On an unseasonably tepid Sunday morning last December, thousands of men and women set off on a 26.2-mile trek around the city — runners wore pained expressions as they traversed the rolling East Dallas terrain. Many slowed as they rounded an excruciatingly gusty stretch along White Rock Lake.
Several stopped, spent, before reaching the peak of the hill at mile 22. Some crumbled. Some vomited. But the bulk of them kept moving to the finish line.
Despite the fanfare, long-distance racing can be a brutal experience for the contestant — (“worse than childbirth”, one female runner says) — so why is it that droves of runners will return to the scene Sunday, Dec. 13, to run the White Rock Marathon again?
“The fact that it was miserable and I had my worst marathon ever makes me want to do it again,” Chris Stratton says about last year’s race.
“Partially because I know it won’t be as bad, and partially because I want to learn from my mistakes and overcome setbacks.”
He’s not just in this for himself, though. Stratton is training coordinator for the Dallas Running Club, a group 4,000 strong (the third largest in the U.S.) that saw its membership blossom from about 600 members after launching half-marathon and marathon training programs in 2007.
From his volunteer position, he shares hard-won wisdom with hundreds of runners looking to him for advice. On a long-distance training run, he might answer dozens of questions regarding injuries, diet, cross-training or overcoming rough patches, all while keeping pace for a group and tracking the miles and turns.
“We get two schools of people — one type comes out simply because they want to accomplish something they never thought they could. They use the group to motivate and keep them accountable,” Stratton says.
“Another type comes out because they like running, but they like doing it in a social group even more. The latter isn’t as concerned with times as they are with having a fun, healthy habit and making friends.”
Dallas Running Club’s Pat Metcalf of Lake Highlands (a woman with an “amazing personality”, Stratton says) leads Stratton’s 9:30- to 10-minute milers’ half-marathon pace group. On any given training day, Metcalf can be heard miles away cheering her group.
“Come on! Swing those arms,” she shouts, even as she is pushing herself up the hill.
Just a few years ago, Metcalf weighed nearly 350 pounds.
Following gastric bypass surgery, she needed exercise. A friend talked her into joining the club’s half marathon training program.
“I hated it for four months,” she says. “I am a goal-oriented person, so I thought I would stick it out through that half marathon and stop running after that.”
But after those first months, Metcalf says she began enjoying herself. Fellow club members had much to do with the change of heart, she says. You suffer and celebrate with people when you train with a group, she says, and that builds bonds.
Metcalf says the camaraderie keeps her inspired. In fact, after tackling that first half marathon, she went on to complete a full marathon. Now, like Stratton, she’s helping others reach their goals.
“The idea of leading scared me a little at first. I wasn’t sure I knew enough about running — but I did believe I could ‘rah rah’ people.”
For ex-military man Greg Hall, running is, in a way, like a religion.
When Hall became president of the club last year, he made a few changes. At the first monthly club race under his direction last winter, he made 400 chilly, sparingly dressed runners wait at the start line as he spent a few minutes remembering the American troops, past and present. He requested a moment of silence and then played the National Anthem over the PA system.
“I think while we are all together, we should take a moment to honor our country, think about peace, ending hunger or whatever needs to be done in order to make the world a better place,” Hall says.
“I’m not religious, but I guess you might say I’m spiritual.”
Like many runners, he’s ritualistic. Club participants expect every race to begin the same way, with a moment of silence and the National Anthem, followed by three words Hall has made the unofficial club motto — “Today, we run.”
During his term, Hall has increased the club’s number of volunteer board members and emphasized the importance of volunteerism and community service. The club is involved with Special Olympics, and its major races, including the DRC Half Marathon each November, benefit a scholarship fund for DISD students.
Noble ideals might add magic to the sport, but when the runners line up at the marathon start, know that most of them have put in miles of sweat, grit and discipline preparing for the day.
“Quite frankly, it requires a lifestyle change,” Stratton says. “Running a great marathon takes a four- or five-month effort and focus on running, eating well, sleeping well, and taking care of nagging injuries. The ones who drop out are always the ones who don’t realize this.”
Those who finish strong will walk away with a sense that they can take on the world, and the ones who falter will know there’s always tomorrow, Stratton says.
“You can’t ever quit on running or the marathon. The only thing worse than having a bad race is never giving yourself another chance.”
Learn more about the Dallas Running Club at dallasrunningclub.com