Sometimes, friendship leads you into strange and wonderful adventures. I’ve found this is usually the case for me, but that could be because I have strange and wonderful friends. When I decided to head to England to celebrate my friend Lisa’s 100th and 101st marathons, literally the only thing I had worked out was my flight. She told me she would take care of the rest, and in a completely uncharacteristic fashion, I completely gave up on trying to plan anything. I didn’t even know exactly where I was staying until I got to their house! Would we stay in hotels at each race location? Would we be camping? Headed back to the house each night in between? The possibilities were endless (and the answer turned out to be option C). I also knew next to nothing about the races we would be participating in. I knew Saturday’s event was a 12-hour race run around a two-mile “tarmac” – but I didn’t know what a tarmac was. I had no idea where it was, how many people would be there, or anything else, but I was game to find out! It was Lisa’s 100th marathon, after all!
We had a very early start to the morning as we needed to leave the house by 5:15 am to drive to the start and arrive with time to get set up. That meant a 4:45 wakeup, which was like 11:45 pm my time! I just threw all hope of any type of sleep schedule/jet lag adjustment out of the window and figured I would deal with it when I got home. The race started around 8:30 am and I was definitely NOT prepared since I had no idea what time it was. That wasn’t terribly important, as you could technically start whenever you wanted – the race just definitely ended at 8:30 pm. Lots of people arrived at random hours to show up and start running, which was obviously new to me, but I have to say, I appreciated the flexibility! Now my plan for the race was….I had no plan. Being that it was a 12-hour event, I knew I could do as much or as little as I wanted. I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that a tiny part of me wanted to run the whole marathon with Lisa. I knew she would be walking most of it and I thought it would be so special to share that experience with her, but I also knew how painful it would be on my back and horrendously undertrained I am for something like that. SO, I figured I would just see what happens.
So, some background on the Fowlmead 50 and 12-hour challenge: this race is run at Fowlmead County Park outside Deal, England, on the far southeastern coast. There is a 50-mile option and a 12-hour option. If you choose the 12-hour, you run as many laps as you want or as you can within 12 hours; 13 laps of the track constituted a marathon. Running even one complete lap got you a medal, and running 25 laps (more than 50 miles) got you the 50-mile medal. Those were pretty much the rules. Lisa chose this event because the time limit for her to complete a marathon was 12 hours, meaning she could walk, chat, run, and eat as much as she wanted along the way without having to worry about being rushed. The informal nature of the event, which is put on by members of the U.K.’s 100 Marathon Club (which Lisa was about to join!), also meant that friends and family could come join in for a lap or two and experience running with her. They even supplied food for the spectators!
Lisa had brought me special gluten-free versions of the best U.K. ultra-runner foods, like cheese sticks and cookies, which was SO thoughtful of her. I never felt left out of all the festivities, but I couldn’t help but think to myself that I should have done a LOT more events like this back in the day. I mean, you pass this table every 2 miles!! Come ON!
I did the first lap with Lisa and her friends doing her method of “chat-running,” as she calls it in her book. Let me tell you, she’s not kidding! Lisa is one of the friendliest, most outgoing and upbeat people I have ever met. It sometimes feels like she can’t possibly talk fast enough to tell you everything that she wants to say. She genuinely wants to learn about the lives of each and every person she comes across, and it is amazing to listen on as she builds relationships with total strangers.
Now, one thing to know about this day was that it was freezing cold with blustery, blowing winds and occasional light rains. There was little to no protection from the elements, and I was definitely not dressed appropriately. I usually get hot when I run and I was wearing just a tank top, long sleeve shirt, capris, and gloves. I should have been wearing several more layers if I had any hope of ending this event without frostbite. Therefore, after completing the first lap, I decided to run a lap with Lisa’s husband, Graham, who was doing the half marathon. I set my sights firmly on completion of a half (well, 14 miles, since it was a 2-mile ish loop) and decided that anything more than that would be gravy. I definitely warmed up while running, thankfully!
I decided to run-chat with Lisa for my fourth lap, and aside from the cold, I was starting to feel pretty good. “Maybe I can do the marathon after all if I take it super easy!” I thought. Nevermind, of course, that this would put me at 51 marathons instead of 50 (an ugly and non-round number), that I was completely untrained, and that I had to run again the next day – these things make sense in the moment, and Lisa was certainly not helping me lean towards sanity. “Oh, you can finish it if you walk with me!” she said. “Do it! It will be fun!”
While the thought did cross my mind, it didn’t last long. As much fun as I was having meeting and chatting with everyone (including Roger, founder of the 100 marathon club and veteran of 841 marathons at last count), I was also freezing. I took a few more laps around the track with Graham to warm up, and that brought me within one lap of a half marathon (well, 14 miles). As I set off for that lap, I felt the familiar ache in my back that reminded me why I don’t run marathons anymore. It wasn’t sharp or overwhelming, but it was enough to know that if I continued, it wasn’t going to get better. Since I was so cold anyway, I decided to stop running for awhile and head inside to get some warm food and drinks (there was a snack bar at the park!) and see where the rest of the day took me.
Graham and I ate some food together and then decided that taking a nap in the car (along with Rene, who had finished the full marathon by the time we were done eating) sounded like an excellent plan. Lisa was chat-walking by this point, so we knew we had quite a long time out in the elements before the celebration would begin. I felt a lot better (and warmer!) after lying down in the backseat of the car for a little while, and my back had had some time to decompress. So we decided to head back out for Lisa’s last few laps.
I put on every piece of clothing I had brought with me and we headed out to walk with Lisa. The crowd around her was growing and growing as friends and family from all over had come to celebrate the day with her. The experience was truly unlike anything I’ve ever seen – she is one of the most magnetic people I’ve ever met. That so many people would come out to what amounts to basically the middle of nowhere and walk laps around this park to celebrate this accomplishment was incredible to witness, and it was obvious how much she was loved. I walked two of the last laps, putting my final total at a little over 18 miles for the day.
At the finish line, Lisa dissolved into tears. While I know that she undoubtedly felt relief and amazement at what she accomplished, knowing Lisa, I think she was even more moved by all of the support and love around her. Lisa’s not the type of person to brag on her accomplishments or talk about how many races she has completed. She truly just loves being out there, meeting people, and learning about them and touching their lives in the same way that other strangers have touched hers. Watching her hug Graham at the finish line almost made me cry, because their relationship is a lot like mine and AJ’s in some ways. He’s an amazing and endless source of support for her who also probably wouldn’t mind if she never ran another marathon, so he has made many sacrifices along this journey, too. They are an amazing couple.
Lisa then received her medal and the highly coveted 100 Marathon Club shirt and gave her speech, which, in true Lisa fashion, gave so many others credit for her accomplishments and focused on how other people have changed her life. It was surprisingly emotional for me, but it wasn’t because Lisa has run 100 marathons, although that is of course amazing. For me, it was just incredible to see the love and support that surrounded her and how much she gives to others. I’ll be the first person to tell you that I’m not always great at connecting with people or keeping in touch. I am a great friend in some ways and a terrible friend in others, but Lisa is the type of person that makes me want to be a better person, runner, writer, and friend. I can think of no one who deserves a more wonderful reception or a bigger party.
It was a very long, emotional day, but I wouldn’t have changed a second of it. Well, except for the cold – I could have done without that, but I think everyone could have. This day wasn’t about the miles or the course or the cold or the food or anything else – and I’m pretty sure Lisa would say it wasn’t about her, either, although I could certainly argue that point. It was really a celebration of what running has brought to people’s lives and how much the simple act of running can change you forever. I know that without running, I never would have flown across the Atlantic Ocean to hang out with a South African, a Brit, a Czech, and an Italian while running in circles around a park in England! So today was a day to be thankful and to remember what we have in this sport.
I saw a quote this week that says “Be a flamingo in a flock of pigeons.” I can think of no quote more fitting to sum up Lisa and to sum up how I hope to live my life.