In October of 1988, I ran the Twin Cities Marathon. It was my third marathon, and I had an encouraging result. I trained for it for months, following a training schedule for the first time. Twice, my training was interrupted by injuries. First I had plantar fasciitis in my left foot. Then I had plantar fasciitis in my right foot. I recovered from the second injury just in time for the race. After being limited to the stationary bike for three weeks, I did a few short training runs. They ranged from 1.75 miles to 7 miles. Then, after two rest days, it was time for the race.
In those last few training runs, my feet both felt OK, but I felt out of shape. I went into that race not knowing if I was still in good enough shape to finish. I also wasn’t sure if I was 100% healed. I hadn’t really stressed my right foot since healing from the most recent injury. I wouldn’t know for sure until I tried to run 26.2 miles.
I started conservatively, felt OK, and ran a fairly consistent pace throughout the race. Not only did I finish, but I set a PR, breaking 3:30 for the first time in my life. I was so excited that I wanted to do another race. I had never done two marathons in the same year before.
I picked the St. Louis Marathon, which was held on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. That was seven weeks after the Twin Cities Marathon, which gave me plenty of time to recover, but didn’t require much additional training. I was already in shape. That was the whole point.
St. Louis was farther than Deb and I wanted to drive, so this would be the first time we flew somewhere for a race. In fact, it was the first time we ever paid for our own plane tickets. Prior to this trip, my only flights had been for business trips. Deb’s only previous flight was on a family vacation when she was growing up.
At the time, I found it hard to justify the cost of flying to another state to run a marathon. One of the things I liked about the St. Louis Marathon was its proximity to Thanksgiving. At the time, my sister Betty and her husband John were living in southern Illinois. This would give us a change to visit them for Thanksgiving.
After talking to the rest of the family, we made the following travel plans. Deb and I would fly to St. Louis, arriving the day before the race. Betty and John would drive to St. Louis to meet us. After the race, they would give us a ride to their home in Illinois. My parents would drive there from Minnesota, and the six of us would be together for Thanksgiving dinner.
This was going to be my first marathon outside of Minnesota. I’ve always been one to set big goals. Deb and decided when we got married that we wanted to travel to all 50 states together. I started to wonder if I could run marathons in all 50 states.
This was before races had websites. The World Wide Web, as we know it today, didn’t even exist. If you wanted to get information about local races, you went to your local running store. If you wanted to find a race in another state, you looked through the race calendar in the back of Runner’s World. Each issue only had the calendar for the next two months. To put together a composite race calendar, I had to look through every issue for the past year.
After searching through the race calendars in a stack of Runner’s World magazines, I learned that there were, in fact, marathons in every state. Most states only had one. There weren’t nearly as many races then as there are today. I put together a spreadsheet with the races I wanted to do in every state.
Today, I’m a member of the 50 States Marathon Club, but in 1988, the club didn’t exist yet. Its predecessor, the 50 States + DC Group, also didn’t exist yet. I believe that club was formed in 1989. Around the country, other runners were started to pursue the same goal, but I had never read about other runners doing this. It was just this grand idea I had.
Before our trip, I looked at the weather forecast for St. Louis to see what type of running clothes I would need. The forecast for race morning called for temperatures in the 40s – a bit cool, but not too bad for running. There wasn’t any rain or snow in the forecast. I was only looking at the forecast for the morning, because that’s when I would be running. There was a cold front approaching, but it wasn’t expected to move through the St. Louis area until the following evening.
I had never traveled out of state for a race before. I had also never encountered inclement weather for a marathon. I was about to learn a harsh lesson about trusting weather forecasts.
We arrived in St. Louis on Saturday, and Betty and John met us at the airport. We went to the expo and picked up my race packet. We spent the night in a hotel that was only a block or two from where the race started.
The cold front that was supposed to move through St. Louis late in the day on Sunday actually arrived Saturday night. There was a violent thunderstorm that night. The thunder kept me awake for much of the night. The temperature was steadily dropping.
On the morning of the race, it was 33 degrees, and it was still raining. I didn’t bring adequate clothes for those conditions. I didn’t even own adequate clothes for the nasty combination of near-freezing temperatures and rain. There weren’t as many high-tech moisture wicking fabrics back then.
I had a pair of tights, so at least my legs would be warm enough. I also had a warm Thintech headband to keep my head and ears warm. My running shirt had short sleeves. Worse yet, it was cotton. I had gloves, but they were also cotton. I had a windbreaker, but it wasn’t waterproof. I wore it so I would have an extra layer, but it was far more inadequate than I realized.
The four of us walked together to the start of the race. The rain changed to snow. It was a heavy wet snow that melted on contact. It felt like rain, except it accumulated in the street to form a thick layer of slush.
The course looped back on itself after five miles. I probably only started the race because I knew I could easily bail out at the five mile mark. I was concerned about the conditions, but I had to at least try.
The snow was heaviest in the first four miles. As it hit my jacket and gloves, it melted. As it hit the street, it accumulated. After about four miles, I was soaked to the skin, and I was running though almost an inch of slush. Eventually, the snow tapered off, but once my clothes were wet, there was no way to keep warm.
After five miles, I ran by Deb, Betty and John, who were watching the race from the spot where we had started. I stopped just long enough to them how it was going. I said I couldn’t really see myself finishing, but I didn’t need to stop yet, so I was going to keep running. John said, “Good for you.” That was the last place where it was easy to quit. I wouldn’t be near our hotel again until the finish.
At the aid stations, I was starting to notice that enough snow had settled into the cups to make the Gatorade slushy. I was already getting cold running in wet clothes. Drinking the slushy Gatorade chilled me from the inside. I drank it only with great reluctance. I didn’t need a lot of fluids, but I needed to drink some.
Before long, my hands and forearms started to get numb. To keep my fingers warm, I kept clenching and unclenching my fists. My hands and arms kept getting colder. Eventually, my right hand got so stiff that I could no longer move my fingers. That was the beginning of the end.
I also had some borderline numbness in my feet. My shoes got wet in the early miles, when I was running through slush. Now they felt rubbery. It worried me only because of my recent foot injuries. What if I reinjured my feet and couldn’t tell, because I couldn’t feel them? Thoughts like this made me pessimistic. My biggest concern was hypothermia. I knew my clothes weren’t keeping me warm. I was only going to get colder.
I reached the halfway mark in 1:44. I was averaging about eight minutes per mile. I was so cold that it was hard to imagine how I would feel running in these conditions for another hour and 45 minutes. I might take longer if hypothermia caused me to slow down.
Most large races have sag wagons to pick up stragglers. I was on a middle-of-the-pack pace, so I wasn’t like to see one for a while. I wondered what the procedure would be if I needed to drop. I decided to ask at the next aid station.
The runner next to me noticed how I was looking around. He asked me if I wanted to drop out. I said, “Yes.” There was a car driving slowly alongside of us. He said, “That’s my brother. Hop in if you want.” I took him up on his offer. I wasn’t the only one. He had two friends who were also running the marathon. One was already in the car. Before long there would be three of us shivering in the back seat, while following the one friend who was still running.
We didn’t get to the finish line any faster than we would if we were still running, but it was warmer inside the car. They eventually dropped me off as close as they could get to the hotel. Deb, Betty and John were still watching for me at the finish line, but I had to get indoors. When I took off my wet clothes, I was white as a ghost. I started to draw a hot bath. It was hard to gauge the water temperature, because my hands were both numb.
I ended up taking a pretty hot bath, but my hands were still white for a long time. When the color returned to my hands, I dried off and got dressed, so I could go back out and look for the others. Deb was a bit upset that I didn’t find them first. While I was in the tub, they were still out in the cold, thinking I was still running. John still sometimes gives me a hard time about it.
I came down with the worst cold of my life that week. I think hypothermia lowered my resistance. We spent the rest of the week at Betty & John’s house, where my parents joined us for Thanksgiving. Other than the race and the cold, it was a good vacation.
Any time you don’t finish a race it’s disappointing. This was especially disappointing because it was the first time I traveled out of state for a race. I had to rethink whether I still wanted to travel to every state to run a marathon. It would mean paying for another trip to Missouri. At the time, we had a fairly limited travel budget.
If I was already well on my way to running marathons in every state, I would have accepted this as a setback, and I would have continued. Since I still hadn’t finished a marathon outside of Minnesota, it was far easier to give up … so I did.
In the next few years, I traveled to a few other states to do races that were on my bucket list, but I was no longer pursuing a goal of doing all 50 states. I ran the New York City Marathon in 1989, the Seattle Marathon in 1990, the Boston Marathon in 1991, and the Marine Corps Marathon in 1992. For the next five years, I only did races in Minnesota.
Finally, in early 1998, my friend Bill showed me an issue of Marathon & Beyond. It had an article ranking the top 26 marathons in North America. As I read through it, I was reminded of races that I had once thought of running. I realized that there were still many races around the country that offered unique experiences. I always wanted to do Big Sur. I also wanted to do the Crater Lake Marathon, which ran through my favorite National Park. There was also the Detroit Marathon, with its excursion into Canada and the “underwater mile” coming back through the Detroit Windsor Tunnel.
The article included a list of people helped with the rankings. They were members of the 50 States + DC Group. Later, a few of them would go on to form the 50 States Marathon Club. Reading this article made me wish I hadn’t given up on my 50 states goal. Who knew that so many other people would have the same goal?
One of the things that made the goal appealing back in 1988 was knowing that Deb and I were going to travel to all these states anyway. Almost a decade had passed and we had already visited several of them. To run marathons in every state, I would need to revisit several states. That would be way too expensive. Or would it?
One day, while looking at a map of the United States, I realized something. The states I had visited without running a marathon were all states within driving distance. I might have to drive for a day and a half, but I could do that. The times we had flown long distances, I ran marathons. Those included Washington, New York, Massachusetts and Virginia.
Deb and I were still going to visit most of the states together. I could make solo trips by car to the states I needed to revisit. Deb, at the time, worked for a Hampton Inn. We could get the employee rate, which was really cheap, at any hotel in the Hilton family. When we traveled, our only significant expense was the airfare. Since I didn’t have to fly to any of the states I was revisiting, resurrecting my 50 states goal wouldn’t be that expensive after all. At least it wouldn’t be much more expensive than the travel we would be doing together.
In 1998, I resumed my 50 states goal. I already had five states. My next state would be Oregon, where I ran the Crater Lake Marathon. That was part of a week-long Oregon vacation with Deb, Betty and John. John also ran the marathon.
After I had enough states, I joined the 50 States Marathon Club. I was doing anywhere from one to five new states each year. I finished in 2010 at the Vermont City Marathon in Burlington, VT. A few months later, I attended a club reunion in Omaha, where I was one of the recent finishers being recognized. I’ve made lasting friendships with other finishers who were at that meeting.
Today I see “50 staters” at almost every race I do. I’ve attended several other club reunions, and I’m well on my way to completing a second circuit of the 50 states. It’s hard to believe I was actually going to let this dream die. I’m glad I got a second chance.