcsak during a “Big Losers” weight loss competition put on by New Hope teacher Tom Sell, who has been the cross country coach at Northwest Whitfield High School for several years. Sell was also a very successful wrestler at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, and he still ranks among the top 10 in career wins for the Mocs.
The health-conscious Sell, who still does plenty of distance running, provided the motivation.
“He said, ‘You’re a wrestler. You’re not going to let those teachers beat you,’” Kopcsak recalled.
He didn’t, going from 232 to 191 pounds and winning the contest.
Kopcsak, 50, has come so far since 2008 that he will compete Saturday morning at the Land Between the Lakes 50-mile trail run in Grand Rivers, Ky., 115 miles northwest of Nashville, Tenn. The race’s distance is roughly that of a trip from downtown Dalton to the outskirts of Chattanooga — and back.
The Land Between the Lakes event will also offers four other races of various distances — 10K (6.2 miles), half marathon (13.1 miles), marathon (26.2 miles) and 60K (37.2 miles) — but Kopcsak will be joined in the 50-mile run by two accomplished area female runners: Dee Goodwin, 44, and Belinda Young, 43. They have been competing for 30 years — sometimes as friendly rivals, sometimes as training partners — since graduating from Northwest Whitfield and Murray County high schools, respectively.
All three are Whitfield County Schools employees. Kopcsak is principal at Eastbrook Middle School, Young teaches math at Northwest and Goodwin works as a learning coordinator for the school system.
It’s the first 50-mile race for Goodwin and Kopcsak, but the second for Young, who completed her first race in 12 hours and 48 seconds in February 2012 in Huntsville, Texas. Goodwin’s goal is to finish in 10 hours, but Young just wants to finish — runners must be done in 11 hours or leave the course.
Young has run the corresponding Land Between the Lakes marathon four times and said the 50-miler is basically two loops of the marathon course. It’s not hilly, she said, but if rain falls the trail can become difficult because of mud.
“When Dee asked me to run the 50-miler, I knew that breaking 11 hours would be a challenge for me, especially on trails,” Young said. “There will be some really good runners there from all over, so I know I will not place or finish high, but Dee most likely will.”
Goodwin, who has lost count of the number of marathons she has run, has competed in one 50K race, which is a little longer than 31 miles.
“We’re probably crazy,” Good-win said with a chuckle. “We’ve worked up to 34 miles in one workout. (Young) and I try to do the longer runs together on the weekends.”
Goodwin graduated from UTC in 1990 as a four-time All-Southern Conference distance runner in cross country and track and field. She was inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame in 2004. Before turning to trail runs, she regularly broke three hours in marathon road races, with a personal best of 2 hours and 57 minutes.
“I really love trail running,” she said. “I got burned out on the road races. I love the aggressiveness of trail racing.”
Young was a distance runner at Berry College and the University of Tennessee. She has completed a staggering 90 marathons — her personal best of 3:12 was set in 1989 — and is aiming to do one in every state. She’s also done a pair of 40-milers and 18 50Ks.
Kopcsak’s only marathon was three years ago in Nashville, Tenn., where he finished in the 4:30 to 4:40 range. He also participated in the 50K Stump Jump this past fall in Chattanooga.
“I’ve been running 70 miles a week in recent times,” said the 5-foot-10-inch Kopcsak, who has dropped an additional 57 pounds in the five years since winning the contest at New Hope and now tips the scales at 175. “I hope to be ready. I plan to have fun.”
Goodwin, Kopcsak and Young are in a select number of 600 who made the cutoff for the race.
“The event offers prize money for course records and is a qualifying race for the Western States 100-mile race in California,” Young said. “That brings faster runners.”
It also has brought three runners who plan to represent our area in quality fashion.