Running marathons on consecutive days isn’t as mind-blowingly difficult as most people think it is. You don’t have to have superhuman abilities to do it. Like anything else that’s difficult, you need to have a good plan, and you need to prepare yourself for it. I’m going to try to explain it from three different perspectives.
1) It’s more psychological than physical
It’s been said that running a marathon is as much psychological as it is physical. With something like this, the psychological component is even larger.
Before you can do something, you first have to visualize yourself doing it. If you tell yourself something is impossible, then you’re right, it is impossible. You’ll never be able to do it if you don’t even try. That’s one of the things I admire in most of the ultrarunners I’ve met. They never ask themselves, “Can I do this?” They skip right over that part and instead ask, “HOW can I do this?”
More than 20 years ago, I met a runner from Minnesota named Burt Carlson. Burt was almost twice my age, but he was running marathons every other weekend and also doing 24-hour races. This was long before clubs like Marathons Maniacs were founded. I had never met anyone else who did that many marathons.
One time, I bumped into Burt at a race in Wisconsin. He was wearing a T-shirt from a race in South Dakota that was held the previous weekend. I knew he was also planning to do the Twin Cities Marathon the next weekend. That’s three weekends in a row. I asked Burt, “How do you run marathons so often?” He replied, “When you see a race on the calendar that sounds interesting, you sign up for it. Once you’re signed up for it, it’s gonna happen.” The simplicity of that answer blew me away. He was right, though. Once you decide to do it, you’ll find a way to make it happen.
When I was working on running marathons in all 50 states, I knew there were runners like Burt who would do two marathons in one weekend. They called it a “double.” It was a way of saving on travel expenses, but I couldn’t imagine doing two marathons in one weekend. Then I found out there was a marathon in Rhode Island the day before a marathon in Connecticut that I was already signed up for. They were only 20 miles away from each other. I didn’t even need to change my flight. That was so convenient that I had to give it a try. It was difficult, but it wasn’t nearly as tough as I thought it would be.
After doing two “doubles,” I was ready to try a “triple.” It went much better than I expected. After two “triples,” I tried my first “quadzilla.” Eventually, I did a five-day series, where each race was in a different state. Even after doing three of those, I never dared to try a longer series.
The Running Ragged 20in20 series was originally going to be three separate series that happened to be back-to-back. The Heartland series was seven days, the Summer Camp Series was six days, and the Prairie Series was seven days. If you did all three, you could run marathons for 20 straight days. I had no intention of doing that. My original plan was just to do the Summer Camp Series. Even that seemed intimidating, since they were all trail races.
It was only after the three series were combined into one, with all the races within a short driving distance of each other, that I decided to do all 20 races. I really didn’t think I could do it, but I suspended my disbelief and signed up. As Burt would say, now it was gonna happen. The moment I signed up for it, I knew I would somehow find a way to get through it, even though I still didn’t know how. The commitment came first. Then I figured out how. That’s how it works. The body will do what the mind tells it to do, but first you have to believe.
2) It’s all about pacing
The farther you run, the slower you have to go. For distances slower than a marathon, it’s pretty obvious how that works. In a 200-meter sprint, you go as fast as you possible can. If you’re running a mile, you have to hold back a little. If you run the first lap as fast as you can, you’ll be out of breath before the second lap.
It’s the same for a 5K, a 10K, a half marathon or a marathon. Those are all distances where you can run non-stop the whole way, but the farther you go, the slower you have to go. Ideally, you want to pace yourself so that you can run the whole race at the same pace. It’s been said that if you run one minute too fast in the first half of a 10K race, it’ll cost you two minutes in the second half. In longer distances, starting too fast can be even more costly.
My understanding of how to pace myself for longer distances changed dramatically when I trained for my first 24-hour race. Before that, my longest race was a marathon, and my longest training run was 32.5 miles. I always tried to run non-stop. If I walked during a race, it’s because I was already overwhelmed with soreness and fatigue. I walked only when I was ready to give up. I always equated walking with failure.
There’s a race in Minneapolis called the FANS 24-Hour Race. Every year, I saw this race on the calendar, and it just seemed crazy. “Nobody can run for 24 hours,” I thought. Actually, I knew people actually did races like this, and I knew that some people could even run 100 miles in a race like this. I couldn’t understand how.
In 1997, I went out to watch the race. I showed up after people had already been running for about eight hours. I was only there for about an hour, but after talking to some of the people who were familiar with the race, I was intrigued. I decided to give it a try the next year.
My original goal was to run 100K. Doing it in a 24-hour race meant I effectively wouldn’t have to worry about time limits. I would run for as long as it took to finish 100 kilometers. Then I would stop.
I didn’t know how to pace myself for 100 kilometers, much less 24 hours. When I did training runs that were farther than a marathon, I always got slower and slower in the late miles. Even if I ran at the slowest pace that I could comfortably run, it wasn’t sustainable for 100 kilometers. At some point, I would have to walk. After that, I didn’t expect to complete more than three miles per hour for the rest of the race.
I pondered whether it would be possible to keep going for the full 24 hours. At some point, even walking would be difficult. I fully expected if I was still moving at night, I might only be able to cover two miles per hour. As I estimated how far I could run/walk in 24 hours, I never came up with anything higher than 80 miles.
About six months before the race, I met two runners who had done it before. They both ran at least 100 miles. When they explained how they paced themselves, it opened up a whole new world for me.
To run 100 miles in 24 hours, you need to maintain an average pace of 14:24 per mile. I couldn’t actually run that slowly. At some point, running at a slower pace becomes so inefficient that you’re using just as much energy as you would running faster. To achieve a slower pace, you need to alternate between running and walking.
I had never done that before. I had never even considered it. Armed with this knowledge, I did training runs of as much as 40 miles where I never ran long enough to get tired before taking a nice long walking break. In the race, it worked great. I’d run only to the next aid station. Then I’d walk for several minutes. By the time I started running again, I felt as good as when I started. If I did enough walking, I could go for several hours and still feel fresh.
Before I knew how to pace myself with walking breaks, running 100 miles in 24 hours seemed impossible. Once I knew how, I had no doubt I could do it. I ended up running 111.2 miles in my first 24-hour race.
After that, I came to a whole new understanding of how far I could run. I’m now of the belief that there’s no such thing as a distance that’s too far, provided you go at the right pace. For any given distance, there’s a pace that makes it sustainable. You may need to alternate between walking and running. If it’s a long enough distance, you may need to add sleeping breaks. The longest organized race I’ve every heard of is a 3,100-mile race. I have a friend who has finished that race. Any distance is possible with enough time.
My approach to running marathons on two, three, four, or five consecutive days was always to go a little slower than I would if I was just doing one race. The first time I did a “triple,” my average pace was about 30 seconds per mile slower than my pace in a single all-out marathon. By the third day, I had sore muscles, but I could dig deep and get through it, knowing it was the last day. In my first five-day series, I slowed my pace by at least a minute per mile. It got harder each day, but it was sustainable for five days. It probably wouldn’t have been sustainable for six days.
For my 20-day series, I needed a new approach. I couldn’t just slow down a little. I needed to slow down a lot. I couldn’t afford to have each day feel more difficult than the day before – not for 20 days. Instead, I tried to find a pace that felt so easy, I could wake up every morning feeling like all I did the day before was my daily training run. In this case, my daily runs were almost five hours long, but it was five hours of easy running mixed with walking.
I didn’t know at the start of the series how slow I would need to go. On the first day, I paced myself much like I would in a 24-hour race, except I stopped after only five hours. With each passing day, I found I could go just a little bit faster, and still feel fine the next morning. My pace on the first day was conservative enough that I actually went faster each day for the first eight days of the series.
I eventually found that the right pace had me finishing each race with an average time of about 4:40. For comparison, the last three times I ran road marathons that weren’t part of a multiday series, my times were 3:41, 3:46, and 3:42, respectively. During this series, I was running my races about an hour slower than I normally would. I slowed down by more than two minutes per mile.
I referred to my pace as the “Goldilocks pace.” I was going slow enough that it didn’t leave me feeling sore or fatigued, yet still fast enough that I still had most of the day to recover and rest up for the next race. Some people were walking the whole way, with the result that it often took them more than nine hours to finish. That gave them far less recovery time. I actually think what they were doing was more difficult than what I was doing.
3) I had 19 hours of recovery time for every 5 hours of running
Even though I was going at a slower pace than I would in a single race, I still finished each race within five hours. That meant I had 19 hours to recover before the next race. That’s almost four hours of recovery for every hour of running. I had the luxury of eating and drinking enough to replenish myself, icing anything that might be inflamed, taking a hot bath, stretching, and massaging my legs, all before dinner. I could relax for an hour or two after dinner and still go to bed early.
I often got eight or nine hours of sleep, yet I was still up at least three hours before the next race. That gave me time to eat a normal breakfast, and do more icing, bathing, stretching, and massage before the race.
I ran 524 miles over a span of 20 days. That’s extreme, yet it’s not all that impressive when you compare it to what people do in multi-day races. I know people who have covered that many miles in a six-day race. They didn’t have the luxury of a full-night’s sleep. At best, they could grab a short nap each night. The rest of the time, they had to keep moving.
Most people have the perception that it takes weeks or months to recover from a marathon. There are two reasons for that. The first reason is that elite runners give themselves months of recovery time before doing another marathon. They do that because they need to be at their absolute peak on race day. It’s not enough to be healthy and fit enough to simply finish a marathon. If your livelihood depends on winning races, and you’re competing with the best runners in the world, you can’t afford to be slow by even a minute or two. I wasn’t trying to compete at that level. On average, I was running times that were a full hour slower than what I would do in a standalone race. If necessary, I could’ve slowed down even more.
The second reason people think it takes a long time to recover from a marathon is because of the way most people train. Most people never run farther than 20 miles in training. On race day, they’re pushing their bodies way beyond what they’re used to. Your body adapts to what you do frequently in training. If you don’t routinely run 26.2 miles in training, then it’s only natural that running that far in a race is going to leave you feeling like you got run over by a truck.
When I started running marathons, I trained just like everyone else. The day after a race, I could barely walk down a flight of stairs. The turning point came when I joined Marathon Maniacs. That's a club that's all about running marathons frequently. I was skeptical about running marathons every week or two, but I gave it a try. It took about six months to adapt to it, but once I did, I found I could run a marathon and feel just as good the day after a race as I did the day before. Marathons became my long training runs. The more often I ran them, the less they took out of me.
The notion that you can only run one or two marathons a year is a reality for most people, but only because of the way they train. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I know some people will say I can do this, but they never could. I ran faster than the other people who completed all 20 marathon, but it’s worth noting that I was also one of the youngest runners. In fact, of the eight runners who finished marathons every day, only Trisha was younger, and she ran every race carrying an American flag for 26.2 miles.
I think I’m also at the Goldilocks age. I’m old enough to have a lot of experience, and I’m retired, which allows me to devote more time to training. Still, I’m young enough that I don’t have any major health problems. I've slowed down some with age, but I haven't slowed down dramatically.