Lifelong Runner Encourages Kids to Lace Up

Marty Sonnenfeldt was a high school student in the Netherlands when long-distance runner Frank Shorter won the 1972 Olympic marathon. An article about the man appeared in Boys’ Life Magazine, and though Marty was already running and participating in other sports at his American school, there was something about Frank’s story that lit a fire under the teenager’s feet.

“I wasn’t a good high school runner, so I wasn’t in a position to get athletic assistance to go to school. I selected a bunch of universities that were rooted in track and field, and the only university that replied at all was UT,” he says.

The University of Tennessee men’s track and field team had just won the championship in 1974 under coach Stan Huntsman, so when high school senior Marty received a postcard that said, “Welcome to Big Orange Country,” he knew he’d return to the United States for college.

“I came to Tennessee in 1975 and tried out for cross country and actually made it after the first meet against Ohio State. I was so far removed from being known, they didn’t even issue me a jersey. I got a Tennessee shirt and cut the sleeves off and ran,” he says. “I was 10th overall, and in my freshman year, I got down to a 14:15 for a 5K and 29:10 for the 10K. The coaching I had from Huntsman was phenomenal.”

By then, running had become Marty’s life and passion. He became what he calls “a vertical hyphen” at 6 feet, 1 inch and 135 pounds, down from 173 in a little more than four months. When he wasn’t in class working on a degree in business, Marty was running.

“That article set me off, and I didn’t have anyone to tell me I was stupid,” he says, laughing.

The Tennessee track team enjoyed a long season of success because, as Marty puts it, “it never occurred to us to lose.” One of the best parts of his UT experience, however, was meeting his wife, fellow runner and Lady Vol, Betty Shell.

Marty stayed connected to the running community in Knoxville throughout the 1980s as a volunteer for the Knoxville Track Club’s youth program. His career in medical sales provided a steady living, but with each year he felt the tug to do more on the track. In 1986, he took over the program entirely, but after years of running on empty, he decided it was time to make a choice: pull back on the volunteer work or go all-in to build the youth program.

“I got together with my wife and said I can either try doing this full-time and make a whole lot less money, or I can say forget it and continue with medical sales,” he says. “If it weren’t for my wife, I’d still be pushing orthopedic implants. I promised her a wild ride.”

For more than 20 years, Marty directed the KTC youth program, multiplying participation numbers, working with area schools and teaching kids the value of perseverance. In 2011, he took the leap to detach from the KTC and create his own organization, Knoxville Youth Athletics, which currently serves more than 10,000 kids in the area.

“Creating Knoxville Youth Athletics was the best thing I ever did. We created the first middle and elementary cross country championships. We brought back indoor track and field championships,” he says. “If we didn’t do it, it wouldn’t exist in middle school. The concept of having an athletic team in elementary school is new. We’re the only ones doing it. This fall, we had 2,500 kids from public school and homeschoolers. We do anything we can to help move the ball forward for kids to participate.”

Though building a youth program faces all the obvious challenges—financial, administrative and otherwise—there was one obstacle Marty attacked with fervor.

“It’s got to happen early because they get bombarded with ball sports, and running doesn’t occur to kids that it could be fun. It’s punitive in ball sports,” he says. “When kids get involved with ball sports, their love of running gets replaced with running for punishment. What people need to know is that this program gets kids involved in a basic activity that everyone can have fun with, and it’s not punitive. We don’t expect kids will stay with track and field or cross country the rest of their lives, but if we can pay a part in igniting that little flame, then we’ve done a good thing.”

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