12 Marathons in 12 Months

This is a story of transformation, overcoming Newton’s First Law, you know … a body at rest stays at rest.

As a busy, 40ish, dad and husband whose athletic glory days had long ago passed, this began as a desperate need to get in shape. Sure, the good natured ridicule of my son, who never let me forget that his mom could run much faster, had become mildly humiliating. But truly, with heart disease and diabetes in the family tree, it was time for me to become less sedentary. So, I decided to get in shape by running, went to Fleet Feet for some new running shoes and laced ‘em up.

During the first several weeks it was fascinating to watch my mind fight against my body, dealing with the pain of running those first few miles. “It’s hot, I’m tired, my ___ (insert body part here) hurts”.

You should know I’ve never been a particularly great runner, and although I have a few dusty trophies from my (middle school!) days as a pretty decent football and baseball player, I thought of myself more as a “hiker”. My idea of fun was going with some guys every summer and covering a 50-60 mile stretch on the Appalachian Trail. But knowing that I could carry 30 lbs. for 15+ hours per day with 4,000+ foot elevation changes gave me confidence in my ability to evolve into a runner.

Truth be told, my wife is and was the “real” runner in our family and had all of the genetics and talent. Her dad was speedster running back at UNC-CH and she was a star tennis player growing up. She thrived on getting up at the break of dawn 5 days per week for intervals, speed work, hills and cross trained on alternate days to increase her VO2 max. I, on the other hand, could only handle running 3 times per week on good weeks.

After a few weeks of acclimating to 5-6 miles, a friend asked me about running a 10k race. Yes…an organized race would help me stay committed to running, but 6.2 miles would be too short. I needed to get in and stay in shape over months of training. What about properly training for a marathon I thought? Yes, that was it; I was committed.

Why a marathon? Being blessed with neither speed nor exceptional strength, I’ve always been able to outlast people by working and training hard. That’s what attracted me to marathons…they’re all about heart.

Setting and achieving fitness goals was absolutely essential to my success and, more importantly, to the development of my character. During my marathon training exercise became much more than getting healthy, experiencing the adrenalin highs of running races, crossing the finish line and getting buff. The real challenge wasn’t changing my body composition; it was developing the strength needed to push through fatigue and physical pain. That strength would serve me well when dealing with intense emotional pain that coming spring.

My training during the summer went well and I followed the Higdon training regimen. Most of my runs were after 11pm and I did the majority of my 18-20 milers in total darkness.

After months of training for the Chicago marathon in October, it seemed like such a waste to get into shape and then QUIT. What a letdown that would be!

I heard about a local Kenyan runner who ran a “bad race” in a local marathon and in order to redeem himself won the Richmond marathon the following week. That’s when I got into my head that if he could run 2 marathons in 2 weeks, certainly I could run 12 in 12 months!.

So, I started thinking about my second race before even running the first. How about the New York Marathon in November? That’d be fun!

I had the time of my life running Chicago and was in great shape for New York. Wow, 2 marathons in 2 months. What’s next?!

Before running the next race I established two goals:

  1. To stay in better shape for 1 year.
  2. To run a faster marathon than Oprah.

Charman Driver, a local running instructor, helped me to perfect my form with “Chi running”. I used to run like Fred Flintstone, lifting my quads and placing my feet down in front of me. Chi runners shift their bodies slightly forward thereby lifting their feet behind them, enabling instead of interrupting momentum.

Scheduling future races would be a challenge. I mapped out the next 10 races and here is what I came up with:

  • Kiawah, SC in December
  • Disney in January
  • Myrtle Beach, SC in February
  • Virginia Beach in March
  • Boston (as a bandit runner in April)
  • Fargo, ND in May
  • San Diego in June
  • Toronto in July
  • Quebec in August and
  • Marine Corps (DC) in October

Shortly after my 4th race in January, my dad who was also my best buddy and lifelong travel companion, passed away just short of his 80th birthday. His loss was devastating and left an enormous hole in my heart. On my long, solitary training runs I would think about him and the good times we shared traveling the world together.

However, I saw God’s hand at work in this whole cockamamie plan of running “12 in 12”. The strength that I was developing from running these races served me well in coping with the loss of my dad, while comforting my extended family and appreciating my blessings.

I have so many positive memories and stories of traveling across the US and Canada and running races in different states. I linked up with a group of runners who also were running multiple races and made some lifelong friends.

After running 6 races I started to get weary. My legs felt heavy, and I began to experience an emotional burnout. Races 7 & 8 left me exhausted and I considered quitting.

At the finish line of race 9 I became rejuvenated, with the end in sight!

After my dad’s passing, I dedicated the rest of my races that year to him and wept at mile 26 at most races. The tears were uncontrollable in DC as I crossed the 12th marathon’s finish line. The memories of him combined with finishing this incredible journey were too much to contain.

I learned so much about myself along the way and had accomplished all of my objectives … and then some.

So, what are some tips to running so many consecutive races?

An obvious key in running 12 marathons in 12 months was staying healthy. The injury bug was my archenemy which meant I couldn’t afford to “tweak” a knee or IT band, pull a hammy or get really sick. One of those would jeopardize my ability to run consecutive races.

Despite hearing otherwise, stretching before runs was an important part of my regimen. My hips were so tight and needed constant stretching. Typically, I would stretch for 20 minute before a run and then 10 minutes after. I started out stretching my calves, soleus and Achilles then worked my quads and hamstrings and finish stretching my hips. Most of my knee problems were caused from having tight hips and most foot pain was caused from a tight soleus.

Running at the proper weight dramatically helped my performance. Losing that extra 5 lbs. shaved a good 20 minutes off my times.

My pre-race tips

  • Get a massage 48-72 hours before race (definitely not the day before).
  • Get adjusted by a chiropractor 5-6 days prior to a race
  • Gently stretch the whole week before
  • Practice deep breathing from the diaphragm the week before the race to keep your lungs full of air and blood oxygenated.
  • Minimize pre-race stress which drains your energy.
  • Don’t fret over small aches and pains. Before every race, I always had some small pain which concerned me greatly….a sore foot, aching knee, tight back, etc. Race day adrenalin usually made those aches and pains disappear!
  • Pack your race gear 1 week ahead of time. Plan your race day meal. If possible, sleep the day before the race. Mentally, you should be itching to run.

During the race

  • The morning of: Plan your race in your mind. I broke the race up into 3 parts: The first half, miles 14-20 and the homestretch.
  • Drink early and often…
  • The best races I ran I had little in my stomach.
  • Replace electrolytes with e-caps 1-2 / hour, depending on the heat
  • You can usually predict race results after 10k. If you’re relaxed and able to concentrate on breathing from your diaphragm the first 3-4 miles, chances are you’ll finish well. If you’re tense and battling nerves it’s probably going to be a long day.
  • Most PRs are achieved between miles 13-20.
  • Don’t forget to Gu or drink at mile 18-19.
  • Alter breathing patterns and foot strikes occasionally to rest your heart and legs

Mental Reminders

The first half: I ease into the start, focusing on light foot strikes and steady, easy breathing. My goal in the first 6 miles is to keep my body relaxed, have fun and smile, make light conversation, and enjoy my surroundings while maintaining a heart rate < 160 while breathing through my nose.

Miles 14-20: This is PR make or break time, which for me requires the most concentration. I focus on my cadence (the number of times my feet hit the pavement, make sure that I’m breathing properly steadily and easily to ensure sufficient oxygenation. On flat courses, I alter my stride a little to vary the muscle groups I’m working. Mentally, I talk my body into thinking that 20 is the end of the race.

The last 6.2: I tell myself that I can run 6 miles backwards. That’s from my house to the Finley Golf Course and back. That’s nothing. Miles 20-22 are truly painful and lonely so I distract myself with thinking about how beautiful my wife is, etc. Having a consistent breathing pattern during these miles is essential.

Post race tips to speed recovery

  • Get a massage within 30 minutes of finishing
  • Drink Endurox within 1 hour
  • Elevate your feet up against the wall to drain the blood out of your legs

This was a radical and transformative experience which forever changed me. It expanded my world and now I know I am capable of doing anything if I’m willing to work hard and set my mind on crossing the finish line.

What’s next? Hmmm, maybe a longer run? Stay tuned….