Sessums unfazed by late-race finishes, vehicles

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 4, 2004

[3/3/04]Each time Gary Sessums nears the end of the Run Thru History, things get a little dicey.

After soaking in the sometimes embarrassing encouragement from the race’s volunteers, avoiding collisions with other runners, and conquering the last of the course’s notorious hills, there’s always one last obstacle cars.

“When I’m coming down the last hundred yards, there’s people leaving in their cars and coming down the course, and here I am an entrant in the race,” Sessums said. “They almost run into you.”

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Such is life at the back of the Run Thru History pack. Sessums has been there since the race started in 1980. He has competed in every RTH one of only three people to do so but never beaten more than 78 people, and each of the last two years he has finished dead last.

“I don’t ever get in a hurry to be there at the start. I know he’s going to be there eventually,” said Sessums’ brother, David.

Gary Sessums takes some ribbing from family and friends about his status as the race’s “Mr. Irrelevant” the nickname given to the last pick in the NFL draft each year but for him, running in the RTH isn’t about winning and losing. It’s about having fun, returning home, and keeping his streak alive.

“My goal is when I’m 80 years old to have an award for the most consecutive runs,” said Gary Sessums, a 45-year-old Vicksburg native who now lives in Tampa, Fla. “I’m not a great physical specimen, but I can get out there and run nonstop. That’s the goal every year, is to get out there and see family and friends, and take Fred Peyton for all he’s worth on the beer truck.”

Sessums started his RTH streak during a night of drinking before the inaugural run in 1980. He and a group of friends agreed to show up for the run the next morning and try the 10-kilometer course. Naturally, only Sessums showed up.

But he kept showing up. Year after year, his face and low finishes became a fixture and the race became an obsession.

“If they cut off one of his legs, he’d get some crutches. We might be waiting on him, but he’d come across that line eventually,” David Sessums said. “He has come home regardless, come hell or high water, no matter where he has been. It is a mission with him.”

Not all of Gary Sessums’ Run Thru History experiences have been that bad.

There were good years, like 1984, when he broke the one-hour mark for the first and only time by crossing the finish line in 59 minutes and 33 seconds. In 1985, he enjoyed his best finish numerically by coming in 344th. Of course, there were only 347 runners competing that year.

Over the years, his times have crept from the 60-minute range to past 70 minutes and then over 80. By the turn of the century, he was also approaching the back of the field. In 2000, he was 385th out of 388 runners, and the next year he came in 382nd out of 386.

Finally, two years ago, he finished dead last for the first time, but it came with an asterisk. He did it on purpose.

“There was an older guy, in his 50s, and he was struggling a little bit. He didn’t want to come in last place. He couldn’t live with that,” Sessums said. “So I backed off and finished in last place. For him, that would be a big ego thing. But that was no big deal for me.”

That’s because Sessums rarely competes for winner’s trophies. He participates in various 5K, 10K, and 15K races throughout the year, but doesn’t train regularly. He easily completes the distances, just at a much slower pace than the winners who finish in about a third of the time he does.

“I have no real desire to do (training). I enjoy running when I get out there, but I have a hard time between the couch and the front door,” Sessums said, adding that he shakes off the teasing some people give him. “They just kind of joke at me, and call me slow. I say, no, I ran the distance that the winner did. He just did it at a faster pace.'”

His slow pace is fun and relaxing, but can be a bit disheartening.

As the race drags on, the leaders from the 5K racewalk catch and pass him. He goes back-and-forth with runners that don’t know how to pace themselves. And later on, the volunteers at the waterstops shout good-natured encouragement that he’d rather not hear.

“When you’re at the tail end of the pack, they say things like, come on, you can do it.’ I’m like, I know I can do it,'” Sessums said. “It’s great that they’re encouraging you on, but it seems like they’re condescending sometimes.”

Sessums once again figures to be the pace-setter for the back of the field. His main competition will come from his 83-year-old cousin, Jimmy Matthews, who will run the RTH with Sessums. The last time they ran together, in 1995, Matthews left him in the dust after a few miles.

Matthews plans to stay a little closer this time.

“He’s a lot of fun to run with, because he doesn’t take it too seriously,” Matthews said. “He’s very easy to run with.”