100 Marathons and Counting

Our Q&A with One Woman Who Knows a Thing or Two About Running

Karen in a marathon in Little Rock

If all goes according to plan, Karen will have completed 100 marathons by the end of 2020. That’s right, 26.2 miles over and over, and over again. We sat down with Karen for a Q&A to learn more about her running tips, tricks and motivations. Here’s what she had to say:

Completing one marathon is a lifetime accomplishment, and you’ve completed almost 100! How did you get into marathons, and what is it about them that keeps you going back for more?

I have enjoyed running for as long as I can remember, but there are two things that really sparked my interest. First: my grandfather. He had a heart attack around the age of 40, which caused him to make significant lifestyle changes, including running or walking daily. During visits, he’d organize “foot races” for the grandkids and I’d join him on his 5-mile walks (when I was a youngster I had to run to keep up). He passed away at 82 years young for reasons unrelated to heart disease.

Second: Seeing Joan Benoit win the gold medal at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. That’s when running a marathon became my new goal. My sons were born soon after, but I continued to run and completed my first marathon in 1992 at the Heart of America Marathon in Columbia. Running makes me a better person. Traveling, making new friends and seeing old friends keeps me coming back for more.   

How do you stay motivated to train?

Training is hard for me. Initially, I found a running partner to run with a couple of days a week and did my long-run training with a running group. Now, I prefer to train by myself and use a run/walk timer. My goal is to do something four days a week, even if it’s mainly walking. I attribute my lack of injuries to my lower mileage in between marathons and the run-walk method instead of running the whole marathon. I also do my best to get at least 10,000 steps per day on days when I am not training. To know that training will help me feel better during the marathon is my motivation for training. The health benefits are also a plus — I have type 1 diabetes and experience blood sugar fluctuations. If I have a high blood sugar, a 30-minute run will bring it down quickly.

Do you have a go-to meal the night before or morning before your marathon?

Pasta with some type of red sauce is my meal of choice on the night before a marathon. If I can’t find pasta, I also do OK with pizza. The morning of my marathons, I eat a simple breakfast, such as a peanut butter sandwich, two hours before the start and follow up with a yogurt 30 minutes to an hour before the start. My years working as a dietitian come in handy when I need to find a substitute.

What’s your best tip for recovery post-marathon?

My favorite post-marathon treat is chocolate milk. I also walk, read and nap afterward when I can. When I am away from the Midwest, I enjoy eating some of the local foods, like the lobster I had in Maine and crabs in Maryland.

Do you have recommendations for hydration or fueling during longer runs or races? During the race, I often drink a sports drink offered at the aid stations. If aid stations aren’t available or I’m just on a longer run, I wear a vest that holds fluids. For the shorter runs, I carry a handheld water bottle holder. I generally take in 16-24 ounces of water and 24-32 ounces of sports drink during a marathon, which equates to 2 ounces per mile. I also have some type of carbohydrate such as an energy gel about every hour during the marathon. Again, with my diabetes, the specific amounts depend on what my blood glucose is doing.

Do you have a strategy for using the restroom during a race?

This is probably too much information, but I do have strategies. Getting up early and drinking coffee first thing in the morning helps to assure I don’t have to stop for a bowel movement during the marathon. With all of the fluid drinking, I often have to stop at a porta potty during the race.

Do you have any tips for people running/walking for the first time? Something to wear or not wear? Eat? Stretch?

  1. Instead of having a goal for time, make it a goal to finish and enjoy it. A running friend once told me if it’s less than 8 hours, it’s a good day.
  2. Practice the run-walk method in training. I have a clip-on gym boss timer that works well for this. I was surprised to find I’m not nearly as tired afterward if I add the walking in early instead of running the whole marathon.
  3. Wear clothes that you have worn in training. Sometimes you just can’t tell what will cause chafing. 
  4. If you are traveling, bring clothes for different types of weather as it often changes from the prediction.
  5. Always pack rain gear. The marathons I ran on the East Coast rained more often than not. 
  6. Consider getting a waterproof carrier for your cell phone. I learned this lesson the hard way when my cell phone stopped working during a marathon with pouring rain. Fortunately, I was able to dry it out so I could use my GPS for the drive home.
  7. I love running skirts with the hidden pockets. I keep my nutrition, lip balm and phone in these as well.
  8. Arm warmers are very helpful, as it is often cold at the start but very warm near the end. They are easy to remove, and I just stuff them in my running skirt pocket.
  9. Have a mental exercise. I have many, so I will just list a few. There are times I will pick someone to pray for each mile. I often focus on a problem I am having and ask for an answer before the end of my run. Sometimes I find that a couple of miles have passed before I finish thinking about that issue’s resolution. If I do not get an answer, I just tell myself to be patient. Near the end of the marathon, I focus on short-term goals such as a countdown for each 10th of a mile.

How does marathoning affect your work and family life?

It keeps me sane, and I am more successful with maintaining a work-life balance. I stopped going to the office on weekends as much as I used to, and I take more time off to travel around races. My family is also very supportive. My husband has walked many of the half marathons, and my sons and daughter-in-law have also joined me on my marathon travels. I am looking forward to running with my grandkids someday.

Have you participated in any in-person marathons since March? How have they changed due to COVID?

All marathons since COVID have required social distancing with masks required at the start and any time you cannot keep a 6-foot distance. Most require staggered starts to help with social distancing. Runners usually behave and do their part, since the alternative is not having in-person races. I did help organize the food this year for our local Heart of America Marathon, and we were required to use bottled water and Gatorade at the aid stations. In lieu of a finisher’s medal, runners received an engraved hand sanitizer holder at packet pickup instead of after crossing the finish line.

Do you have a favorite marathon, and if so, why?

This is hard to answer, as each marathon I have run includes something inspiring, emotional and funny. My two most memorable are probably New York City and the Bataan Death March. I ran the NYC marathon in honor of my mother who was in the end stages of ALS. The Bataan Death March marathon was hot and sandy, but then I saw an army vet with a double amputation attempting the race, and he and his team inspired me. No matter what the rest of the day had in store for me, I knew it would never compare to his trials. I stopped by the ROTC hamburger stand at mile 14 to grab a burger just for the experience. After the finish, I met a 98-year-old Bataan Death March survivor, and he allowed me to take a picture with him. He passed away later that year, and I will forever treasure that photo.

Karen is an employee of MU Health Care.

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