The camaraderie of the long-distance runner

Sorry I haven’t posted a lot in the last couple of days. It was an interesting weekend. This is going to be a really long post, but I’m making up for lost time, and I stayed up for 36 consecutive hours on Saturday and Sunday, so I’ve got a lot of ground to cover.

I got an e-mail last week saying that Dan, a guy I’d met a couple of times on long runs with Fleet Feet last year, was in need of pacers to help him in the Mother Road 100, a 100-mile footrace down Route 66 from Arcadia to Sapulpa. Basically, what pacers do is take turns running with an ultramarathoner for a few miles at a time to keep his spirits up. This is very important in the later miles of the race, when the runner is tired and ready to quit.

My friend Terriann and I signed up to run with him for an hour apiece. We wound up meeting him in Stroud around 6:30 p.m. Saturday and pacing him for a little while. That was a really cool experience, for several reasons. First, Dan is a really sweet, really upbeat guy who is a LOT of fun to run with. Second, it was an excuse to run down Route 66 in the dark, which I have done only once before, and which is a singularly weird and beautiful experience. And third, as I was jogging with Dan, I heard the familiar “beep-beep!” of a Volkswagen horn. I glanced up to see none other than Bob Waldmire — the award-winning Route 66 artist and unofficial inspiration for the character of Fillmore in the movie Cars — cruising down 66 toward us in his Microbus. He was headed for the Rock Cafe, where Terriann was waiting for my hour to end so she could drive out to drop off the car and start running with Dan herself. When she arrived, I drove back to the Rock to get her some dinner and visit with Bob. I got to the restaurant just in time to find Bob holding court with Michael Bates, a Tulsa blogger who gives me a shout-out now and then when I post a picture he likes. I’d never met him in person but recognized him from a picture I’d seen. He and Bob and I had an amusing conversation about the merits of the Type 2 Volkswagen in its various incarnations.

That would have been cool enough by itself, but it was not the coolest thing that happened on Route 66 that night.

On Thursday night, I’d fired off an e-mail to the race organizers, asking if it would be helpful if I took a cooler full of Gatorade and Carb-Boom up and down the course after we finished helping Dan. I thought I might serve as a sort of aid station on wheels, dispensing encouragement and nourishment to any runners who might need it.

On Friday morning, I got an e-mail back saying that the aid station in Kellyville was unmanned, and they really needed volunteers to put something together. Kellyville was 84 miles into the race. That’s awfully late in the game to come to an aid station and find nothing but a portapotti.

Having been a journalist since I was 9 years old, I tend to work well under deadline pressure, so I called up Terriann, sent out a few e-mails, and then made a Wal-Mart run on my way home from work Friday. (Yeah, I know, but it was for a good cause. I used to cheat and eat meat once in a while when I was a vegetarian, too. So I’m not a purist. Sue me.)

Less than 24 hours later, Terriann, her mom and I were running an aid station. It was frightfully cold, and although we didn’t have anything warm to offer the runners to drink (we couldn’t come up with a way to keep stuff hot on such short notice), we did keep our cars running, so everybody had a safe, warm place to thaw out if they needed it.

Early in the evening, an idea came to me to run out and meet any lone runners and pace them in. It wasn’t far, but at least it might lift their spirits to have someone come and run with them a little way. Some of them REALLY appreciated it. Terriann’s mom, Margaret, watched me a few times and then decided to join me. When the last runner came through Sunday morning, we decided to pace her for a while. I ran with her for maybe a mile and a half or two miles, and then I left for church, and Margaret took over. Terriann reported later that Margaret had gone about five miles with the girl — not bad for a non-runner, eh?

Margaret really had no idea what she was in for when she agreed to come along with Terriann, and I’d assumed she and Terriann would stay for a few hours and then head home (I certainly wouldn’t have blamed them if they had), but once they saw the need, they absolutely refused to leave me out there by myself, and the two of them worked tirelessly throughout the night to help these runners meet their goals.

The organizers had told us to plan for 30 people. We had four times that many come through our station, not counting the pacers who were tagging along with some of the competitors, so we either seriously overestimated the amount of food those folks would eat, or else we had some serious loaves and fishes action going on.

I think it was maybe a little of both: I’d bought way more animal crackers and pretzels than we needed, but I only brought one loaf of bread, and one thing I learned was that ultramarathoners will eat a LOT of PBJs. Somehow that one loaf of bread fed 120 people. I shouldn’t be surprised — I’ve seen over and over how “Divine Love always has met and always will meet every human need,” as Mrs. Eddy says — but it still blows my mind every time I see a demonstration like that.

Before the race, I’d e-mailed a few friends from church and asked them to pray specifically for the runners’ strength and safety as they faced this grueling challenge. They must have done a fine job, because I didn’t see anybody show up with serious injuries, and I didn’t hear any reports of injuries. Most of the runners seemed to be in good spirits, and those who were down when they arrived seemed to be much happier by the time they left. The worst claim we dealt with was a handful of runners who were experiencing symptoms of hypothermia. We let them sit in our cars and warm up if they needed it, and they all seemed to recover nicely.

At some point in the middle of the night, it came to me to write down all the quotes I could think of that had ever inspired me while I was running and hand them to the runners to tuck into their packs for when they were feeling discouraged. Kind of cheesy, but sometimes stuff like that helps; it’s kind of like opening your lunchbox and finding a note from your mom telling you she loves you. I had quotes from Mrs. Eddy (“We are all capable of more than we do,” for instance, which is one of my favorites), Bible verses, quotes from Richard Bach novels, and even a Chinese proverb often attributed to Confucius.

After each quote, I added a little note that said, “We’re behind you! God is with you! The finish line is ahead of you! You will make it!”

Some of the runners looked a little perplexed when I handed them their notes, but some of them were really appreciative. One guy asked me to write my e-mail address on there so he could e-mail me later. I got a very sweet note from him tonight. It seems he got one of the Richard Bach quotes, because he mentioned in his note that he loves Richard Bach — especially the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which I personally think ought to be required reading for distance runners.

During the night, there were several times when I thought of the lateness of the hour and started to be afraid I would run out of energy, but I kept reminding myself that God always supplies us with all the energy we need to take action to help somebody else. That’s not lip service; I really believe that with all my heart and have proven it more times than I can count.

As I was running through the darkness to meet a runner, I looked up at the stars — which were magnificent on such a clear, cold night — and suddenly thought about how blessed I was to be part of a historic event on my beloved Route 66, and how blessed I was to have the strength and the opportunity to express Love to a few of God’s children out there on that old highway. The thought was so beautiful that I almost cried. I felt strong and happy and didn’t get tired again all night.

Out of the 167 runners who actually started the race, 118 finished, and another 40 passed the 50-mile mark before they dropped out. That’s a 70.66 percent finish rate, and 94.61 percent of the runners made it to 50 miles. That’s not unheard-of in ultramarathoning (some of the really elite races have just a few runners, and they’ll end up with a 90 percent finish rate), but based on some online research I did, the average finish rate for a 100-mile race is somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 percent, and I know there were quite a few inexperienced ultramarathoners running this one, so a 70 percent finish rate is pretty spectacular.

I met some really intriguing people (including one girl who was running her fourth 100-mile ultra in as many weeks) and had a lot of fun.

I don’t know whether that was the most amazing weekend of my entire life, but if it wasn’t, it didn’t miss it by much.

I hope your weekend was full of amazing blessings, too.