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NASCAR's Waltrip feels driven to run

A way to get in shape has become a passion.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 6, 2000


Driving 26 miles on a race track is nothing for Michael Waltrip.

The NASCAR Winston Cup driver logged more than 11,200 miles in a stock car last season and has 464 career starts -- though no victories.

But running 26 miles in a marathon -- fighting sneaker-clad crowds packed tighter than the draft at Talladega Superspeedway, along with self-doubt and exhaustion -- offers a completely different challenge.

"To me, the toughest part of a marathon is the first 5 or 6 miles," he said last week. "Physically, that's a challenge to run that far, and when you get that far, you think, "Darn, I've still got 20 miles to go.'

"If you don't stay sharp mentally, you just really get off base right there. Then you kind of get into a groove. Actually, the easiest part for me was the last 5 or 6 miles because I'm like, "There's no way I've come this far and I'm going to quit. I know I'm going to make it now.' So that's a good feeling."

Running has gone from a day-after-Thanksgiving whim in 1997 to a passion for Waltrip, the 37-year-old younger brother of three-time Winston Cup champion Darrell Waltrip.

Sunday, he plans to be among an expected 2,500 runners in the Hops Marathon By the Bay in Tampa.

"It started out just as a way to lose a little weight and to make sure that I was physically fit," Waltrip said. "It ended up being a way that I think it really improves my mental toughness."

It will be his third marathon since taking up the sport three years ago. He ran the Boston Marathon in April.

"I never will forget the first day I ran," Waltrip said. "My pilot came to work one day, and I said, "Today we're going to start running.' And he said, "Okay.' We ran 2 miles. We ran out for 10 minutes and back for 10 minutes. That's how it started."

Waltrip noticed that the more he jogged, the easier it was to drive a stock car 300, 400, even 600 miles.

"I think people look at it and understand that I do it simply because I want to be a better race car driver," he said.

Friends who have run in marathons or triathlons offer advice to Waltrip on how much he should train. But with little time during the racing season, Waltrip often has to improvise.

Sometimes he runs laps on the racetracks. Sometimes he chooses to wind his way through the infield roads. Sometimes he weaves among sedans, RVs and SUVs in parking lots.

"I feel a little bit like Forrest Gump when I'm out in the parking lot because all the fans know I run," he said. "They're always like, "Go, Mike! There goes Mike.' So it's pretty fun."

Waltrip ran in a handful of 10-kilometer races in 1997 and 1998 before deciding to compete in the Kiawah Island (S.C.) Marathon in December 1999.

He finished in 4 hours, 16 minutes, 30 seconds.

"I actually felt pretty decent at the end," Waltrip said.

The Boston Marathon was something he wanted to try.

"It was just one of those things in life that I think is pretty neat to say you got to do," Waltrip said. "We just kind of trudged along and looked at the sights and enjoyed the experience."

A sponsor landed him a spot in the race. Four hours, 33 minutes, 31 seconds after the start, he finished exhausted and in 14,315th place.

"I was right in the middle of my racing season, and I didn't dedicate the time toward it that I needed to," Waltrip said. "Consequently, man, I struggled. I finished in 41/2 hours. That was not embarrassing or anything. I just hurt so bad. When it was over, I just felt terrible."

Running isn't as much competing against others, however.

"If you run one in three hours, that's different," he said. "You've got a body that's made for such. But when you're fartin' around at 41/2 hours, that's just someone who's determined that they're going to finish the project."

Just how serious is Waltrip? He chose the Hops Marathon because the race brochure appealed to him, among other things.

"The brochure said, "A scenic, flat, waterfront course,' " Waltrip said. "I related to each one of those."

He also relates to those who follow his lead and take up the sport.

"People come up to me sometimes and say, "I just started running on the treadmill, and I made it a mile, and it hurt. How do you think you can make it 26?' " he said. "There's no athletic ability related to me running those marathons because you just take off. It's just mental. You prepare, and you train, and anyone can do it. It's just a matter of doing it."

Michael Waltrip

BIRTHDATE/PLACE: April 30, 1963, in Owensboro, Ky.

RESIDENCE: Sherrils Ford, N.C.

OCCUPATION: NASCAR Winston Cup driver.

WIFE: Buffy.

CHILDREN: Caitlin Marie, 10; Margaret Carol, 3.

FIRST MARATHON: Kiawah Island, S.C., December 1999, 4 hours, 16 minutes, 30 seconds.

LATEST MARATHON: Boston, April, 4 hours, 33 minutes, 31 seconds; 14,315th place.

QUOTABLE: "I think anyone would think it's admirable. I think people look at it and understand that I do it simply because I want to be a better race car driver."

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