An 11-year quest to run a marathon in every state of the nation concluded when Barb and Greg Damon completed the Chicago Marathon this month. Little did the then 36-years-old couple from Portland, Oregon suspect in 2003 that what they thought would be a one-off fundraiser for the American Heart Association (AHA) — running the Kona Marathon in Hawaii — would turn into a more-than-a-decade long exploration of the country "26.2 miles at a time".
The Active Times: What was your first reaction on crossing the finish line in Chicago?
Barb & Greg Damon: Extreme feelings of relief, joy, and gratitude! Not unlike our previous 49 finishes, just intensely magnified! The bonus in Chicago was being able to share our elation with friends and family that joined us for our finale.
Why did you pick an AHA charity to run for?
Back in college, Barb was a member of Alpha Phi — an international sorority with a philanthropic mission that includes advancing heart health. First introduced to the AHA through her local sorority chapter's fundraising efforts, Barb continued to be a volunteer after college, and then was inspired by a 'call-to-action' mailer from the AHA's American Stroke Association. Choosing to fundraise for the AHA, in celebration of finishing our 50-State marathon, seemed like a natural way to support and thank the organization for launching us on this journey.
What set you off on this odyssey?
When we received that flyer in the mail for the Train to End Stroke program — in which participants become part of a team trained to run a marathon in exchange for a commitment to raise funds for the cause — the timing couldn't have been more perfect. We were, sadly, experiencing personal connections to the heartache of stroke. Though neither of us were runners — our only prior races were charity-oriented canine-companion 5Ks — we decided to run that marathon, thinking that it would be our 'one-and-only' 26.2, in honor of our loved-ones, to raise dollars and awareness, and through a desire to introduce something different, and more healthy, in our own lives. Completing it, and finding that the feeling of crossing the finish line was so incredibly powerful, we decided to do another 'on our own' a few months later in our hometown, at the time Seattle. We will never forget when at about mile 23, running through the Seattle arboretum, we struck up a conversation with a fellow marathoner who told us that he was attempting to run a marathon in each U.S. state. We thought that adopting that goal would be an incredible way to explore our country!
Every think of giving up on it?
The biggest tests and roadblocks were related to life's unpredictabilities: car accidents, surgeries, family deaths. Staying the course seemed at times a burden but it also proved time and again to be a welcome escape.
What is the most inspiring story you picked up along the way?
We repeatedly have been amazed and inspired by those that have overcome incredible handicaps and hardships to achieve their goals. We have been continually moved by unbelievable courage and passion displayed by those who have tapped into the strength of their spirit.
Which stands out as the best marathon of the 50, and why?
This is always a tough question. There is truly something special about every marathon we did. Some stand out because of the beauty of the course (South Dakota, Idaho), or have meaning because of the people we met and the friendships we made (Arkansas, Montana). Others because we coaxed friends and family that had never run a marathon to join us in the event (Maine, Missouri, Texas, DC). Others still because of the meaning behind the event itself (New Mexico, DC, the Oklahoma City Memorial and the one we did in Kansas on the tenth anniversary of 9/11).
And the one you’d want to forget?
The ones where we really started questioning our sanity and are memorable for being brutal revolved around a factor that can't be controlled — the weather. We had a couple in which many of our miles were in heavy, flooding rain, a couple with sleet, and several with high winds. One of the worst, in terms of weather, was the one we did in New Jersey. Temperatures were in the 90s with matching humidity. That made the 26.2 miles almost unbearable. Dozens of people collapsed during the event and required medical attention. Police were trying to get runners to go straight back to the finish line which would have meant a [did not finish]. Several of us had to disregard their wishes in order to officially complete the full 26.2 and, for us, to be able to count it as a completed marathon for that state.
Do you run together or separately?
We cherish our long training runs together. It is our opportunity to connect on a deeper level, away from the tugs of technology. Our conversations range from minutia and the mundane — catching up on each other’s week, choosing our next marathon, discussing travel logistics, venting frustrations about work/life in order to leave any negative energy on the road rather than bring it in to our home — to key life decisions, such as matters of real estate, uprooting our lives from one state to another, and even decisions about funeral service arrangements for parents who have passed over the course of the past 11 years. During races, especially the large city events and especially post-Boston bombing, we will stay together. However, on some race days if we find that one of our paces doesn't match the other's, we are comfortable separating and experiencing the event from our respective 'run grooves'.
What have you got out of this as individuals and as a couple?
We like to tell people that 'we were never in danger of winning'. That being said, we both feel the individual benefits of setting goals — all aspects related to the sense of accomplishment, including improved confidence, and especially in tackling everyday challenges. We see training for and completing a marathon as a metaphor for marriage. It requires dedication to a commitment we have made to each other and to the event itself, through sickness and health, through good times and bad. The process of the 50-State marathon journey was an extreme exaggeration of that theory. We found that what we provided one another throughout our odyssey is the key to what makes our relationship so strong. Simply honoring each others efforts by being each other's 'biggest cheerleader' throughout, we inspired each other.
What has been the reaction of friends and family?
As neither of us were runners prior to our first marathon, our friends and family were initially shocked with our decision to devote so much time and energy to the 50-State Marathon goal. While they never could be considered unsupportive at the beginning, we witnessed their encouragement and support grow as our completed-state count grew.
Given you’ve been running four to six marathons a year for a decade, what’s your training regime like?
We found that staying in marathon-training mode was prefereable to 'starting over' with a new cycle. We used, with slight modifications, our original training plan provided by the Train to End Stroke team. We were extremely dedicated to our weekly long-run, 10-20 miles every weekend that we did not have a marathon. As Barb's right knee created a great deal of discomfort as the result of an infection from surgery several decades ago, weekday runs were short, and supplemented with lap swimming and strength training.
Is there one thing you know now that you didn’t when you ran your first marathon that you wish you’d known then?
We always encourage first-time marathoners to not be too hard on themselves. Invariably, most people ackling their first 26.2 miler become disappointed during their training, or more likely during the event itself, usually due to not meeting time goals. Reminding them that, even if there are mitigating circumstances — injuries, weather, illnesses — that disrupted their vision of what the race would be like for them, that the sacrifice and effort that they put into their training and the event should be respected. At the very least, a finish will be a PR for a first-time marathoner.
Any advice to anyone thinking of taking on this challenge?
To all endurance athletes traveling to events, we would encourage you to be be grateful for the opportunity to participate in the what gives you joy. Support the communities in which you race; be good ambassadors of the sport, thank the numerous volunteers, wave to or high-five the enthusiastic spectators, and spend your dollars at local establishments. For those specifically embarking on the 50-State marathon challenge, our advice would be to take full advantage of the opportunity. We decided from the beginning, that having the opportunity to see the country 26.2 miles at a times shouldn't be squandered. We decided to not only be choosy about which events we would do in each in state, but also to commit to at least 5 days to each trip. Because we had budgeted this time, we were able to explore the unique gems of each state: state and national parks, monuments, museums, other sporting events, festivals, local cuisine and libations, as well as visit family and friends.
Barb is at the point where her age and the technology are perfect for getting a replacement for the knee that was destroyed nearly three decades ago. After recovery, she will be more comfortable physically, and we will then continue to seek active travel. While we'd like to continue our side quest to complete a marathon on each continent (having already run ones in Rome, Italy, and Canberra, Australia), we also want to explore communities through other sports as well, such as a multi-week cycling trip through Vietnam or running the rapids of Chile.
What’s the greatest joy you get from running?
Running is joyful because it is inclusive. Most anyone can partake in the sport, from the turtles to the hares. Each of us has the opportunity to set, work towards, and achieve our goals. For us, not only do we reap the rewards of being physically fit and healthy, we get joy from spending time together away from major distractions when we train, and benefit from the experiences we have with each marathon adventure.