The streak was over. Pacers Running store owner Chris Farley was convinced of it. Every year since 1999, Farley had run a marathon or the distance of 26.2 miles in under three hours, but when he crossed the finish line on a windy morning at the Philadelphia Marathon on Nov. 19, his watch flashed back an unfamiliar number: 3:01:04.
“I didn’t do it,” Farley immediately texted his wife, Olympian and Georgetown University running director Julie Culley. “So disappointed.”
As word spread of Farley’s time, Culley and Farley’s friends at Pacers began to brainstorm. There was still more than a month to go, they reasoned. The store organizes races nearly every weekend, so why not host another one — just for Farley?
A little past 1 p.m. Friday, Farley crossed another finish line. But this time, he was well under three hours, having completed a U.S. Track & Field-certified marathon course at Hains Point in 2:52:53 in front of dozens of friends and family members.
The streak lives on.
“I can’t believe how good I felt,” Farley said while still catching his breath after breaking the tape. “I never really hit a wall because I kept seeing new people show up, new people jump in [to pace]. It was one of the coolest races I’ve ever done.”
Competitive running has been a part of Farley’s life since his days on the cross-country and track teams at Yorktown High.
Born and raised in Arlington, Farley, 41, also ran at the University of Virginia and eventually bought the Pacers Running stores with his parents in 2003 after an unfulfilling stint as a junior computer programmer for the Justice Department. Eight years later, Farley became the sole owner of the popular Washington area running stores and has been a fixture in the local running community.
He also co-hosts a podcast, “Pace the Nation,” with store manager Joanna Russo and Tim Marriott, a college teammate who goes by William E. Docs on the show. A handful of podcast listeners showed up Friday in sub-freezing temperature to show support.
Mark Naylor, a 34-year-old Annandale resident, took off from work to be one of the dozen or so runners who paced Farley through the 3.2-mile loops around Hains Point. A regular Pacers customer and podcast listener, Naylor said he did not know Farley personally but was inspired by his streak.
“The story of somebody trying to keep up a tradition, a goal over so many years, that appeals to a lot of us who have been running for a while,” said Naylor, a marathoner himself (he ran Richmond last month). “And as we get older, we get slower and we want to hold on to something. If this were me in his position, I’d love if people were out supporting me, and so I wanted to come out and support him.”
Along the course were several Pacers employees, holding up life-size cutouts and wearing T-shirts emblazoned with a caricature of Farley created specifically for the event, which was dubbed Breaking3 — a play off of Nike’s Breaking2 event from earlier this year.
(Coincidentally, I was a guest on “Pace the Nation” in December 2016 to talk about the Nike project.)
The race, which had only one official finisher (Farley), also had an official timing system and results page.
“We like to say here, ‘If we’re not overdoing it, what’s the use of doing it?’ So we decided to pull it together,” Pacers chief executive Kathy Dalby said. “This is not unusual for us to do things like this.”
Farley felt jittery as the race began and hit the 5K mark minutes faster than planned.
“What are those boys doing?” Culley asked as the splits popped up on her phone. She had witnessed how disappointed Farley was after the Philadelphia race and could not bear to see him just miss again.
Marriott got in his car and told the pacers to slow down, and eventually Farley got into a groove, nearly hitting each mark at the same pace to average 6:36 per mile.
With about 10 minutes to go, it was clear Farley would make it well under three hours. His pacers flanked him on each side. And as he turned the final corner onto Ohio Drive, he triumphantly raised both arms. Culley broke out into a smile and cheered on each remaining step.
“He’s the person in my life when every time I’m down, he helps me turn it around,” she said a week before the race. “For him to be down, I had to be that person for him. I always want to be that person for him for the few moments he has self-doubt. I have to be that rock for him. I knew we had enough time. … When he commits to something, he’s inspiring to be around. He’s relentless.”
For Farley’s 20th anniversary of the streak next year, the couple had planned to fly to Hawaii for the Honolulu Marathon. The trip is back on.