172 Marathons & Counting

At a race expo last summer, an older woman walked up to my booth and signed up for my email list. I asked her how many races she had done. “Hundreds,” Karen told me. “I’m a member of the Marathon Maniacs (a club whose members run two marathons within sixteen days, or three marathons within ninety days) and the 50 State Club (runners who have done a marathon in all fifty states).”

To say I was impressed would have been an understatement. In fact, after Karen walked away, I ran after her to ask if I could interview her. As a fan of Kathrine Switzer, Bobbi Gibb, and others belonging to the generation of women who ran even though everybody else still thought their uteruses would fall out, I wanted to know, and share, Karen’s story.

Like so many of us, Karen started running to lose weight. She had been married for three years, unhappily, and was living just north of New York City. Noticing that the high school across the street had a public track, she thought, “oh I could work out there”.

Out of breath at first, Karen started going across the street regularly to run. After about a year, she was running fifteen or sixteen laps before work, using a matchbook to count each lap. A friend suggested that she try a race, and mentioned a 10K across the George Washington Bridge. In 1978, Karen ran her first race. She loved it.

“I loved the excitement of running with people and the cheering at the finish line,” she told me, and then she explained how that experience, and her friend’s encouragement, got her off the track and onto roads. Karen started running to work four days a week, a distance of roughly four or five miles. “I worked at a nursing facility,” she said, “and the patients would all line up along the windows to watch for me in the morning. People were very proud of my running so friends would drop me off on their way home, too.”

On a morning run to work, Karen was crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge when a guy pulled over. “He asked me if I needed a ride and I said no, I’m fine. But then he asked me again. And he was a really good looking, handsome guy so I told him I only had a half-mile to go.”

He asked her if she was a runner, and Karen said yes. “I’m a runner!” he said. “Do you ever go to the marathon?” Karen said no, and the man asked how far she was running. “You can run a marathon,” he said.

The man in the car was Jimmy Murphy. He encouraged Karen to start training for longer distances. In 1983, she ran the Long Island Half and placed in her age group. In 1984, she ran the Yonkers Marathon and finished in 4:33. Though many runners today would be thrilled with that time, Karen was disappointed that she didn’t break four hours.

But more importantly, while running her first marathon, Karen met John Buck. He came up to her on the course and predicted that she was either coming back from injury, an ultramarathoner doing the race as a slow training run, or it was her first marathon. She replied, “Bingo!” when he finished the sentence.

“We’ve got to do more runs together,” John replied, and Karen agreed. John took her to the Vermont Marathon a month or two later, where she easily broke four hours. Karen applied for the New York Marathon that same year, and finished in 4:17. “The field was only 3,000 runners. You just had to fill out an application and postmark it by a certain day to get in.”

Since then, Karen has run 172 marathons (with a PR of 3:37:55) and is trying to complete 200. When I asked what her favorite races are, she had to categorize!

Big City:

Chicago. Chicago has six people deep screaming and cheering for you every ten feet of the way. They have 3 million people out there on marathon day.

Boston comes in second. I qualified for Boston eight times but never ran it in the early years. But after I had breast cancer, I wanted to do it. Through friends, I managed to connect with a race sponsor who had bibs in 2006.

Most Beautiful:

Big Sur, even though it’s as hard as they say. There’s a pitch on the road, and at mile 13 you go up switchbacks for four miles of pretty serious hills. But when you are done with the first half you start to go downhill and there’s a classical piano playing at the bottom. Also, that race has a strict 6-hour cut-off and takes down everything pretty quickly.

Small Town:

Hatfield and McCoy in West Virginia! Everyone is super into the race and they reenact the feud, which is fun.

I was also surprised by Columbia, SC. It’s a college town with a really lively Thursday night street fair where there’s art and music and people.

Given that Karen has been running for over four decades, I really wanted to know what she thought the biggest changes in the sport had been. “The growth of charity runners and slower runners. There’s a lot more women and there isn’t a stigma so people are more accepting and encouraging. When I started, people would ask me, ‘You’re not running a full marathon, right?’ People would tell me that I was going to hurt myself. And there were less medals!”

“I think running fosters women’s confidence, because when I was younger women were worried about competition but now it’s a sense of solidarity and togetherness. Races used to be 70% to 80% men but now it’s about equal.

The sky is the limit. You can do what you want to do. While your bones and joints are young, go for it. In my thirties, I had a 10K PR of 42:03. That’s under seven minute miles. I was fastest in my 30s before I had my daughters. I took a four year break in my forties but my first marathon, in San Francisco, was 4:53 after a seven year break. That wasn’t bad, and then my times kept consistently going down. If you look at age-adjusted times, my finishes today as a 66-year-old woman are equivalent to a four-hour marathon for a younger woman. I’m accepting the limitations of getting older but also want to keep going and stay fit. I have arthritis in my knee and someday I’ll have to replace it, but my orthopedic surgeon actually told me that when I stop running is when I’m likely going to have a problem. Move everyday and you’re going to be fine.

Running is a gift

It doesn’t matter how fast you go, or how far you go.

Just get out there and continue to run.

I had no idea running would define my life, but it has.”

Thanks to Karen for this amazing interview.

Does running define your life? Let me know in the comments!