- Associated Press - Thursday, December 3, 2015

MARION, Ill. (AP) - At the end of a marathon, with 26.2 miles on their aching legs, a lot of runners make a promise to their tired bodies. As their legs slow to a stop and they bend over and take gulps of oxygen, they vow to never do it again.

For some runners, like Michael Ahrens, that deal gets broken over and over, perhaps even 70 times.

“There are points for people in the marathon, when you’re hurting and you tell yourself, ‘This is it. I don’t know if I can do this again’,” said Ahrens, 64. “But afterward, the agony kind of fades, and you remember the good things.”

Ahrens, who lives in Marion, finished his 78th marathon last month. That race put the cap on a decades-long chase — to run a marathon in each state.

Over a span of 30 years, Ahrens has picked up marathons like souvenirs in places, big and small, in Antarctica and Prague and Cuba.

When he travels with friends, he thinks about when he can fit a 6-mile run in before breakfast or around the parking lot of a mall while his wife shops. He thinks about jogging home from church or a dinner-out, instead of driving. He’s probably thinking about running right now.

“It’s always on my mind; it’s become a compulsion. It started with 50 states and now it’s seven continents or all the state capitols, you could never really limit it all the things I want to do,” Ahrens said. “I got into it and it’s like what I was hard-wired to do.”

Before the gun goes off, Ahrens still fights his nerves. He unties his shoes and laces them back up three or four times. In the seconds before he starts, he doesn’t talk to anyone and cracks the knuckles of his fingers.

At the start line of his latest race, the same doubts crept in, like they had the last 70 or so times before. “What happens if I don’t make it? What happens if I fail?”

Lois Berkowitz doesn’t know a runner who doesn’t have a bit of crazy in them. She is president of the 50 States Marathon club, the official home-base for anyone tallying their races around the country.

“These people are more extreme than the average person; we have all sorts of stories that just sound ridiculous,” Berkowtiz said. “You have to be a little insane to even attempt this.”

According to the club’s records, about 1,000 people have finished the 50 states challenge. More people have climbed Mt. Everest than are on Berkowitz’s master list.

It takes some people decades to finish the marathon of marathons, and others push to cross off races in less than a year or a few months.

“Everyone has their reasons, people run through hard times, through divorces, through family problems, or because they love the challenge,” she said. “They run just to see if they can.”

That’s the appeal for David Clark, who lives in Wheaton, and has clocked 140 marathons in his lifetime. Some years, Clark runs a marathon every month, and tries to fit two marathons in a long weekend.

“To me, there’s something really attractive about finishing something that not a lot of people have done,” he said. “To pull this off, a lot of things have to go right. I can remember a handful of marathons where things just went wrong. You get to the start late, you don’t feel good, and you’re in a state a hundred miles away.”

Clark has seen the country through the lens of running, and he has a list of his favorite roads, new friends and best pizza place in each state.

“There’s something about a marathon; it’s just hard enough that you might fail,” Clark said. “It’s not something anyone can just decide to do tomorrow.”

As tortuous as the miles may be in the moment, Clark, and these scattered band of long-distance runners, never consider the notion of stopping. No marathon is off-limits or too far away.

“If you’re one of these crazy marathoners, you have to laugh at yourself, because we’re not winning and we’re not going after the prizes, we’re just out there to push yourself beyond what you thought you could do,” Clark said. “That’s what keeps us going.”

During the last steps of the last state on Ahrens’ list, he was on a hilly course in Billings, Montana. He could see the outlines of his wife and son clapping on the side, and he could hear the blur of his name being announced over the loudspeaker.

“There was no one behind me and it was like I was on center stage,” he said. “It was a big moment, and I almost didn’t want it to be over, even though it really hurt.”

By the time he hobbled to his car an hour later, Ahrens was already thinking of what marathon would be next. He has three races slated for next year already.

“It never really stops, somebody told me to do 100 miles a few days ago, and I didn’t exactly laugh it off,” he said. “But then it’s like, when does it ever end?”


Source: The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan, https://bit.ly/1lnUXsd


Information from: Southern Illinoisan, https://www.southernillinoisan.com

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