Can you train for two different distances and do well at both? Can you race frequently without your race results suffering? Can you pursue multiple goals at the same time? These are questions I’m continually asking myself.
I set goals in every race. Sometimes the course or conditions dictate that I adjust my goals, but I always try to do the best I can under the circumstances. Since 1998, I’ve also been pursing long-term goals. For a long time, my only long-term goal was to run marathons in all 50 states. Since reaching that goal, I’ve set others. It seems that the more goals I reach the more new ones I set.
When I started running marathons, the conventional wisdom was that you could only do one or two a year. You trained for months, tapered, ran the best race you could and then took at least a month to recover before beginning a new training cycle. This is how I raced for 15 years. At first, my only goal was to finish. Then I worked to improve my times. Eventually, I set my sights on qualifying for the Boston Marathon. It took years, but I eventually got there. I never ran more than three marathons in one year.
In 1998, I ran my first two ultramarathons. They were both 24-hour races. In the first, I did surprisingly well, finishing in the top five. A few months later, I went to the 24-hour national championship race, were I finished eighth. With such encouraging results, you would think I would focus solely on training for ultramarathons and see how good I could get.
It was also in 1998 that I started pursuing the goal of running marathons in every state. At the time, I already had five states. I wanted to add three new states each year. At that rate, I could finish in 15 years. By then, I would be in my early 50s.
For the next several years, I pursued both of these goals. I learned that after getting into peak shape for a marathon, I could do another one without starting a new training cycle. I found that I could be fully recovered in four weeks and do another race while I was still in peak shape. Sometimes I could do a third race four weeks after the second one. After two or three races, I would take a break and then start a new training cycle.
I was happy with my marathon results, but my ultramarathon results were spotty. I had some good results, but I was inconsistent. I realized that running marathons year-round was probably keeping me from improving as an ultrarunner, but my 50 states goal was important to me.
In 2007, after running only one ultra in the previous three years, I tried a new approach. For half the year, I’d focus on ultramarathon training. For the other half, I’d focus on marathon training. To stay on schedule for my 50 states goal, I sometimes chose an ultra as my race for a new state.
This approach gave me good results. I set new PRs for 50 miles, 100 miles and 24 hours. I also ran marathon times between 3:05 and 3:10 in three consecutive years. Ultramarathon training gave me a good mileage base that carried over into my marathon training. I spent the first half of the year building a base and the second half sharpening with speed work. Both my marathons and my ultramarathons improved.
In May of 2010, I traveled to Burlington, VT for the Vermont City Marathon. Vermont was my 50th state. People started asking me what I was going to do next. I had no answer. I didn’t have any other long-term goals. I was looking forward to having the freedom to do whatever marathons sounded like fun. For years, I had been putting off any races that weren’t in new states. I only made exceptions for local races.
I felt like I was ready to take a shot at three hours. I had only the broken the three hour barrier once in my life. At the expo, I notice a young woman who was one of the pacers. I asked her what the fastest pace group was. I was disappointed to learn that there wasn’t a 3:00 pace group. That’s probably just as well. I realized in the first eight miles that I wasn’t going to break three hours that day. More on that later.
I had been working on 50 states for 12 years. You’d think crossing the finish line would be more exciting than at other races. It wasn’t. It was anticlimactic. Because I spread the goal out over so many years, I had the luxury of picking races that Deb and I could build vacations around. Vermont was no exception. We had a great time there. I had enjoyed the journey. I didn’t want it to be over.
That night, we went to a party hosted by John Lent. John was a member of the 50 States Marathon Club, and he had invited any other 50 staters to come to the party. As one of runners who finished 50 states that weekend, I was one of the guests of honor.
Like everyone else, John asked me what I was going to do next. This time, I had an answer. I had learned about a club called 50sub4. It’s a club for runners with a goal of not only running marathons in every state, but doing them all with times under four hours. I had sub-4 finishes in 42 states, so I would only need to repeat eight states to get faster times.
When I told John that I was thinking about 50sub4, he told me that he had just finished the previous weekend at the Fargo Marathon. There were fewer than ten 50sub4 finishers, and John was one of them. What are the odds of that? John showed me his collection of finisher medals. One of them caught my eye. It was his guitar-shaped medal from the Mississippi Blues Marathon. Mississippi was one of the states I would need to repeat. Since I needed another race in Mississippi anyway, I might as well do the one with the cool guitar-shaped finisher medal. I tentatively decided to join 50sub4. If I continued to schedule three states per year, it would take me three more years to finish.
During the party, I heard some buzz about another runner. She turned out to be the pacer I met the day before. Her name was Laura, and she was one race away from her own 50 states finish. I heard that she was going to be the youngest woman to finish marathons in all 50 states. When I had the opportunity to talk to Laura, I learned that she was 24, and she had only been running marathons for two years. I ran my first marathon when I was 22, and I couldn’t have imagined running 50 marathons in two years, much less scheduling races in every state. Even after running marathons for 27 years, I had never run more than six in one year. Talking to Laura made me wonder if I could be doing more.
By chance, Laura was finishing her 50th state at the Minneapolis Marathon a week later, and she was having a post-race party to celebrate her accomplishment. I wasn’t running that race, but it was in my home town, so I went to the party. At her party, Laura mentioned that she had acquired the domain 50by25 for her blog. (Her goal had been to finish all 50 states before turning 25.) This is still my favorite blog.
Some of the other runners at the party were members of the 50 States Marathon Club. Others were members of another club called Marathon Maniacs. I learned that the club has several levels with different qualifications. It’s all about running marathons frequently. I was intrigued. I checked out their website to learn more. A week later, I was a member.
Although I had never been that much of a frequent marathoner, on two different occasions I had run two marathons in the same weekend. They call that a double. Both times, I did it to save on travel expenses by running marathons that were in two different states but were within a short drive of each other. That qualified me for the club’s Iridium Level (4 stars). I already had ambitions to eventually run the Tahoe Triple. Doing a triple would lift me to the Ruthenium Level (5 stars).
I wanted to begin a marathon streak that would give me more than five stars. I eventually decided to aim for the Platinum Level (8 stars). To get there, I needed to run marathons or ultras in 23 different states within 365 days.
Here I was embarking on another long-term goal that involved running every race in a different state. There were two key differences this time. First, I didn’t need every state. I could pick which 23 states were most convenient. Also, doing a race in another country was as good as doing one in different state. I had yet to do any races in other countries. Having already traveled to every state, I was eager to run in different countries.
To date, I had run 79 marathons or ultras. I needed only 21 more to reach 100, which is another major milestone. If I ran 23 marathons in the next year, I would hit 100 along the way.
I was pursuing four goals at once. I was going to reach Platinum by running in 23 states or countries in a year. I was going to work on finishing 50sub4 by repeating eight states. I was going to run marathons in other countries. Finally, I was going to run my 100th marathon within the same year. I put together a race schedule that would let me go after all four goals at the same time. You could say I was being greedy. I prefer to think I was being efficient.
I started my streak on July 4, 2010 with the Foot Traffic Flat Marathon in Portland, OR. Oregon was one of the states I needed to repeat for 50sub4. I finished that race in 3:21:00.
One week later, I ran the Missoula Marathon in Montana. Montana was another state I needed to repeat for 50sub4. I finished in 3:26:07. So far, so good.
The following weekend, I ran the University of Okoboji Marathon in Okoboji, IA. It was the first time I ever ran marathons on three successive weekends. To save money, I tried to include all the states that border Minnesota, so I could drive to as many races as possible. July in Iowa can be hot. I think the temperature reached 90 degrees before I was done running. Going into this race, I had qualified for Boston in seven straight marathons. That streak ended. I wilted in the heat, finishing in 3:39:59.
After Okoboji, I had six weeks to prepare for my next race. I chose the Lean Horse Half Hundred in Hot Springs, SD. I had done the Lean Horse Hundred the previous two years, but I had never done the 50 mile race. This is another race that’s often hot. Okoboji made me realize I needed to acclimate to summer weather. For the next six weeks, I ran at the hottest time of the day whenever possible. It paid off. I finished in 7:55:31, winning my age group.
On September 18, I ran the Walker/North Country Marathon in Walker, MN. About half of this race is on trails. I had done it twice before in years when I was out of shape. I always wondered how high I could place in this race if I ran it when I was in peak shape. I placed in the top five with a time of 3:26:58.
The following weekend, I ran the Omaha Marathon in Nebraska. Aside from being a drivable race, this was also a reunion of the 50 States Marathon Club.
On October 17, I ran the Rock N Roll Denver Marathon. Colorado was another state I needed for 50sub4. Despite the 5,280 foot elevation, I had my fastest race of 2010, finishing in 3:18:26.
Two weeks after Denver, I traveled to Greece to run the Athens Classic Marathon. This was my first race outside the United States. I couldn’t have made a better choice. This course retraces the route of the legendary run of Pheidippides. It followed the same course as the 2004 Olympic marathon and finished in the same stadium where the first Olympic marathon finished in 1896. Greece was celebrating the 2,500 year anniversary of the Battle of Marathon, so it was a big event. I finished in 3:24:29.
Three weeks after Athens, I traveled to Overland Park, KS for the Gobbler Grind Marathon. I finished in 3:21:45, giving me a sub-4 marathon in Kansas.
On December 4, I ran the Reggae Marathon in Negril, Jamaica. This was my second marathon in a foreign country. I endured tropical heat to finish in 3:25:26. The heat training I did for Lean Horse was still helping.
I started 2011 by running the Texas Marathon in Kingwood, TX. This race is always held on New Year’s Day. It’s directed by Steve and Paula Boone, so it’s like a de facto 50 states reunion. It was the last month of the qualifying period to get automatic entry into the New York City Marathon. I needed to break 3:10. I came through with a time of 3:09:49.
For the first few months of my streak, I felt like racing so frequently was forcing me to hold back a little. That was now changing. After six months of racing more frequently, my body was adapting. Starting with this race, I was on a tear.
A week after the Texas Marathon, I ran the Mississippi Blues Marathon in Jackson, MS. I knocked off another state for 50sub4, finishing in 3:13:39.
A week after Mississippi, I traveled to Nassau, Bahamas for Marathon Bahamas. It was my third new country in a span of 65 days. I endure hot conditions again to finish in 3:23:33. That was good for third overall and first in the Masters Division.
After the Bahamas, I had a five week break. On February 20, I ran the A1A Marathon in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. The weather and the course layout were both similar to Marathon Bahamas. That gave me confidence that I could have a similar result. I won my age group with a time of 3:12:01.
It got better. On March 6, I ran the Napa Valley Marathon in 3:08:45, giving me my sub-4 race for California.
Two weeks later, I ran the Tobacco Road Marathon in Cary, NC, finishing in 3:07:18. North Carolina was my 49th sub-4 state. After this, I just needed Wyoming.
In April, Deb and I took our first European vacation together. On back-to-back weekends, I ran marathons in Paris and London. I finished Marathon de Paris in 3:12:50 on a hot sunny day. I wondered if I had sabotaged my London race by running too hard. I didn’t. I finished the London Marathon in 3:04:58. That was my fastest marathon in 19 years and my second fastest ever. I also notched my fourth and fifth new countries in less than a year.
On May 1, I ran the Eau Claire Marathon in Wisconsin. This was another opportunity to save money by racing in a neighboring state. I finished in 3:10:27.
A week later, I ran the Fargo Marathon in North Dakota. It was another neighboring state. It was also another quarterly reunion of the 50 States Marathon Club. I finished in 3:11:13. It was my seventh consecutive finish under 3:15. It was also my 20th different state or country within a year. I reached the Palladium Level (7 stars) of Marathon Maniacs.
A week after Fargo, I returned to Burlington to run the Vermont City Marathon again. This was my 100th marathon, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to reach this milestone at the same race where I finished 50 states a year earlier. I finished in 3:20:04.
On June 5, I ran the Casper Marathon in Casper, WY. This was my 50sub4 finish. I finished in 3:28:10.
I finished my Platinum steak on June 25, 2011 with the Rock N Roll Seattle Marathon. I finished in 3:15:03. It was the fourth consecutive race at which I reached a major milestone.
When I embarked on this journey, I expected my race performances to suffer. In fact, they actually improved. Prior to this streak, I had broken 3:10 only five times in my life, and they came in five different years. In the first four months of 2011, I broke 3:10 four times. In August, I broke 3:10 again with a 3:06:26 at the Reykjavik Marathon in Iceland. That gave me five times under 3:10 in a span of eight months. Clearly, racing more frequently wasn’t hurting me.
You can have your cake and eat it too.
I mentioned earlier that I was gunning for a sub-3 time the first time I ran the Vermont City Marathon. I was also gunning for a sub-3 time two months earlier at the National Marathon in Washington, DC. Both times, I was in great shape, but I was feeling sluggish on race day. Both times, I finished in 3:23. In theory, to run your best time, you need to train for months and peak at the right time. Sometimes that works; sometimes it doesn’t. You’re putting all your eggs in one basket. If, for whatever reason, you have an off day, you may have to wait for several months to get another chance. In 2010, I was in peak shape, but ran the Vermont City Marathon in 3:23. In 2011, I broke all the rules of training and tapering, and I ran it in 3:20.