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Rea White, NASCAR Scene

THE BIG FINISH

Glancing out the window at people jogging around the parking lot wearing trash bags for disposable warmth, Michael Waltrip silently stretched in his car. Spread out around him roamed people he’d encouraged to join him in running in the Las Vegas Marathon.

A friend from high school that he hadn’t seen in years. A couple of vice presidents of furniture companies. A mother with two children. Crew members from NASCAR teams. And Kyle Petty, the man Waltrip lived with when he first moved to North Carolina.

Running marathons is a hobby Waltrip picked up several years ago, but it was a totally new concept to most of the 32 people he and Petty cajoled into joining them on this blustery day. 

A few months ago, Waltrip and his wife, Buffy, were awed by the Victory Junction Gang Camp that the Pettys turned from idea to reality. Created for chronically ill children, the camp houses 120 youngsters a week during the summer months. Swimming, horseback riding and fishing highlight an average day at a magical place that lets kids just be kids, no matter what illnesses plague their lives.

Camping for a week is fun, but it’s not cheap. It costs about $1,500 for each child to attend, but the families pay nothing. So fund-raising is an ongoing process for the Pettys, and now the Waltrips have joined them,

The Waltrips created an ambitious project known as Operation Marathon with plans to raise $1 million through entry fees and events surrounding the Vegas marathon. Refusing to just create an event and fade into the background, the Waltrips trained -- Michael for the full marathon and Buffy for the half-marathon - and encouraged friends and family to join them. Thirty-two did.

As he sat in a car watching warm-ups, Waltrip could be confident the million-dollar goal had been met, though it would take some time to finalize the numbers.

But that 26.2 miles still loomed.

Prior to the race, Petty laughed at the idea of setting a hard and fast goal for a marathon time.

“I just want to finish,” he said.

He seemed more intrigued than intimidated by the grueling event lying before him, that mind-numbing stretch of 26.2 miles of asphalt. When the race started, he stood at the line talking to a television reporter, then turned and raced to keep up with his companions.

Peacefully plowing through the open desert, he and more than 2,700 other runners ran surrounded by snow-covered mountains and the soft swish-swish of shoes hitting the pavement. Occasionally a car honked from nearby Interstate 15.

Runners quickly spread out on the course. While those at the front galloped away to a pace that would see them finish in about 2 hours, 13 minutes, the men sporting Operation Marathon shirts and their friends stayed on track and most finished in less than 4 1/2 hours.

Throughout the event, Petty smiled and laughed, teasing other runners and waving to supporters yelling encouragement as the group moved past the 15-mile marker and into a slightly more populated area. Wind blasting his face, he trudged on in his first full-fledged marathon effort.

“All the runners, they’re really encouraging out there,” Petty said later. “I think they all knew it was my first run. They’d run by and pat me on the back and say, ‘Keep digging’ or something like that. It was a great experience to be a part of.”

Gutting it out
Great, but rough.

People promised it would get easier.

Petty looked forward to that point.

He’d driven the course a day earlier and knew the gentle climb that peaked at the 8.6-mile mark. After that, it was all downhill or at least level running. Smooth sailing. Sure, participants still had 17.6 more miles to go, but those miles offered less hardship.

No one bothered to mention the wind, which forced bodies into straighter stances once they crested the hill and kept pounding them until they finally managed to put it at their back for the final stretch of the race.

The wind hit almost 25 mph and forced plans and strategies to fall to the wayside in an effort to just finish.

“I trained for the distance, not for the wind,” Petty said. “That kind of kicked my rear end a little bit.”

How bad was it?

“The wind was blowing so hard that a port-a-john blew over on the course,” Petty said.

He wasn’t the only one struggling. Ahead of him on the course, Waltrip also endured dismal conditions. His mind drifted -- “I’ve got about 10 people inside my head ... I can’t listen to music because I’ve got so many people to deal with up there” -- and he finally settled on how he wanted to attack his fourth marathon.

In the early hours of Jan. 30, Waltrip considered strategies. Should he focus on running the marathon in less than 4 hours? Or would it be better to run with his buddies and keep on the expected 4-1/2-hour pace?

Just before the 7:30 a.m. start, while his wife Buffy closed in on finishing the half-marathon in just over 2 hours, he seemed to be abandoning an attempt at running his personal best.

He’d trained hard for months, developed a plan that saw him running fast paces for short distances on some days, 19 miles on others. This could be his best chance for a fast time. He discussed his plan to put his goal of running 26.2 miles in 4 hours on hold. But after some thought and consideration, he’d decided to just run with his buddies, the group that not only supported his Operation Marathon but also trained for months to run for hours.

Plodding through the desert, the soft pounding of sneakers on asphalt around him, Waltrip slipped into his zone and picked up his pace. He faced perhaps the worst race conditions he’d known in his short marathon career -- and pushed them to the back of his mind.

The first segment of the race rolled by, and Waltrip crested the highest point in the race. Now things should get a little easier.

“Once we turned to go downhill, we were all so happy we were going to be going downhill from there to the finish, but then the wind was blowing 20 miles an hour, and you couldn’t even run straight up and down, you had to just lean over,” he said after the race. “That was brutal. I would rather have been going uphill with no wind.”

That wind altered the strategy for many participants and left them fervently hoping for a break around each turn. 

It was a long time coming.

Wind roaring in their ears, sweat dripping from their faces, the runners strained their eyes in search of the turn. It wasn’t the final turn -- in fact 3 1/2 more miles of running remained after it -- nor did it mark any major goal or portion of the race.

It simply veered in another direction. One that changed that relentless force of wind from something to push through to something that pushed you.

With more than 22 miles already completed, that seemed to be the only thing worth looking forward to at that exact moment in time.

That and maybe hitting a new mark. As the miles wore on, Waltrip thought more and more about finishing in under 4 hours.

“Sometimes it seems it’s harder to go slow than it is to run your pace,” he said.

Apparently, this was one of those times. Waltrip picked up his pace throughout the race, racing through the 25th mile in his race-best time of 8 minutes, 26 seconds.

As he ran to the line, he could see that magic “3” still showing in the hour slot of the clock showing the official race time. When his scoring chip was removed, his time became official – 3:56:52. 

“I didn’t think I could do it,” he said. “I never thought about beating 4, I just kept running. Then I got to adding up in my mind and on my watch that I could probably do it if I just had a good finish and I just really felt good. ... I never would admit that I was going to beat 4, but I wanted to. I’ve always been pretty determined.”

Petty wasn’t far behind. He finished in 4:16:01, but claimed an additional personal best.

“I will say I broke my own personal record,” said Petty, who finished his first complete marathon after running the half-marathon event a year ago in Las Vegas. “Today I only stopped at three port-a-lets, the last time I stopped at like 20. That’s a personal record.”

Family affair
Sometimes it’s not really the ending that matters anyway; it’s the process of getting there. At least that’s the way it was with Operation Marathon.

It became more than just a fund-raiser, more than a personal effort to best goals both physical and financial. This project united old friends, forged ties among new ones and showed just why people always say NASCAR is about family.

After all, Waltrip is practically family to the Pettys anyway. Long before there was a camp, an up-and-coming young driver headed to North Carolina to break into the world of stock car racing.

“He lived with me when he first came down for about six or seven months,” Petty said. “He used to babysit [sons] Austin and Adam. So when the camp came along, it was special to him because of Adam.”

By the time the camp came along, they had all lost Adam. He died in 2001 following a race car crash during practice. The Victory Junction Gang Camp was already more than an idea, but it was put on hold while the Pettys dealt with their loss and then built in Adam’s honor.

The camp has touched everyone who has seen it. The Waltrips were so inspired by what their friends built that they developed the concept and plans for Operation Marathon. And soon, both were touching lives everywhere.

Paul Finley read about the marathon online. A high school classmate of Waltrip’s, he reconnected with his friend and trained to run. Brooke Hondros, who worked with the Waltrips on developing the plans and did much of the behind-the-scenes work, called friends Thom and Lori Klingman, who also signed up for the event. Crew members in the garage started filtering in, including employees of Petty Enterprises.

Soon they found themselves running with Petty at race tracks, talking strategy and training plans on breaks from racing.

“It’s funny, when we go test, everybody goes back to the hotel and puts on their running clothes, and we’re all running down the side of the road,” Petty said. “One day it rained [when we were testing] at Kentucky in December while we were there, and myself and a couple of the engineers made six or seven laps around the race track there in the middle of the day.”

Training programs started cropping up all over. Waltrip charmed his friends into signing up, while Petty actively recruited as well. Friends donated money or started hitting treadmills.

Jeff Davis did both. A longtime friend of Waltrip’s, he did more than just sign up for the event. He sent an e-mail to around 200 people explaining the project and asking them to pledge 50 cents for every mile if he ran in less than 4 1/2 hours. Suddenly, those people forwarded the e-mail to friends, and 700-800 people were contacted about the event.

The message gained momentum.

“Some people just called up and said, ‘I want to send 25 kids to camp’ and cut a check for $37,500. It just caught on. It was like wildfire, and they’re still coming in. My goal was $26,000, I wanted to raise $1,000 per mile. ... I’ll bet by the time we really quit I’ll get close to $150,000.”

It’s that type of dedication, that extra dose of help and support from friends and family, that Waltrip knew would make this endeavor a success. 

After the race was run, when the event was clearly proven a success, Waltrip confessed to seeing this type of idea in action before trying it himself.

And whether it was naive or not, he didn’t have any doubts about his ability to meet his fund-raising goal. 

 “I haven’t ever told anybody this, but I got this idea from Puff Daddy,” Waltrip said of the rap music star. “I saw him finishing a marathon in New York and he raised, I think he said, $2 million for the kids, and I said, ‘Well I ought to be able to raise a million for the kids.’ And this is our first try at it.”

Buffy Waltrip expected to meet the goals as well, but did see this as an unusual approach to a charity event. She felt the passion people feel for the camp would create the domino effect of support that occurred. And the passion her family shared for running would be contagious.

She’s been a runner most of her life, starting cross country when she was just 12. When Michael Waltrip started carving out an exercise program, he followed in his wife’s footsteps – literally.

“I would always run, and Michael would play racquetball or basketball and things like that,” she said. “When he decided to get a workout commitment on a daily basis, he chose running. For one thing, it is easy. On our schedule no matter what track you are at, you can run.”

Still, while Waltrip knew the physical side of what the event promised, she found a surprising impact in other areas of family life. Especially after seeing how her daughter, Macy, reacted.

“I have really, really enjoyed it and my children have learned a lot from it,” she said. “They talk about, my 7-year-old, if she finds a penny on the floor anywhere, it’s like her whole mindset, anything she gets, if she gets money from the tooth fairy, she wants to give it to Victory Junction Gang camp. That part’s really neat for our family.”

Last lap
Widely supported, Operation Marathon gained momentum as the months passed. Dinners in Maine and Hickory, N.C., were added to the project. A post-marathon concert with Hootie & The Blowfish followed by a two-night Texas Hold ’Em poker tournament pushed the fund-raiser beyond its running roots.

Still, the actual run -- and the pace of the participants -- remained the centerpiece of the project. As the weeks wore on, so did the miles of training, and the anticipation mounted over who could go how fast. While talk of pace and speed took a backseat to the heart of the project, it started to come up more and more.

As the marathon wore on, it became clear that the entire field of runners competing in the name of Operation Marathon would not only complete their respective events but would post solid times.

At the end of the day, as he danced to the tunes of Darius Rucker and company, Waltrip could relax. His project clearly a success, his new personal time record set, he could finally enjoy the moment. The pressure – both of taking on a project of this scope and of trying to break a time barrier -- eased.

He sat back and took no credit, instead deflecting it to the fans and supporters who donated the money and who joined him in running the miles.

“I’m just real happy that we’ve had such a snowball effect with the giving,” Waltrip said. “We’re going to go well past the million [-dollar goal]. It feels good.”