KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — For more than 40 years, Pete Berntsen has enjoyed running marathons. As the 76-year-old prepares for the Knoxville Marathon, he views the 26-mile-plus run as grueling, gratifying, inspirational and life-altering.
At his age, most runners step away, but Berntsen told WATE why he continues to run. One, because it is fine and two, it keeps him healthy. He credits running with helping him survive cancer. Berntsen received the diagnosis 30 years ago. He had been running marathons and other long-distance races for about 13 years. Since he beat cancer and is in good health today, he keeps chugging along.
The retired Air Force chief master sergeant started running long-distance races while stationed first in Greece and then in Germany.
“Started off with the 5K, 10K, walking. By, the time I left with my 3-year tour, I was running the full marathon,” said Berntsen.
For Berntsen, the hills in Germany were killers and his time reflected the difficulty of hauling up them.
“It took me almost seven hours, but I was a youngster and I stopped every 10K for a bratwurst, a beer and a cigarette,” said Berntsen.
In the 80s and into the early 90s, he entered dozens of races in Europe, Washington D.C. with the Air Force, and at Disney World when he worked for a civilian contractor in Orlando, Fla. He attributes running to keeping him alive.
“I ran because it was fun, it was camaraderie, we were out drinking, partying, and having a good time out on the trails. Then in 1993, I was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx. The doctor said the reason I can speak at all is my running allowed blood to flow around my neck that most people don’t have. So, once that happened, you keep running,” said Berntsen.
In the Knoxville race, he participated in one half-marathon and three full marathons. He has picked up some impressive hardware over the years.
“It was in my 60’s when I started getting first-place medals. I think it was because I outlasted all the competition,” said Berntsen.
Berntsen will likely be the oldest local runner in the full marathon this year. He brings a lot of experience with him.
“Knoxville has its share of hills. My biggest problem is right there at the end of the run. Running down the hill into the stadium, that’s the tough one. For me, running downhill hurts a little more,” said Berntsen. “I still enjoy running, even at my age. Once I get into the groove of it, I really, really enjoy it.”
Every runner has a strategy for the marathon. Berntsen said he does not sing or daydream of that bratwurst and beer at the end of the race. He tries to catch that person in front of him.
“The competitive spirit comes out about halfway through the race,” said Berntsen.
“All out” for Berntsen was his personal best of 3:50:27 nine years ago at Disney World. At 76 years old, he is in great shape and has had some good practice runs. His goal is to win his age group.
“Once I know that I can do the 18 miles in a fairly decent time. Now during the race, I’m not carrying my own water I think I can pull it off. I’m going to do my best too,” said Berntsen.
Pete says you will be able to spot him along the course. He said to look for the older-looking guy, with a big smile on his face, pumping his arms and moving his legs at a steady pace. He expects to finish in about six hours and 30 minutes.