The Tough Race Director with the Soft Heart
Nancy Goodnight doesn’t do anything “a little bit”. A lot of people around the world are grateful for this. Since 2009, Goodnight has been the race director of the Miracle Match Marathon in Waco, Texas. If you go to Waco looking for her, you might check the lap pool at 4:30 in the morning. Or a lonely country road 40 miles out of town, where she will be on her bike and resisting the urge to check email on her phone. Or politely arguing with the city permit office about her next event. Or casually doing a 16-mile run, then heading off to organize a fundraiser. Or she might be off to the DFW airport. again with a beat-up metal box, hustling through security and fielding your questions.
For someone who describes herself as an introvert, Nancy Goodnight has a lot of contact with a lot of people in the course of a day. She is petite, wiry, made of solid muscle and doesn’t sit still very well. Her friends call her “Squirrel”.
Goodnight brings an infectious intensity to her work that helps her accomplish far more than most people, and you realize early on that when something matters to her, it really matters.
“These people need a bone marrow transplant or they’re not going to make it. It’s that simple,” she says, defining the driving force of the Miracle Match Marathon. “The race is called the Miracle Match because, frankly, it used to be a miracle to find a matching donor and recipient. The technology has improved and the database is so much larger that we have more success in creating matches, but the name still fits.”
Bone marrow transplants allow cancer patients to endure the massive doses of chemotherapy needed to fight the disease in advanced stages. The beneficial chemo attacks the cancer, but it also destroys the patient’s white blood cells, which fight infection. These cells are generated from bone marrow. So, after receiving the chemotherapy, patients are quickly given bone marrow from a donor to restock their white blood cells and rebuild their immune systems. Every human being comes in contact with millions of bacteria and viruses every day, many of them harmful; without a solid white blood cell count, no one can survive long.
The problem is, that elusive perfect bone marrow match most likely belongs to a complete stranger, far away. Finding that person and matching them with the recipient is the great puzzle to be solved.
So for Goodnight, the cause behind the race is not a box to be checked off; the goal is not to create a photo op and hand over a giant foam core check. It is life or death for someone’s family member.
How It Started
Goodnight was in her 30s, a mother of four young girls and teaching high school biology, when she thought that running a marathon sounded like fun. She started training and was immediately hooked on endurance sports.
In 2004, she was out with other local runners, training for the Marine Corp Marathon, and someone mentioned they had heard about a marathon in Waco. They were all surprised to find a race in development in their hometown, and checked it out.
What she found was the beginnings of the Miracle Match Marathon, put on by people with a heart for the cause but without experience in publicity or race management. She quickly became both a participant and a volunteer, helping to organize the race in following years. She proved to be a natural at event planning, and in 2009 was asked to take the reins of the marathon. The race has grown in participant numbers, sponsorship and money raised every year since.
Unable to do anything just a little bit, she naturally added more and more events to her schedule and now manages or assists with roughly one event a month in the Texas Hill Country.
As a competitor, she has run more than 120 marathons – about one a month since she first got the idea that a marathon might be fun – and has completed several ultra marathons; countless half marathons, bike races and trail races; and seven full Ironman events.
Race weekend for the Miracle Match Marathon, the last weekend of each January, consists of a 5K, 1 Mile Run (which is simultaneously the last mile of the Kids’ Marathon, the kids having run the previous 25.2 miles in the preceding weeks), the Fire Truck Pull, 10K, half marathon, full marathon and marathon relay, and the new ultra-marathon of 31 miles.
Goodnight may be the only race director who personally runs the entire marathon course a few days before the event – every year – to make sure there are no surprises that could disturb the race.
Hailed as the “Toughest in Texas,” a claim no one has dared challenge, the Miracle Match Marathon starts with a loop through the beautiful Baylor campus, then winds through downtown Waco into neighborhoods of fine old houses. It drops down to Lake Waco and sends runners on a windblown out-and-back detour on a jetty on the lake, covers much of scenic Cameron Park along the Brazos River, and ends with a thundering sprint on the wooden planks of Waco’s historic Suspension Bridge, built in 1870 for the cattle drives on the Chisolm Trail.
Somewhere between downtown and the first residential area, you realize this has ceased to be a leisurely jog. It is brutally hilly from that point on, with one hill more than a mile and a half long and another so steep you might put your car in first gear if you were driving.
This is a marathon you brag about after running it.
The finish across the historic bridge is deliberately symbolic. The marathon weekend helps create the bridge between people whose last hope may be a bone marrow transplant and the unsuspecting stranger in a random geographic location who happens to be the perfect, life-saving match.
The mission of the marathon is to raise money and awareness for the Be The Match organization. While many events have “raise awareness” as a vague goal, this has the specific goal of educating the public on the need for bone marrow donors for critically ill cancer patients, then engaging people in conversation in the hope that they might agree to become a bone marrow donor.
Those who agree get their cheeks swabbed and are entered into a database.
“The mission of the event has not changed,” says Goodnight. “But in addition to adding more events to fill out the weekend and engage more people, it has evolved from a fairly informal fundraiser to a full-on celebration.”
Over 3,000 participants take part in some aspect of the race weekend.
The firefighters of Waco have been a big part of the event from day one. They volunteer, mark the course, get involved in the kids’ events, and more. One firefighter actually makes the finisher medals, a unique, hand-crafted design every year.
All of them volunteer to be entered into the bone marrow registry. Over the years, four Waco firefighters have in fact been a match for cancer patients and have donated bone marrow.
“Being a donor is not a casual thing,” Goodnight says, with her typical passion. “This is a commitment. Ideal donors are young adults, since this has the greatest success rate in transplants, but these are also people who have a lot going on. If it comes up some day that you are a match, that means you may be the one known person on the planet who could save this other person’s life. If you sign up because all of your friends or fraternity brothers are getting their cheeks swabbed for the registry, but then you bail out when the time comes because it is inconvenient to you to go through the donation process, you could destroy someone’s hope; and very often it is that hope that keeps patients going.”
It’s Not Just the Race
Many race directors support a not-for-profit organization. Some do it with sincerity, genuinely embracing the social cause and partnering with the organization for volunteers, cross-promotion and fundraising. Others engage a cause in name only, nominally supporting a charitable organization because races are expected to do so. Nancy Goodnight takes it to a new level.
Perhaps no other race director takes calls at odd hours, asking if she can be at DFW airport on short notice to hand-carry life-giving bone marrow to some yet-to-be-revealed destination. Goodnight says Yes to these calls. There is normally time to prepare, since the bone marrow process is very involved; but just in case, she keeps a travel bag packed.
“People are surprised at the amount of secrecy involved in bone marrow donation, but there are good reasons for it,” she explains. “It’s extremely personal. The donor and recipient are actually joined on a DNA level from this point forward. The donation process may mean travel, and it may mean the donor missing work or school, and this is unpaid.
“There is a wide range of emotions that come into play, knowing that these two strangers are now connected and one of them saved the other’s life for no reason other than it was the right thing to do,” she observes. “Recipients need time to recover, and they need time to process all of this. All they know about each other are general facts, like the patient is a mid-30s father of two in late-stage cancer, or that the donor is a professional from the Southeast in her mid-20s. There is a waiting period of at least one year before the donor and recipient can learn about each other, and both parties have to agree. That’s why there are layers of privacy around the courier trips.”
The courier work has both a sameness and an edge of excitement to it. Goodnight spends a lot of time waiting in hospitals and hotels for the donation to be completed, then heads to the airport with the life-saving cargo in a special metal case that never leaves her hand. Most airline and TSA employees understand the nature of medical courier work, but the occasional gate agent will attempt to force Goodnight to gate-check the metal case. (Note to gate agents: You don’t want to do this.)
Once on the ground in the recipient’s city, whether Sacramento or London or Buenos Aires, Goodnight rushes straight to the hospital, where the patient and bone marrow transplant team are waiting. She makes the handoff and the professionals do their work. Usually she is there overnight, but at times the folks at the Be The Match organization will have her on another flight back to DFW that same evening. With a 90-minute drive back to Waco afterward, it can make for some very long days.
Intensity and achievement run in the family. Goodnight’s father is a retired oil field physicist who holds over 85 patents. Her husband, Jon Mark, is a prominent Waco surgeon. Two of her four brainy and talented daughters are thriving in top universities, one has graduated and is working as a mechanical engineer, and the youngest is still in high school.
And Then There Was the Florida Ironman…
Many endurance athletes have heard rumors about an Ironman competitor who was smashed up in an accident and finished the race anyway. Now, the next time you hear someone mention this story, you can set the record straight.
On November 2, 2012, Goodnight was competing in the Florida Ironman when she stopped to fix her bike. A cyclist coming behind her was not paying attention and rode into her at full speed as she knelt by the side of the course, sending them both sprawling. The other rider got back on his bike and left without checking on her.
She was in intense pain and knew she was seriously injured – but being Nancy Goodnight, this was an inconvenience to be overcome. She discovered that her right arm simply did not respond; so she rode the last 50 miles with her arm dangling uselessly, her chest and right side in agony with every breath.
The pain moved to excruciating levels as she started the marathon, leaving her able to do little more than walk fast. Hours later, she crossed the finish line. Instead of going to the hospital, she went back to her hotel.
Only after flying back to Texas the next day and going to the hospital did she discover she had ridden the final 50 miles and completed a full marathon with seven broken ribs, a lacerated liver and a collapsed lung (caused by two of the broken ribs piercing it). Many people would not have even survived after such a hit, much less accomplish an amazing feat of endurance.
When asked why she pressed through this massive physical damage to the end of the race, she responded with a shrug. “I wanted my medal.”
In many places around the world, there are cancer survivors, recipients of successful bone marrow transplants, who will never hear the name Nancy Goodnight – but who, to a degree they will never know, have a fresh start at life because of a race director in Waco who doesn’t quit.
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