Monday, July 7, 2014

True Story: I Broke A World Record - I'm The Youngest Woman To Run A Marathon In All 50 States

This is one of many True Story interviews, in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting/amazing/challenging things.  This is the story of Laura and her awesome world record!


Tell us a bit about yourself! 
Hi! My name is Laura, and I grew up in upstate New York. I recently moved to Colorado, after falling in love with it during my travels, and am so happy here. I work in management consulting, specializing in the travel and hospitality industries. I love traveling, cooking, reading, writing, and a lot of different kinds of exercise (running, spinning, Pilates, dancing).

When did you start running?
I was not by any means athletic or a runner growing up – I was much more of a musical theater nerd. In high school fitness tests, I was the slowest in my class at running the mile, in large part because I’d get a stitch in my side and then walk the rest of the way.

However, while doing an internship in Florida, I decided to set a goal of running one mile without walking. It took me nearly the whole summer to achieve that, but once I did, it was like a door unlocked for me: if I could run one mile, which I had previously thought totally impossible, what else could I do? I ran two miles, then three, figuring that at some point I’d hit my natural stopping point and not be able to run any further.

But then one morning, after running 22 miles, I decided that was enough and I should sign up for my first marathon – choosing one that was sponsored by Ben & Jerry's and offered free ice cream at the finish. Hey, that would be great motivation to finish, right?! My friends and family held signs that said “Run to the ice cream, Laura!”, and although the marathon was hard for me, I did it. I felt so fantastic after I finished that I decided to sign up for another… and another. I ended up running five marathons in just the first three months after my first!

When did you begin to think about setting the world record?
It was at my fourth marathon, the San Francisco Marathon, that I met famed ultrarunner Dean Karnazes. (Dean ran 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days, proof that I am not the craziest one out there.) We were talking about my newly-made goal to run a marathon in all fifty states, and he replied, “wow, you’d be the youngest to do that, wouldn’t you?” I had no idea, but when I looked it up, I discovered that the youngest woman to accomplish that had been 28 years and 10 months old. Since I was only 23, that meant I had more than five years to break it. I decided to go for it!

Can you tell us about the logistics behind setting a world record?
An organization called the 50 State Marathon Club is the arbiter for this feat, and they have some very stringent rules about what counts for a state. For example, you don’t have to finish each marathon in a specific time set by the group, but you must finish in whatever time the race director deems the cutoff for the event to be listed in the results. The race also has to start or finish in the state for which you’re counting it (there are actually a lot of marathons that run across different state boundaries)… so a race that starts and finishes in one state but happens to have you running through another can only count for the state where it started and finished. And you can’t double count a race for two states (unless you run the race two different years).

I kept a spreadsheet of all my marathons and finish times, which made it a lot faster/easier when I had to submit all the dates, places, and finish times to the club for validation. They then go through your list and check each set of race results to make sure that you’re listed – it’s not a quick process! But when it concluded, I got a gorgeous trophy for my effort.

How did the people in your life react when you told them you wanted to set this record?
They were incredibly supportive, although many were also a bit incredulous because I had been such a non-jock before I started running. My close friends and family understood, but whenever I saw someone that I hadn’t seen in a while, they were confused when/why/how I started running marathons!

In terms of finances and time, how did you manage to run all these marathons?
I was working full-time (60-80 hours/week) in management consulting when I did my first marathon. However, after my 14th marathon (in February 2009), I was laid off. I took a break from marathons for a little bit, because I couldn’t justify spending money to travel to a race when I didn’t know where my rent money would be coming from.

When looking for jobs, I tried to find one that would support my marathons, and ended up taking a job in revenue management for an airline. The job came with free flight benefits, which was a huge help! (Of course, the flights were standby, which meant that I was also stressed the day before the race about whether there would be a free seat so I could get there… and I did miss a few races as a result.) I also shared rental cars and hotel rooms with other runners wherever possible, sometimes sleeping four to a room so that we could spend as little money as possible on accommodations. In all, I spent about $12,000 and traveled 122,000 miles to reach my goal.

Figuring out all the logistics was challenging, especially when it came down to the last dozen states. (E.g., “I could run Virginia this weekend, since it’s cheap and my friends are going, but there are a lot of races in Virginia and only a few in Rhode Island, so if I don’t do Rhode Island now, I would have to wait another six months.”) But honestly, doing a marathon in all fifty states was much more about my planning and goal-setting than athletic prowess. I know it seems hard to believe, but it’s a goal that anyone could reach if they put their mind to it and made it a priority.

How did your running affect the other areas of your life?
While I was doing the fifty states, I actually told myself that I didn’t want running to affect other areas of my life – I wanted to try to be as normal as possible. (This meant that there were many races that I ran totally unrested after a night of drinking with my friends.) But there were so many lessons I learned from running that did carry over into other parts of my life. I had never thought that running even one mile was something I’d ever be able to do, but then I became a marathon runner. Seeing how that happened showed me that you have to question the boundaries you set for yourself and not just accept that you can’t do something.

What happens when one sets a world record?
There was a lot of press at my 50th state marathon, the Minneapolis Marathon, and then I did a bunch of interviews after with various radio stations, TV news shows, etc. The most fun opportunity I got though was the chance to appear in a national ad campaign for JetBlue. My picture ended up on billboards and subway cars all over the country, and the in-flight TVs played an interview with me. I got so many Facebook messages from friends I hadn’t seen in years who told me that they had seen my ad and couldn’t believe what I was up to! That was really, really cool.

Is it ever weird when new people in your life discover that you hold this record?
Oh, it is so weird, and it’s definitely something I downplay as a result! I always feel uncomfortable bringing it up to new people I meet, because I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging. Whenever people are talking about running, especially distance running, I’m always drawn to the conversation– but then I also don’t want to overshadow anyone else’s accomplishments (e.g., “Oh, you’re running a 10K? I’ve run over 100 full marathons!”).

One major thing I learned from running is that achievement is very, very personal. If I run a marathon under 4:00, I’m thrilled with my time; if my friend Adam runs a marathon slower than 3:20, he’s horribly disappointed in what a bad day he had. Similarly, I remember how proud I was when I ran my first 5K – I thought it was pretty much the longest distance ever that a human could run, like the equivalent of an Ironman. I would never want to take that feeling away from someone who worked hard to reach their own goal.

What advice would you give to new runners? Or to someone interested in setting a record or any type?
Try not to let your mind get in the way of what you do – just give something a try and see if you’re able to do it. The races that I’ve run the fastest were frequently the ones with the toughest courses, or where I was the least-prepared. You are a lot stronger than you think you are, and sometimes it’s worth it to go after something that you think is impossible – the results may surprise you.

Thank you so much for sharing your story, Laura! This is simultaneously relatable and inspiring. Are any of you guys runners? Do you have any questions for her?

P.S. True Story: I received a donated kidney and what happened when I ran a 5k

18 comments

  1. Congratulations on that Laura. Yes you are right.... achievement is very, very personal

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  2. "I thought it was pretty much the longest distance ever that a human could run, like the equivalent of an Ironman." This made me smile - it's pretty much exactly how I felt after I ran my first 5k this spring. I love the comment about running being a personal achievement.

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    1. SO awesome that you did a 5K! It's definitely the "gateway" drug to more running and more races :)

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  3. This is incredible...100 marathons? that's insane! I love hearing unlikely stories like this, considering you never were a runner and started with just 1 mile. That's very inspiring. Will you travel to other countries now, to do marathons? :)
    Sarah M

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    1. I love traveling in general - my father is from Warsaw, Poland, so I've been there quite a bit. As for running, I've done a few marathons in other countries. I've been lucky enough to run marathons in Jamaica, the Bahamas, Bermuda, and Spain, and I got to run a 10 mile race in Nice, France! I love getting to see a new city/place by running - 26.2 miles gives you a lot to see!

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  4. Congratulations Laura, that's amazing!

    I'm curious about whether you suffered any injuries along the way? How many pairs of shoes did you go through?

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    1. I'm not sure about how many shoes I went through, since I am not very good about tracking miles per shoe. I usually just swap them out when they are super dirty and when I can feel they aren't providing the cushioning I need. I usually buy sneakers in bulk when I see them on sale (like if the models I wear go down to $40/pair, I'll stock up), and then keep them in my closet so that it's easy to just "get a new pair" without having to pay crazy prices.

      As for injuries, I had some knee problems about ten marathons in - it just all of a sudden started hurting. I saw a few doctors, who diagnosed it as an IT Band issue, and it went away completely just when I started stretching more and being religious about using my foam roller.

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  5. Thank you for this article! The most I've run is a 10k (it was a one time thing). Been thinking about the couch to 5k.

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    1. The couch to 5K is a GREAT program - I love how it builds up gradually. Feel free to drop me an email if you'd like any help creating a training plan that's built around your schedule!

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  6. This is so inspiring! This makes my goal of doing a 5k and 10k seem like cake (: Congrats on your accomplishments, that is SO incredibly amazing.

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    1. DEFINITELY not cake if you haven't done them before! I always tell people that I think the hardest part of a marathon is the first 2-4 miles. That's when your body is still kind of remembering what it feels like to run (vs the comfortable feeling of sitting on the couch). But then after that, you get more into it and you're just kind of continuing to do what you've just been doing. Does that make sense? One thing I learned from my experience was that if you can run one mile (e.g., no physical impediments), you can train to run pretty much ANY distance you put your mind to! My longest distance to date is 39 miles (at a faster average pace than my very first marathon), which is definitely a far cry from where I started, but I actually had a blast doing it and it wasn't nearly as hard as those first short runs.

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  7. What a story! Thanks, Laura, I really enjoyed this. Well done you :-)

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  8. So AWESOME! I've only run one marathon so far, and I'd love to run more - so impressed/inspired by you!

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    1. Congrats on your marathon! Feel free to drop me a line if you'd like help picking a fun one to do as your second :)

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  9. Laurel Whitney7/8/14, 8:25 PM

    Laura, That is an amazing and inspiring accomplishment. Because your Mom was partly responsible for me meeting my husband, I know what a great role model you had to inspire & support you. What's next?

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    1. Thank you so much, Laurel! My mom was a big part of it - she was there at my first marathon, my 50th state, and several marathons in between too. Even when she wasn't there, she was always calling/texting beforehand and cheering me on from afar :)

      I just moved to Colorado and am mostly focused on settling in here right now. But, perhaps some hiking goals in my future? I am looking forward to climbing my first fourteener this weekend! I also really love Sarah's "25 things to try before my birthday" list on the sidebar here - gives me some great ideas for other goals :)

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