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Runner: It’s about finishing the race

By Staff | Oct 9, 2009

Mark Cucuzzella, organizer of the Freedoms Run Marathon, greets full marathon runner Luanne Turrentine as she crossed the finish line on Saturday. Turrentine was the last person to finish the race, with a time of over 8:40. Photo by Michael Theis

Fifty-nine-year-old Luanne Turrentine doesn’t know her exact time in the inaugural Freedom’s Run marathon, which finished here in Shepherdstown last Saturday. The time keeping equipment had already been packed away. She did not emerge across the finish line, as many others did, to join an exhausted gaggle of fellow participants and excited supporters. By the time she crossed the finish line the showers had already been locked, and the awards banquet was over.

Turrentine missed those orgiastic displays of emotion and exhaustion so typically associated with marathon finish lines because she came in last. Dead last: only 306 people finished the full Marathon, all ahead of Turrentine. The other 1,000 runners participating in either the 5k, 10k, or half-marathon all finished ahead of her as well.

Awaiting her was a surprised group of six people; three race officials, including race organizer Mark Cucuzzella, who happened to be gathering trash from the stadium grounds when Turrentine rounded the last corner, her husband, a local journalist, and a man with an American flag named Ray Defrees.

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Ray Defrees, sporting a red shirt with “RAY” emblazoned on the front and back, did not run the Freedoms Run marathon. He’s here supporting his daughter, noting she ran the full marathon in 3:45.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Defrees admits he was swept up in a wave of nationalistic fervor which swept across our bruised nation.

“I’m an Army brat,” he says. “And you know how easy it was to be patriotic back then, right?” He trails off and looks away in the distance to see if another marathoner has rounded the corner.

Following the attacks, Defrees, already an experienced marathoner, searched for a way to unite his patriotism with his running in time for the 2001 Marine Corps Marathon in Washington D.C. Like many other Americans, he wanted to show his gratitude for those in the armed forces who would be risking their lives in far flung lands to exact retribution on behalf of a humiliated nation. On an impulse, he purchased a $5 flag from Wal-Mart and affixed it to a lightweight aluminum pole. Using rubber bands and foam he fashioned a grip to insulate his hands.

Once the Marine Corps Marathon got under way, an unexpected thing happened. The flag seemed to energize people. Other race participants, especially military personnel, asked to carry the flag. Ray soon started handing it off to anyone who wanted to hold it.

Ray still bears the same $5 Wal-Mart flag he bought back in 2001. He has carried it in over 200 events, and estimates it’s been held by over 6,000 runners. Double-amputee veterans have carried it across finish lines. He’s had to chase down Marines half his age who have gotten caught up in the moment and sprinted away, flag in hand. Googling “Ray Defrees Marathon” brings up countless stories of random encounters with the man some dub “Flag-man.” His flag has appeared in numerous newspaper photographs. Ray, and his flag, are something of a legend in the regional marathon world.

Carrying a flag in a marathon is kind of like swimming with an anchor. It acts like an inefficient parachute, adding seconds to your time. But it also seems to imbue people with a sense of patriotic collectivism, the notion that where there goes one man with an American flag, there goes a nation. Run a distance, and you’ve done it alone. Run that distance with an American flag, and you are the manifestation of an entire nation.

Freedom’s Run is no different for Ray and his flag. Standing at the enterance to the stadium, he intercepts participants, handing the flag off with a few words of encouragement as he runs alongside for the last 50 yards of the race. Over and over he repeats this. People grab the flag from him, some hold it high in the air, others clutch it tightly as they run or walk, exhausted, across the finish line. When they cross, the expression of joy is universal.

By now, the full marathon had started over 7 hours ago, but Ray Defrees stands resolute. He’s going to be here for the last runner.

It’s about camaraderie, says Ray.

– – –

Out around mile 23 or 24, Luanne Turrentine has recieved some bad news. Her husband Bill Turrentine, who had earlier finished the marathon with a four-hour time, had called. The marathon course would be shutting down soon, and officials would be sending out a van to pick up the stragglers, he reported.

This was unacceptable for Luanne. She wanted to finish. “I paid for 26 miles, I wanna run for 26 miles,” she said afterwards. “I didn’t want to get pulled off the course.”

Luanne, who suffers from Type I diabetes, pressed on – her goal had changed from merely finishing the race to beating the invalid-van to the finish. She was suddenly in a race again.

Luanne is an experienced runner. This is her 16th marathon, and she’s done a few ultra-marathons, too. Her fastest marathon was a 3:30 she ran back in the 1990s. She can’t make that time anymore, she says with a laugh, but she still likes the challenge a marathon provides.

Back in the stadium, a gaggle of three gray haired women in their 50s and 60s stopped to accept the flag of Ray Defrees. The crossed the finish line in unison, posed for some snapshots, chatting with race officials.

“Is there anyone behind you?” asked one of the officials. By now, other race officials were dismantling the time keeping equipment.

The women nodded, reporting that they had heard about one other lady a few miles behind them, but they hadn’t seen her in a while. She may have been pulled by now.

The race official looked concerned, remarking that at this rate it could be 15 to 30 minutes before she crosses. The event was supposed to be finished over an hour ago. Some wondered if she had been picked up already, others wondered if this mysterious “last runner” was nothing more than a product of rumor.

A decision was made: Pack it up. The dismantled time-keeping equipment was carried off the field to a waiting truck. The organges and bagels set out for the exhausted, carb-hungry runners were packed away into a moving van.

Still, there stood Ray with his flag.

The concensus among the race officials, solidified by their full dismantling of the timekeeping equipment, was that this last runner was a myth. This was enough to convince the local journalist in attendance that he had fully covered the event. Camera and notepad in hand, he hopped on his bike and rode out of the stadium towards West Campus.

Cresting the hill on the pedestrian path leading past Ram Stadium he learned that the consensus was wrong. The last runner was not a myth, she was right infront of him, a quarter mile from the finish. He turned on his bicycle and rode back to the stadium, alerting Ray and the other officials that the “grand finale” had arrived at last. The packing stopped, its action replaced with clapping and cheering.

Luanne was escorted by her husband Bill. He sought out his wife on the last mile of the course to guide her across the finish line, a task made difficult by the removal of signage and road cones which guided all the other runners into the waiting arms of friends and family.

As she reached the stadium grounds she was intercepted by Ray. He handed her the flag, and like many before her she applied her own meaning to it. To Luanne Turrentine the flag, and the finish, were a fitting symbol of dogged perserverence for a woman who spent over 20 years as an officer in the Navy.

Cucuzzella, who had been gathering trash from the stadium grounds, stopped his work and went down to see Luanne across the finish line, embracing the flag bearing runner as she crossed. Cucuzella and the other officials guestimated her approximate finishing time: Over 8 hours, 40 minutes, give or take.

“The time doesn’t bother me. The lack of a finish line doesn’t bother me. I’m just happy to finish,” said Luanne.

Ray smiled the entire time. Taking his flag back, he turned home, satisfied that he had made someone’s finish a special experience. The next day he and his flag would be at the Army-Navy 10-mile race in Northern Virginia, uplifting tired souls in need of a patriotic energy boost.