VERNDALE, Minn. — Joni Schwartz may be running the Fargo Marathon among thousands of others Saturday, Sept. 25, but she’ll bring along with her at least 26 people who she knows will help her cross the finish line.

Look closely and you’ll see the names of those people written on the inside of her arms. She plans to say a prayer for each with every mile she surpasses.

Schwartz, a preschool teacher from Verndale, Minnesota, brought prayer into her running routine several years ago. She finds that focusing on the needs and pain others are going through can help overcome her own aches involved in long distance running.

While she says she doesn’t stand out much among the crowds of other runners, she holds names 1-20 on her left arm and 21-26.2, her most difficult prayers for the most difficult miles, on her right arm. She has to have a friend write the names on her right arm. This “prayer running” started several years ago as she found running was her chance to be alone with her thoughts and thoughtful with her prayers. Those moments can be tough to find between being a mom, wife, teacher and more.

Schwartz is running the full Fargo Marathon for the first time, but it’s her fifth marathon. Earlier this year she ran Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth feeling rather sick for about 20 of those miles. Even so, she continued on reading off another name on her arm as she passed each mile.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

The higher the miles, the more difficult the prayers become.

Joni Schwartz writes names on her left arm in June 2021, in preparation for running Grandma's Marathon in Duluth.
Contributed photo
Joni Schwartz writes names on her left arm in June 2021, in preparation for running Grandma's Marathon in Duluth. Contributed photo

“I had most of my list made up then asked friends and family if they had people and I added them," Schwartz said. "Then my last six miles I saved for people who had cancer or had someone recently die. I saved my hardest miles for the people with the hardest things that they were going through.”

She almost had her list full for the Fargo run, then posted on her Facebook page asking for other prayer requests. Responses came swiftly from people in need. A pastor was traveling overseas for training; a friend lost a loved one; another was getting married; still another asked for healing for herself and four others who had cancer.

Schwartz has been running timed races now for about nine years upon the request of her sister to run a 5K. She said the prayer list has helped her focus on others rather than the calf cramps, side aches, and nausea induced by the long run.

“Definitely helps, especially the last part, those names really get me through,” Schwartz said.

Last time around, she didn’t let everybody know she was praying for them. But this time around, Schwartz let her prayer families know who will be on her list so they know what mile she is praying for them. The response has been powerful as she receives grateful responses from people.

“It’s pretty heavy, it’s not light,” she said. It’s led to more deep and important conversations from those going through a painful time of loss or suffering.

A dear friend of Schwartz, Kristie Johnson, of Fargo, was battling breast cancer this summer. As Schwartz was finishing her prayer in Duluth, Johnson was still fighting the cancer. Johnson died in July, and she and her family will be Schwartz's finishing prayer in Fargo.

Schwartz went back and forth with Johnson about whether to run a full rather than a half marathon in Fargo. The day her friend died, Schwartz upgraded her bib from a half-marathon to the full. Going the distance means more time for prayer for those in her life.

Running with names written in black marker from wrist to upper arm hasn’t gotten Schwartz noticed yet.

“Runners, we all do our crazy things,” she said. “We all have our quirky things.”

She’s not trying to get noticed, either. This is just another opportunity to have some alone time surrounded by a couple thousand others that enjoy a good run.

Cheer them on, wish them well, keep them in prayers

The Fargo Marathon events have been ongoing this week but the main event, the full marathon, kicks off at 7:30 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 25, from the main floor of the Fargodome. You can watch and support runners along the race trail which meanders from the Fargodome to Lindenwood Park, up to Trollwood and back to the Fargodome.