Last March, my friend Rainey was supposed to run her first marathon at the Shamrock Marathon in Virginia Beach. “Supposed to” is the key language there. The morning of the race, she got very sick and had to go to the emergency room. She missed the race. After months of training through the cold dark abyss of winter, she got no first marathon, no medal, no finisher’s jacket, no 26.2 sticker for her car. It sucked.
Rainey asked J&A, the company that put on the race, if she could defer her entry to next year. They said no, and understandably so. She had already picked up her bib and shirt, so J&A had held up its end of the bargain and incurred its costs. What J&A did offer to do, which was very nice, was mail Rainey all of her race swag (medal, towel, bag) so that she could earn it through a virtual race.
Other Liz and I scheduled the virtual race for May 27, 2017, set up a Facebook event and invited all the local runners we knew. The response was amazing. We had more than 50 people say that they wanted to participate, many of whom had awesome ideas about how to make the event truly special for Rainey. Because the local running community is just that extraordinary, getting people to come out and participate turned out to be the easy part.
The logistics of pulling this off was the not-so-easy part. We had to set up a marathon route (the Shamrock marathon route was (1) far away and (2) inaccessible because it goes through a military base) and figure out where to have SAGs (water stops) along the way. I wound up creating a route that was very similar to the route for the Richmond marathon, with a few safety adjustments because we obviously could not close the streets. People wanted to run with Rainey, and we had to figure out where they would start and stop their runs and how we would get them back to their cars after they were finished running. A local TV news station was interested in covering it. The Richmond Road Runners Club offered to provide some of its equipment, including the finishing sails, for our use.
The widespread willingness to help was heart-warming and completely wonderful. And also kind of stressful. It meant that there was a lot to coordinate and a lot of people who would be disappointed if things did not go as planned.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to find out what that would feel like. It went AWESOME. Truly without a hitch.
To avoid as much of the heat as possible while still running in daylight, we started at 6:00 a.m. A friend had borrowed a portable speaker system and served as our announcer. He played the National Anthem, and another friend brought a flag.
And then we were off!
I ran the first half of the race with Rainey. We had water stops around miles 3, 6, 10, 13, 17, 19 and 23. Before the race, Rainey didn’t know where the water stops were or who would be there. I had a general idea of who would be where, but each water stop had at least twice as many people as I was expecting. And when they saw us coming they went nuts. Even though I wasn’t the guest of honor and I knew what was happening, running into each water stop was still AMAZING. We felt like rock stars.
I expected people to come to one or maybe two water stops, give their well-wishes, and move on with their days. What actually happened was that people came and then followed Rainey to every single water stop, even setting up a few extras of their own. The event turned into a huge moving party. And it was SO MUCH FUN.
Before I knew it, it was time to head to the finish. Rainey had a good crowd moving her in, but they all fell back a bit so that she could break the tape (which some runners thoughtfully brought) and finish her first marathon.
She got two medals, which her kids presented to her. One was her medal from the Shamrock marathon, and the other was a special medal that a friend had handmade for her.
Everyone hung out at the finish line at Brown’s Island for a bit, enjoying the snacks that some folks had thoughtfully brought. We had such a great crowd!
After a tearful pic with my co-organizer and our guest of honor, I had to head home.
This event started out as a simple attempt to give a friend a well-deserved second chance. It quickly grew into something so much bigger. There were many times during the planning process when I wondered how the hell this was all going to work. But in the end, it was truly one of the best things I have ever been a part of. Running has changed my life in so many ways, the most significant of which is the wonderful people I have met. I am proud to be a Richmond runner.