A decade on the run: What I learned from running a marathon in every U.S. state (and D.C., too)

October 10, 2021, 1:00 PM UTC
Fortune senior writer Phil Wahba prepares to check Louisiana off his marathon list in February of 2019.
Maarten Vandersman

“Did you see the bear?” 

This is a very Alaska question to be asked. And since it was being posed to me by a fellow runner as I ran along a tree-lined gravel trail, halfway through the Anchorage Mayor’s Marathon this June, it was not one I was thrilled to hear. I was making good time, and I just wanted to safely complete the course—and finish, at long last, my quest to run a 26.2-mile road race in every U.S. state (along with Washington, D.C., for good measure).

Over the years, I’ve faced all manner of challenges and mishaps during marathons: hitting the wall (often) due to inadequate training; throwing up mere yards from the finish line, as I did in Rhode Island and Virginia (costing me sub-four-hour finishes each time—by less than a minute!) because of faulty carbo-loading and hydration; landing in the medical tent (twice! In Wisconsin and Iowa) from heat exhaustion; suffering chafed nipples (a lesson you only need learn once) and so on. But a bear encounter? That would have been an unwelcome first.

In Alaska, I got lucky. It turns out I had just run past the spot that the ursine miscreant and her two cubs had chosen for a short break. Their appearance caused the race director to temporarily re-route the race for the hundreds of runners behind me, but I ran on unhindered.

The race ended without incident. (It undoubtedly helped that I sang “Fozzie Bear stay away, Fozzie Bear stay away,” when I found myself alone in wooded sections of the course.) And I eventually crossed that 51st finish line in a downtown Anchorage park. I was one of 389 runners to complete the marathon, including a handful who joined the club of 50-state finishers with me that day.

It was pouring rain, and the crowds were thin, so there wasn’t much cheering. The moment felt a bit anti-climactic to me, suggesting that this wasn’t such a big deal even though it was the culmination of a decade-long pursuit. I did at least win some praise from the race employee handing out the medals: After I shouted to her, “I just finished my 50 states!”, she gave me an energetic, socially distanced high-five that saw only the tips of our fingertips touch.

Highlights from a decade on the run (clockwise from top left): The author in Fargo, N.D.; Seattle; Hilo, Hawaii; Shiprock, N.M.; Memphis; Missoula; Mitchell, S.D.; and Big Sur, Calif.
Courtesy of Phil Wahba

Thus ended a challenge that has dominated my life for years and seen me run marathons in such wonderful locales as the Biltmore estate in Asheville, N.C., the cliffs of Big Sur, Calif., and a park for retired NASA rockets in Huntsville, Alabama.

In reaching this goal, I joined a tiny subset of marathoners: the 50 States Marathon Club. And yes, there is an actual club—a volunteer, amateur group of runners pursuing this goal that provides certification to finishers, along with ideas about which marathons to choose in what state. The club requires proof of each race finished, and it knows of 1,821 people who have completed the challenge. (An unknown number more have done it, too, without the club’s official recognition.) More hard-core marathoners will eventually join the cohort: The club has almost 5,000 members and is going strong.

The same can’t be said right now for marathons overall. Marathon participation in the U.S. fell to 427,000 finishes in 2019 from its 2014 peak of 551,000, according to the trade organization Running USA. (No data were compiled for 2020 because most races were cancelled.) There are also fewer races from which to choose—some 1,000 U.S. marathons still exist now, down from an all-time high of 1,200 in 2015. After a multi-decade boom, marathons have lost some popularity, as runners favor smaller distances like the half marathon as well as alternatives such as triathlons, activities like Tough Mudder, and Peloton.

The 50 States Marathon Club’s membership ranks include a disproportionate number of people such as military veterans and airline workers, who get discounted airline and hotel prices, making all the travel more affordable. And it tends to attract prolific marathoners rather than super-fast ones. (People who can run a sub-three-hour marathon don’t tend to run that many of them.)

As fun as it was to chase this goal, I quickly learned that in running as in life, no matter how impressive your achievement, there is always someone who has outdone you. One 50 States club member member has completed the feat seven times. There is a separate group of runners who have done all 50 states in better than four hours. (I would have to redo 18 of my races under that time to qualify.) And there is an exclusive club out there for runners who have completed at least 300 marathons.

“There is a commitment to it, it’s a love, and sometimes it’s literally insanity,” says Lois Berkowitz, who is president of the club and has completed the 50 states five times, completing her latest tour in late 2019, in Bellingham, Washington. “A lot of our members, I would say, are a little left of normal,” the former HR specialist jokes.

No argument from me. When people ask me what motivated me over all those years, I like to quip, “Because the states were there.” But in all seriousness, the desire to do this came from a variety of sources. For one thing, I simply love the marathon distance, and have run 71 in all. And I love traveling. But there was something else at play: the humbling fact that I am a quite good runner, just not a great one. Not one of those 71 marathons was fast enough to qualify me for the Boston Marathon, the most prestigious of America’s races. There was an element of trading quality for quantity in my quest. Still, as I knocked off more and more states, and overcame a worrisome injury in 2017, I finally started to see I could get faster and make the races less punishing on my middle-aged body if I took a more rigorous, almost scientific approach to my training—and that discovery was rewarding on its own, another goal to chase within the larger achievement

A quest begins, almost accidentally

Like every human activity, long-distance running has its own culture and subcultures. Some runners see marathons as a bucket-list, one-and-done endeavor. Others are speed demons whose sole goal is to qualify for an elite race like Boston, while others yet are proud back-of-the-packers happy to run one in six hours plus. There is also a cohort whose big motivation comes from collecting medals—the bigger and tackier, the better. And there are people like the 50-staters who take the idea of “endurance” in “endurance sport” to the extreme.

I started running a year after moving to New York in 1997 to combat the city’s stress. I found the meditative state I could reach on longer runs more appealing than the rush of a short, fast race, and so the marathon became my race of choice.

The author at the 1998 New York City Marathon—his first as a runner, and the last one he would run in a cotton T-shirt. (Cotton chafes.)
Courtesy of Phil Wahba

My 50-state quest started almost accidentally. A runner friend of mine, Keith LaScalea, a New York physician who was already pursuing (and has achieved) the 50-state goal, convinced me to join him for a race in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, in December 2011. He reasoned that I was still in marathon shape from having run the New York City marathon a few weeks earlier. So why not literally get more mileage out of my months of training and do another 26.2-mile race?

The following January, my husband Maarten and I were going to Miami Beach for a short holiday that coincided with that city’s marathon. I used the same reasoning that Keith had suggested, and signed up for that race, too. Marathons in Cape May, New Jersey and Providence, R.I. soon followed, and before you know it, I had run five states, or 10% of the total. That somehow made the endeavor start to seem more feasible.

I take a similar approach to many big endeavors in life and work, including writing a long magazine piece and doing a day-long bike ride: I break down the large task into smaller, digestible pieces. When running a marathon, at mile 6.55 I tell myself, “One quarter of the way done”; at mile 10, I think, “ok, you’ve done double digits.” At mile 13.1, I know there is less road in front of me than in back; at mile 16, I think, “less than 10 to go.” And at mile 20, I start to visualize the remaining distance as one loop of Central Park, which I’ve run thousands of times.

My marathon-hopping was also proving to be a fun way to see new places, like Detroit, Duluth, St. Louis, and Cincinnati, that I would likely not have bothered visiting otherwise. I thought, “Let’s see where this goes, no pressure,” and I continued. But once I reached 19 states, with my Dallas marathon in late 2014, I decided to go for the whole 50. I did not hold myself to hitting fast times, given that my marathons had been all over the place at that point, from 3:32 to 4:24—a range that spanned from solid result to being marathon roadkill. Yet I was clearly underachieving, and I knew deep down I could get much faster.

The author crosses the finish line in Providence, R.I., May 6, 2012.
Courtesy of FinisherPix®

It was an injury in 2017 after state No. 35 (Oregon), and the brief specter of never being able to run another marathon, that forced my hand. It made me take all aspects of training much more seriously from that point on—enabling me, in my late 40s, to finally bloom as a runner.

A wake-up call

Running 26.2 miles sounds simple enough: Just put one foot in front of the next and continue for a few hours. Early on, my focus during training was simply doing the mileage, with some hill repeats and a bit of speed work to supplement it. I never skimped on distance. But I was lazy about things like strength work and stretching. I also avoided training by heart zone, which involves teaching the heart to be efficient in pumping blood, and therefore oxygen, according to effort levels, by having the athlete vary the intensity of effort within a workout. For years I rolled my eyes at fellow runners who were constantly looking at their fancy GPS watches during training or wearing heart monitors across their chests. I saw such behavior as self-absorbed, a sign that they took their training and themselves too seriously. I felt they were missing out on the Zen aspect of running, which obsessing about one’s heart rate seemed to undermine.

Despite those inadequacies in my training, I somehow largely avoided injuries for many years. I had convinced myself that 4:00 marathons, my average at that point, were good enough, especially since I was running several a year. But while four hours is a good time, I wasn’t even coming close to qualifying for Boston, and some friends were telling me, “You know what to do.” In addition, the number of times I had to walk for much of the final six miles of a marathon made it crystal clear I was not doing it quite right.

Still, I was knocking states off my list at a good clip, averaging six or seven states a year. My catchy goal: finishing the 50 states by age 50, which I would hit in 2020. One marathon became a long training run for the next one, and so on. I would soon pay a price for that.

In a particularly intense burst between October 2016 and May 2017, I ran eight marathons. Sure enough, the inevitable happened. As I neared mile 22 of the Pacific Northwest marathon in Eugene, Oregon, in May 2017, the pain in my shins, which had been nagging me for weeks, grew excruciating, to the point that I limped through to the finish. Even after a few days of icing and anti-inflammatories, running seemed to have become impossible.

When I got home to New York, I was told by a sports doctor to stop running immediately for two months. That was correct advice, but it was based on a misunderstanding. It turned out this prominent physician had misread my x-rays, which showed what he thought were twin stress fractures in each tibia. That September, during a follow-up visit that showed no change in my shins, he invoked the possibility of me needing surgery that would likely end my marathon days.

Panicked and worried about the loss of the most important outlet in my life, I quickly got a second opinion from an orthopedic surgeon, the former medical director of the New York City Marathon. He diagnosed my injury—correctly—as shin splints, a painful but common and manageable injury for runners.

This second doctor prescribed physical therapy, and he urged me to start taking strength work more seriously. Who knew that the stronger one’s glutes, for instance, the less work falls on the shins way down below? Or that sit-ups mean more support from your core and an easier load for your knees? Everyone but me, it seems.

So I got to work, began PT and started rebuilding my mileage, all while cross training with more biking and swimming to give my bones a break and build up muscles that played a supporting role in running. I also got very diligent about speed work and drills with my running club, Front Runners New York, and became one of those runners I used to mock for being so tethered to their smart watches.

The benefit to my performances was immediate. Only two months after my shin-splint diagnosis, I was running full marathons again. I clocked a 3:49 time in Overland Park, Kansas in November 2017, my fastest in over a year at that point. And I shaved off even more time in Seattle and Tucson in the following weeks. In the final 15 races of my quest, my average time fell to around 3:40. Sometimes I could kick myself for how long it took me to finally get what was obvious to other runners.

Another thing I finally, finally learned after running dozens of marathons: you cannot build a time cushion when you go out too fast. I had epic flameouts in at least 20 of my races. It took time, but it did sink in that it is infinitely smarter to store energy for later in the race by going out more slowly and learning discipline in one’s pacing.

In Fargo, North Dakota, which I ran in 2018 as my 41st state, a pacer for the 3:40 group forbade me from leaving her side until mile 16, even though I insisted I felt strong. Abby, decked out in giraffe ears and blasting Neil Diamond on her portable speakers, was direct: Cool your jets, she said, until I give you the green light. When we got to that point in the race, and I confirmed I still felt great, she told me to go, get out of her sight. The last six miles were my fastest of the race.

I repeated that strategy in my next few marathons to great results, culminating with a personal record of 3:24 in Hawaii that December, at the age of 48. I am slow on the uptake apparently, but I did finally learn. I am now a pacer at the New York City marathon and impart the same hard-won wisdom to runners that my Fargo pacer did to me.

Running gear, pre- and post-race.
Courtesy of Phil Wahba

Nutrition also took me ages to nail. In the 1990s, the conventional wisdom was to carbo-load like a demon in the few days before the race and drink a ton the morning before the race, lest you run out of gas or get dehydrated during the marathon. But I often would overeat and gorge on pasta for several days before the race, including the eve, overwhelming my digestive system. GI distress is not conducive to good marathons, I can confirm.

Now, I eat a bit more than usual the day before a marathon, but have only a bagel with peanut butter and bananas the morning of, and I never bonk anymore. I used to drink so much water the morning of and during my races that my sodium got perilously low. It got to the point where I would throw up during or after the race at most of my marathons; indeed, friends were surprised if I didn’t.

Wanderlust and hidden gems

If my goal had simply been to run a race as fast as I could, I would not have run six or seven marathons a year. And I would have chosen different marathons. The two most beautiful courses I ran, Big Sur and Mount Desert Island, Maine, home of Acadia National Park, were also the hilliest—so among my slowest.

Indeed, the prospect of satisfying my wanderlust was as big a motivation for me as finally cracking the marathon code. This country is full of hidden gems, and exploring it was a big part of the fun. Case in point: En route to my Yankton, South Dakota marathon in 2017, I stopped in the small college town of Vermillion for a coffee. I discovered the place was home to the National Music Museum, one of the best-regarded music instrument museums in the world, with a collection of 15,000 instruments that includes gems like 17th century violas and a Martin guitar from 1890.

In Fargo, my marathon took me through the grounds of a Viking ship museum in neighboring Moorhead, Minn. The Kentucky Derby marathon in Louisville steered runners through the Churchill Downs racecourse. The Green Bay marathon course goes through the iconic Lambeau Field, home to the NFL’s Packers. And some races have oddball traditions: Go St-Louis has a priest at Mile 8 to cast holy water at runners, while Big Sur has a man playing a grand piano on the Pacific Coast Highway at the halfway point.

Miraculously, I only had one marathon cancellation to contend with (due to an ice storm in Dallas in 2013). The travel could be exhausting, but it’s fun to get to a new town and look for the best Italian place, or go to the pasta party if the race organizer puts one on, or look for a place for pancakes for my carbo-loading rituals. (Special shout out to Eggington’s in Casper, Wyoming!) Even though each race was different, there was a sense of tribe at each one, whether running the 52,000-finisher New York race or the 41-finisher River Rat race in Yankton.

Mission accomplished: The author in June 2021 at the finish line of the Anchorage Mayor’s Marathon, the last in his 50-plus-state quest.
Courtesy of Phil Wahba

And the crowds, whatever the size, are a big part of the fun. There are some amusing things one finds at every race: Some spectators will inevitably blast “Eye of the Tiger” or the Chariots of Fire theme from their speakers, convinced they are the first ones to have ever thought of that. There are also always the well-intentioned but slightly annoying people shouting, “You are almost there” at mile 18 (I could scream but rarely have the energy to) or “Run, Forrest run.” And there are the jokesters with signs like “Who needs toenails?” or “I date marathoners because they last a long time.”

Now that I’m done, many have asked, what do you want to do next? Do it over? (No.) The 10 provinces in my native Canada? Possibly. (I am 10% done!) An Ironman? Quite possibly in 2022, since I’ve also caught the triathlon bug now.

But I have some unfinished business with marathons: For all my later-in-life improvement, Boston is taunting me. I am running that marathon this week via a charity entry, supporting New York Road Runners’ Team for Kids. But deep down, I know I won’t be truly satisfied until I have qualified for Boston based on my racing time. At my age, that means better than 3:25. So that’s my next goal. And I certainly have enough lessons from my 50-state quest upon which to draw to get there.

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