50 State Finishers: The Popular Cross-Country Adventure for Runners

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Across the United States, there are dozens of great marathons with different themes, environments and courses. Like every state in the country, each 26.2-mile race has its own personality, providing a completely unique race experience from others. And while some people’s bucket list consists of visiting every state, many chose to see the country from the perspective of a marathon start line.

Fifty state marathoners are actually more common than you may think; in fact, there’s a whole club based in Houston called the 50 States Marathon Club, where runners can meet others with the same goal, and receive certification upon completion.

The club originally began in 2001 as 10-person group who had the same goal of running a marathon in each of the 50 states. Today, there are over 4,000 members, and over 1,000 who have completed “the list,” according to club president Lois Berkowitz, who’s working on her fifth time around the country.

“All you need to join us is to have completed 10 marathons in 10 different states,” Berkowitz says. “Years ago, we used to require 20 states to join, but now we want to be there at the beginning of the adventure to provide support.”


While there are several other marathon clubs across the country with similar goals, including the 50 States Half Marathon Club, the 50 & DC Marathon Group and 50sub4, the 50 States Marathon Club is unique in its certification obtainability. Although finishers don’t have to be certified (it costs $80), many are drawn to this option because it provides proof of accomplishment, Berkowitz says.

“A certified finish means you have provided us with proof of completion of each of those 50 states, you have been a member of the club for two years, and have paid, then you get a trophy with your name and place of finish,” she adds.

A LOCAL MEMBER

Even though the club is based out of Houston, members are located all over the country, and some are even outside of the United States. Brad Schwartz, who serves on the club board, is a member and finisher from Chicago.

Schwartz did his first marathon in 1997, and was instantly hooked. He continued competing, and at one race, he noticed a 50 States Marathon Club shirt, and decided to check it out. Now, Schwartz has completed the list three times, accomplishing his last trip in March 2015. He explains that the club consists of a group of “fanatics,” and the goal is a captivating one.

“There is such a small percentage of people who have accomplished it, and it’s a unique thing to do,” Schwartz adds.

Aside from the running, Schwartz thinks the travel is the best part of joining the club; not only do you get to meet so many people with the same goal and interests, but you get to see the entire country while doing it.

“You hear the clichés: it’s not the destination, it’s the trip getting there,” he says. “My girlfriend and I call them ‘run-cations,’ and we’ve begun doing other races in other countries as well. We try and do two a year.”

Schwartz remembers his first finish being a really exciting time; for all finishers, the entire group meets up to celebrate with a dinner and party.

After the first time around, though, Schwartz says it unfortunately “loses its luster.” By the second or third trip through the United States, which is not an unusual achievement for members of the 50 States Marathon Club, you’ve done over 100 marathons, and it’s not as exciting as the first 50.

“It’s more like, just dinner, no party … after you’ve done 500 marathons, you don’t wear the medal anymore,” Schwartz jokes. Schwartz is approaching his 207th marathon, but calls himself a “small potato” compared to those with over 500 under their belt.

AT HIS OWN PACE

Although he never reached out to be a part of the official organization, Mark Sturwold from Bartlett is a 50-state finisher as well. After running 50 marathons, Sturwold admits he’s not even the biggest fan of running.

“I always wanted to do an Ironman because I thought it was the biggest accomplishment someone could make,” Sturwold says. “Having this goal [of 50 state marathons] allowed me to get into shape to complete my other goal of doing an Ironman.”

And he did just that; in 2013, Sturwold completed his first full Ironman, and continues to do other triathlon distances today. His endurance adventure, however, began in 2003 when he ran the Bank of America Chicago Marathon with his friend Dave. The two continued doing Chicago for a few years, and then decided to try one in Las Vegas.

“You start talking to people who have tried other races and you want to too,” Sturwold explains. “We got this idea that destination marathons might be interesting, and after running in a few states, we thought we might as well do them all.”

Sporting a t-shirt reading “50 before 60,” Sturwold crossed his 50th finish line in West Virginia last November. Looking back, he is grateful that this goal took him to places he probably never would have visited otherwise.

“I would be standing on a start line in Wyoming on a Saturday morning, and if I didn’t have that lifestyle I would never be there,” he says. “It was just weird, like why am I standing in Birmingham right now?”

Sturwold also values the different people he met over the years, who all added to the unique experience. Above all though, he appreciates the mindset he formed from the adventure.

“My favorite thing was the ‘just don’t give up’ mentality,” he reflects. “I wasn’t the greatest runner, but I thought ‘if I can do this, I can do anything.”

ABOVE AND BEYOND

Running 50 marathons is beyond impressive, but Dean Karnazes wanted to add his own spin on the adventure.

Commonly known as “Marathon Man,” Karnazes ran 50 marathons in 50 states, in 50 consecutive days. He started on Sept. 17, 2006 at the Lewis and Clark Marathon in St. Louis, and finished on November 5 at the New York City Marathon.

Of the 50, Karnazes ran eight live races, including the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, the Portland Marathon and the New York City Marathon. In order to complete races in the remaining 42 states, Karnazes and his team of sponsors contacted race directors for the most prominent marathon in that state, and asked them to recreate the certified course and finish. All 42 race directors agreed.

“We also got permits to have up to 50 other runners with me, and it became amazing,” Karnazes remembers. “All of a sudden, we had like hundreds of people trying to sign up for the 50 slots. Having others join me was the most meaningful part to me.”

Reminiscing, Karnazes, who has completed a total of 300 marathons and dozens of ULTRA races, admits that it was excruciating at times. Even for someone who can run 350 miles in under 81 hours without sleep, the jet lag and constant moving caught up to him.

“The western states were the hardest because of the travel because they are all further away from each other … I’d run a marathon, then hop in a bus for a 10-hour ride,” he adds. “The drastic weather changes were difficult too, especially in states like Alaska and Hawaii.”

Aside from the frequent struggles, Karnazes says the “incredible highs” were what kept him going; he loved meeting the local people and getting to see every state. And although he never sought distinction from the Houston group, Karnazes wrote a book on how meaningful the experience was to him.

Now, the running robot focuses on longer distances. He has run a 200-mile relay by himself on 12 separate occasions, and uses marathons as his training runs. Along with his first book about his 50 state experience, he has published two others with a third to come. Karnazes continues to travel across the country to run, while also giving motivational talks to different clubs and companies.

“Running’s become my life, and I’m just doing what I love,” he says.

SECRETS TO SUCCESS

Whether you’re contemplating this goal as a way to get in shape, to see the country, or to have an official trophy, it’s an ambitious commitment. Before starting, be sure to plan ahead and know what you’re getting yourself into.

Prior to running your first race, Schwartz strongly suggests mapping out your route.

“You can back yourself in a corner, and be left with places with very few marathons, like Delaware and New Jersey, and have to wait nine months or a year,” Schwartz says. “When you have five states left and have to wait until they do have marathons, it’s frustrating.”

Many people decide to finish in Hawaii or Alaska because they’re the hardest to travel too. If you do have a particular place you want to finish, you need to pick it early, Schwartz adds. Also, leave some space in case something gets cancelled.

From Sturwold’s perspective, the most important component of being successful is having a strong support team; he says that without the encouragement from his wife Diane, he never would have been able to do it.

“It’s pretty selfish in some ways actually,” Sturwold admits. “The hardest part is to have someone who supports the money and time spent … you need a pretty supportive spouse and family to let you take nine trips in one year.”

As far as training, Schwartz says that because he was doing a marathon every other weekend, he didn’t really need to do a lot of long runs alone, which was a perk in his eyes. He did several seven mile runs at Busse Woods on his off weeks, but it really depends how often you want to run and how much you need to train for it.

Staying injury-free is crucial when working towards super endurance. When running 1,310 miles over any span of time, a runner must listen to their body and take care of it.

Finally, Schwartz stresses the importance of staying humble throughout the entire experience; it’s a great accomplishment, and pride is allowed, but it’s an individual sport and nobody likes a boaster.

“Never brag in this sport,” Schwartz says. “There’s always someone who’s done more miles than you and done them faster.”

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