01 July 2012, 7am
Fantasy leagues for football, basketball, baseball and hockey are everywhere. Fans of major TV sports have countless opportunities to sit and stare at their computer screens, obsessing over which play they should make. Runners have it better than that. They can hit the streets and participate in their sport while building their own personal collection of statistics to obsess over between runs: it’s the best of both worlds.
All runners count things; how far they run leads on to endless other details, ranging from course, mood, heart rate, mileage per pair of shoes, food consumed, weather… If you can name it, some runner somewhere is counting it.
Competitive runners use such information to help improve performance. For elite runners shaving seconds off their time is a necessary obsession. Runners at all levels shoot for a sub-3 (or 4 or 5) hour marathon. Others strive to average 50 miles per week, or complete 100-mile races. Particular goals can be made to fit every kind of kink in the runner’s mind.
Every runner battles aging. Frank Georges is a member of my running club who has run at least one 5K at 18:59 or better for nine years. He says his “main goal has shifted in the last few years from running as fast as I can to being healthy and well for as long as I can.” Gary Allen, race director of the Mount Desert Island Marathon in Maine is one of the few people who’ve run sub-3 marathons in five different decades. “You want to see just how far [you can] go before the wheels fall off,” he says.
Running a single marathon is challenge enough for many people, but some have run hundreds of them. Kevin Counihan started running marathons ten years ago in spite of losing half a foot in an accident when he was younger. He was ready to quit in 2005, but then met Bill Rodgers. Rodgers’ 25 consecutive Boston and New York Marathon finishes inspired Kevin to try to finish 500 marathons before he turns 70 (in 2031). His current total of 135 is the record for mobility-impaired athletes.
Texan Larry Macon and Californian Jim Simpson are neck and neck to finish most marathons, both with over 800. Macon, 67, ran 113 marathons in 2011. He is one of over 4000 members of Marathon Maniacs. Maniacs are ranked on a scale that starts with one star for running two marathons within 16 days and tops out at 10 stars: running either 52 marathons, 30 marathons in 30 states, or 20 marathons in 20 countries within a single year. 94 runners have acquired 10 stars. Then there are the ultrarunners: in 2010 Monica Scholz broke her own record by running 25 100-mile races in one year.
Erin Lynch is starting to collect races in countries where people drive on the left. Ken Skier says, “I’ve only counted the number of races I run barefoot. In 2010 I ran 20; in 2011, 21. This year… you get the idea.”
Many runners try to complete sets: over 2600 runners belong to the 50 States Marathon Club harbouring the goal of running a marathon in all 50 US states.
The 50 States and D.C. Marathon Group is a typical case of runners’ one-upmanship, just like the Seven Continents Club and the Seven Continents Marathon Club who are in turn topped by the Grand Slam Club (50 members) who’ve run marathons on all seven continents and the North Pole Marathon.
Joshua Grzegorzewski aims to finish marathons at every minute from 3:00 to 3:59, but the lure to run under three hours will be hard to resist. “It will be a true exercise in self-control to slow up and cross the finish in just over three hours, but it will be on my own terms,” he says.
It’s not always about racing. More than 230 people have run across the US. Brian Stark is currently busy running across all 50 states, a task Paul Reese started in 1990 when he was 73 and finished when he was 80 years old. Steve Vaitones is closing in on his goal of running through all the cities and towns in Massachusetts. He was inspired by 1993 World Mountain Championship silver medalist Dave Dunham who is working through a list of 56 different US mountain peaks. Dave has reached the highest summit in 40 states but also aspires to track the high points in the 3143 counties in the USA. So far he has checked off 176 of them.
Other quests are even more whimsical, like the ABC of Running group who seek to complete a run in a cities whose name starts with each letter of the alphabet. China is a rich source of X’s. The Running Alphabet group use their GPS to trace routes to form letters. Their goal is a complete typeface, including upper- and lower-case letters, numbers, and even symbols.
Maybe the most compulsive of collectors are the streak runners, striving to run at least one mile every day, regardless of weather, injuries, travel, race schedules, or any other conflicts. Californian Mark Covert has run every day since 23 July 1968. His wife says the streak is “like a fifth child for us.” But he still lags Ron Hill, British winner of the 1970 Boston Marathon, who has run every day since December 1964. Hill ran after he broke his sternum in a car crash in 1993 and on a crutch after bunion surgery, when he “ran” one mile in 27 minutes.
Julie Maxwell had the longest streak for a woman going, over 33 years, until she broke her ankle last December (while she wasn’t running). That stopped it but she says “I assure you that when I heal, I will begin another streak.”
Robert Kraft has run every day since 1975, whenever possible at 5pm on the same 8 mile stretch of beach in Florida. Kraft works as a songwriter, since a regular job would get in the way of his streak; he chooses not to travel so he can hit the beach every day. He has other habits that indicate a compulsion, like counting his steps as he leaves his apartment for his daily run. Robert missed a day on the beach because he was in hospital for tests, but at 5pm he got out of bed and ran laps around the hospital.
All these lists, quests, and streaks are unavoidably self-centered, although Tom DeKornfeld enumerates the people who’ve provided him with running tips and inspiration over the years. “I love this list,” he says. “I think it is really important to be mindful of all the people who have helped you.”
Even if all this checking off and chalking up is compulsive it at least gets runners out of their basement and into the real world to sweat and strain while they count. Only one person can win a race, but everybody who runs can be a winner – especially when they’re the one deciding how to keep score.