20 Miles with a Stranger: Loonies Midnight Marathon Race Report

Last Friday night/Saturday morning, I ran the Loonies Midnight Marathon. The race was in a tiny little town called Livingston, TN about two and a half hours away.  Coach Justin had me run it as a training run only, not a race.  I had already run 40 minutes on Monday, strength trained/run 2 miles on Tuesday, done an extremely difficult speed workout of 7 miles on Wednesday, then run 5 miles on Thursday.   I had already had a FULL week of running by the time Friday rolled around.  This is not the way I usually taper for a race!  I guess, technically, I did have a rest day on Friday, but my legs were anything but "fresh."

I went down to Cookeville, TN, late on Friday afternoon, checked into a hotel, and met some Run It Fast Club people for dinner.  It was a really nice group, and I met four or five new people.  (I'm in the green shorts near center.)

 Then I went back to my room to relax for a little while and dress in VERY bright, reflective attire.  At 10:00 p.m., I headed to the race start, about 25 minutes away.  It felt strange to leave for a race at 10 at night!

The race got a bit of a late start.  Around 12:05 a.m., we sang the National Anthem.  We had a pre-race prayer.  Then we listened to a bagpipe rendition of "Amazing Grace" in honor of those lost and injured at the Boston Marathon.  Then we sang "Sweet Caroline," a Boston tradition.  That was pretty fun.  Finally, near 12:15 a.m., we started.

The race began with the firing of several muskets.  We started with a 1.2 mile loop that brought us right back to the start.  I ran alone for most of the 1.2 mile loop--kind of behind a big group of people and ahead of a big group of people.  I kept finding myself at a 10:10-20 pace, which I knew was a little fast.  I tried to slow it down a bit.    Near the end of it, my friend Clark from RIF and his dad caught up to and then passed me.  We chatted briefly.  Then it was time to start the first of my five 5-mile loops.  

That first loop was LONELY.  I found myself running solo again.  It was all a little surreal:  here I was in the middle of the night running through this sleepy little town I'd never seen before, past dark houses, down quiet back streets, up hills and down hills in silence, in darkness, in humidity so thick, it hung as a dense fog all around.   I was following reflective spray paint or volunteers' instructions to make the many, many turns as there wasn't anyone in view in front of me.   Once I heard a man huffing and puffing and coming up to me from behind, and it was almost eerie.  He passed me and then led us the wrong way briefly at a confusing intersection, but a policeman talking on his cell phone happened to notice and correct us.   Other than the runners and volunteers, the city felt a bit deserted.  There was a guy picking a banjo at one intersection.  There was one local sitting on his front steps spraying a hose into the air for us to run through.  There was another local just sitting in a lawn chair.  When I thanked him for being out, he just giggled.  I think his cigarette might have been of the herbal variety. 

After completing my first loop at a 10:40 pace, I noticed a young man walking for a second just ahead.  He started running right before I pulled up alongside him, never even noticing me.   I hung back just behind his right shoulder--DRAFTING!  It was so nice to not be alone anymore, to not have to think, "Am I going the right way?  Where is everybody??"  I just followed his lead.  Sometimes on an uphill, I'd pull up beside or even ahead of him, but then on the downhill, he'd pass me back up, but just a little.  It felt like we were racing!    Finally, after about 2 miles of this, I initiated conversation.  "I've never drafted anyone before.  I hope you don't mind!"   Then for the next 18 miles, we talked.  And talked.  And supported one another.  And encouraged one another.  And shared suffering. 

I'm terrible at guessing age, and I was surprised to learn Tim was only 27 years old.  A quick calculation told me I was old enough to be his mother, technically.  (I'm 42.)  He'd been running marathons since the age of 18, which is pretty amazing.   What would a 42-year old and a 27-year old talk about for four hours?  Tons!   We talked about races, running, family, teaching, coaching, his girlfriend, and more.   He is an 8th grade math teacher in Houston.  I was an 8th grade English teacher when I was his age.  He's a running coach.  I'm a running coach.   We just found plenty of common ground.  The miles passed wonderfully.  Once, he had to stop to go to the bathroom, and so did I.  He finished before me and WAITED for me.   I kept telling him to run on if he needed to, but he didn't want to.   So, we stuck it out.  For a total of 20 miles.   It saved my race!

We had run loop 2 a little fast, and that as well as my miles earlier in the week started to catch up to me in loop 4--around mile 18 or 19.  Tim was feeling tired, too, having run a marathon the weekend before and hiked 30+ miles in the Smoky Mountains all week.  He estimated at that point we could run 12- minute miles and still finish under 5 hours.  We were relieved as we were getting tired.  Then we clocked a 12:15 mile.  Oops!  Too relaxed!!  We had started walking the three biggest hills and through the water stops.  Maybe we dawdled a little too long at one of them.  After that, we were all about finishing under 5 hours.  We were determined afresh.  Focused.  It was time to start to dig.

By the time we started loop 5, the final loop, my legs were very tired and I was losing the mental game.  I half hoped he'd go on ahead, so I could walk a lot more often.  But he didn't, so I didn't.   He would only let us walk certain hills, and then only after we reached a point about 1/3 up.   I had to turn on my music at around mile 21, and that helped energize me a bit.  I felt like he was carrying me along, but it was actually pretty mutual.  His Achilles started bothering him badly around mile 23, and I was feeling ok.  It was my turn to be the pacer, then encourager.   We brought it home to the finish.  I ran hard at the finish line, thinking he was with me, but actually finished before him by several seconds.  I was sure he'd finish beside me, but he just didn't want to sprint with that Achilles.   I gave him a really sweaty hug at the finish and told him I could not have run a 4:57:04 alone.   I know without my buddy, I would not have broken 5 hours on those tired legs.   I would have walked much, much more.  But I had it in me all the time.

Sometimes the mental game is the hardest game of all.

I saw young Tim just once after the finish. He was getting in his car to drive back to Houston.  I wished him well.  I'm sure I'll never see my friend again, but I hope he knows how much he helped me.  Throughout the race, the running community supported one another.  I tried to say something encouraging each time I saw a runner I knew (I knew about 15 on the course), and many of them encouraged me.   That is the beauty of running.

Twenty miles with a stranger?  Not strange at all. 

Marathon/ultramarathon #10 in the bag. 


Unknown said…
Encouraging others running encourages me. In fact, sometimes I feel I enjoy cheering others on more than the actual running itself.
btw, your blog is terrific. Thank you!
Unknown said…
When I encourage others during a run, I encourage myself. In fact, I sometimes feel like I enjoy cheering others more than enjoy the actual run. Is 65 too old to be a cheerleader?

Thanks for your blogging. It is terrific.