This ex-NASCAR star now runs a different type of race — and he’s most likely faster than you
Jamie McMurray, who had his share of major successes as a NASCAR driver and now works as an analyst for Fox Sports’ NASCAR coverage, knows more than a little something about racing.
So it drives him more than a bit crazy when he sees people on the racecourse who don’t seem to get it.
“Once you get out there ... you start drafting as much as you can,” the Mooresville resident says between bites of a cheeseburger and fries at the Cornelius restaurant Hello, Sailor on the edge of Lake Norman. “I know what a difference draft can make, and how to straight-line every corner. I run the minimum amount I can. I see a lot of people, I’m like, ‘What are you doing?? You’re just making this harder on yourself!’”
This, though, is not representative of the Jamie McMurray who won the Daytona 500 in 2010, nor the Jamie McMurray who regularly appears on “NASCAR Race Hub.”
This here is Jamie McMurray the former smoker-turned-helluva-runner talking. The guy who, at the age of 46, just proved he can run 26.2 miles faster than 95, 96, and maybe even 97% of all marathoners; and who — for the second straight year — is about to make a televised attempt to run an impressive 400-meter split ... while wearing a suit and carrying a microphone.
So, to be clear, he’s talking about drafting in running races, and by “straight-lining” he means what’s referred to by runners as “running the tangents” (which involves running from one curve in the road to the next using the shortest possible line).
Introduced to running in just five-minute intervals by Chip Ganassi Racing athletic trainer Josh Wise in 2017, McMurray has since become increasingly consumed with this pastime. These days, after his 10- and 12-year-old head off to school, he does a 10-mile run six times a week with not one but two devices on his wrist: an Apple Watch because of how easy it is to listen to music and podcasts (often ones related to running), and a Garmin 645 because of how smoothly it interfaces with Strava and Training Peaks, two fitness apps hugely popular among running geeks.
Ask him about driving, and whether he’s missed it since retiring in 2019, he keeps his answer short.
“No. ... Because when I watch a race, I see the leader, and I think how much fun that was to be the leader, or to win,” he says. “But I also see the leader lapping a guy, and I remember how bad it sucked to be the guy getting lapped, and how frustrating that day was. ... I don’t miss that part.”
But ask McMurray pretty much anything about running, and he’ll gladly talk about his new favorite hobby till the proverbial wheels come off — as he did for nearly two hours during a recent interview with The Charlotte Observer over lunch.
Here are the most surprising, entertaining and enlightening excerpts, lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
He was big into cycling before running
(Just so you know: Almost immediately after he first started training with Wise, McMurray purchased his first road bike, in February 2017.)
“We would go on ride bikes at every race. Jimmie (Johnson), (Matt) Kenseth, a few others. After practice, before qualifying, you’d have like two or three hours free, and so we would just go get on our bikes and go ride.
“I remember being at Daytona after I first started, and riding back into the motor home lot, and I could see Dale Jr. looking at us, sizing us up. He’s like, ‘Man, I really want to get into that. Just don’t think I can wear that spandex.’ I’m like, ‘Who cares? Everybody has it on, and if you’ve ever ridden a bike for more than 30 minutes, you’re gonna want this.’”
(By the way: Earnhardt took up cycling very shortly after that, and in March 2017 tweeted, “Hardest part of cycling? Being brave/crazy/stupid enough 2 wear spandex.”)
But then, in almost an instant, he quit it
(Just so you know: In 2017 and 2018, he tackled a challenging event called the Assault on Mount Mitchell, which both times saw him ride 102.7 miles from Spartanburg, South Carolina, to the top of the highest peak in the East. But the second time was not the charm.)
“On a bike, I was always a little terrified. I don’t think I ever went on a bike ride where I didn’t get honked at by the four-wheel-drive diesel truck. I was the guy three inches from the curb, thinking, I’m gonna give all the room I can because I don’t want to get hit.
“So anyway, on that Mount Mitchell ride there’s obviously a lot of climbing. But there’s a lot of descent as well. The second time I did it, we were going 40 or 50 miles an hour — 200 or 300 bikes in a pack — and I watched a guy go off the edge and down a big steep ravine. We couldn’t stop right away, because we were going so fast, but we could have stopped 30 seconds later. But no one stopped. I was asking people, ‘Are we gonna stop?’ They’re like, ‘No, there’s a police officer up here. We’ll tell ’em.’ And I’m thinking, We’re in the middle of nowhere. That guy just fell off the side of a cliff. Oh my God. That could have been me.
“I got home, and I hung my bike up in my garage, and I was like, I’m gonna be a runner. Running’s my thing now.”
(By the way: McMurray never got on that bike again, eventually selling both it and all of his gear.)
A funny story from his first marathon
(Just so you know: McMurray got a fair amount of media attention after it was announced he was planning to make his marathon debut at a race on South Carolina’s Kiawah Island in December 2017. But on race day, he got no special treatment, and since it’s a low-key event, he blended in with everyone else on the course. Well, almost.)
“I’m just a really quiet person in public. I don’t say much. So I’m cruising along, keeping to myself, and I get beside this guy, and he says, ‘Hey, how you doin’?’ I said, ‘Oh, I’m good.’ And I’m thinking, I don’t really want to talk, because I’m running. But he’s like, ‘My name’s Dave.’ I say, ‘I’m Jamie.’ He’s like, ‘Nice to meet you.’ I tell him it’s my first marathon, and that’s kind of it. That’s our conversation.
“Well, after we get done talking, Dave then moves on to this other guy, and this guy tells him his name is Bill. And Dave and Bill start talking. So I just got in behind them, and I’m drafting, and they’re just having a conversation, and they pull me back into it. ‘Jamie, where’re you from?’ ‘Oh, I’m from Charlotte.’ Then Dave says, ‘Well, Bill, what do you do for a living?,’ and Bill’s like, ‘I’m a banker. Dave, what do you do?’ Dave says, ‘I own car washes.’ I’m thinking, S---. They’re gonna ask me what I do for a living. And I was still driving at the time. So I had this 10 seconds in my mind where I’m thinking, Do I just lie? Do I just make something up? Or am I honest? And sure enough, they turn around and say, ‘Jamie, what do you do for a living?’ I was like, ‘Oh, I race cars.’
“And there’s no response. I’m thinking, This is great! They don’t care! But after this moment of silence, one of them is like (in a semi-sarcastic voice), ‘You ever race with the big boys? Dale Jr.?’ And again, I’m thinking, Do I just lie? But I go, ‘Yeah, that’s what I do.’ All of a sudden, one of them turns around and looks at me, and he slaps this other guy, and he’s like, ‘HOLY S---. That’s Jamie McMurray! That guy won the Daytona 500!’ And I actually thought to myself, You know what? That’s so cool that that guy knew that.
“I think of that every time I go run: I wonder if I’ll see Dave and Bill on the path today? Super-nice guys.”
(By the way: He finished in 3 hours, 25 minutes and 14 seconds — 115th out of 1,032 marathoners that day.)
How’s this for an ego check, though?
“Normally, my wife leaves with the kids to go to school and I take off on my run. I run at the same time almost every day, and I run almost the same path every single day. So I pass a lot of school buses, I pass a lot of moms in their cars. And I was at the grocery store a while back, in the checkout line, and a kid in line in front of me, like 10 years old, and he was staring at me. Just staring at me.
“And in my mind, I was thinking, NASCAR fan, right? So I was like, ‘Hey, how you doin’?’ He got scared and didn’t say anything, but the mom was goes, ‘Can I tell you something?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ She’s like, ‘We judge whether we’re late to school or not based on where we see you in the morning running. We know if we pass you at this place that we’re late, we pass you at that place then we’re on time. I’m thinking, Oh my God. They have no idea that I raced in NASCAR. They know me as the guy that runs every day!“
The keys to McMurray’s running success
(Just so you know: McMurray has steadily improved in the marathon. After his first, he posted a 3:14:06 in his second, also at Kiawah; then went 2:53:51 at the Last Chance BQ2 Marathon in Geneva, Illinois, in September 2019 and 3:01:51 doing the Boston Marathon virtually from North Carolina in September 2020. This past December, he set a personal best of 2:50:53 at Kiawah, finishing 13th overall out of 1,276 runners. His average pace was 6 minutes and 31 seconds per mile.)
“I love misery. At my last marathon, I remember at Mile 7 thinking, I have zero chance of finishing this today. I hurt, I’m breathing heavily, and I have an hour and 40 minutes left. But I love that. I couldn’t wait to try to fight through that. There’s a thrill in that. I think that probably helps. In order to do anything for an amount of time like that, you have to be really comfortable with being really uncomfortable.
“I also think there’s validity to there being some benefit from the conditioning you get (from racing in NASCAR). It’s so hard to explain to people the toll that your body goes through sitting in a 120-degree to 140-degree car for three to four hours every single weekend. How exhausted you get. The dehydration. It’s a little bit better for the guys now, but for the majority of my career, we sat in there and just baked, for hours. So I think that probably does help you when you get ready to go do an endurance-type run. You are acclimated to being exhausted, but having to stay focused.”
(By the way: Breaking three hours in the marathon was his goal from the beginning.)
“So I did 3:24, then I did 3:14 ... and then I stopped driving. Which helped a ton, because — well, because I had more time, and I was not exhausted all the time anymore.”
Oh, and about that 400-meter run on TV:
(Just so you know: NASCAR opens its season this Sunday with the Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles, to be aired on Fox. McMurray will be part of on-site pre-race coverage and, as he did during a live NASCAR Race Hub broadcast from the Coliseum in 2022, he’ll run the quarter-mile racetrack in mostly his work attire. Last year he did it in 61 seconds.)
“I think they initially wanted me to put running clothes on. I was like, ‘I think it’d be much better if I just leave my suit on. And let’s leave the mic pack and everything on, and I’ll try to talk as much as I can going around the track.’ It was a big hit. It was fun, it was funny, something you don’t see every single day.
“I did put running shoes on. I knew that I couldn’t do it in dress shoes running around there. But it actually wasn’t that big a deal. I mean, it’s only a minute, right? You don’t really start breathing heavily when you run for at least the first 30 seconds, so half of that I was actually able to talk.”
(By the way: His encore performance will take place at Los Angeles Coliseum and will be aired live, during NASCAR Race Hub’s 6 p.m. show on Friday, on FS1.)