If you’ve run a marathon, somebody has called you crazy.
Running 26.2 miles just isn’t normal, even though running has never been more popular than it is today. The number of marathon finishers in the United States in 2013 only represents .2 percent of the country’s population, according to statistics published in Running USA’s annual Marathon Report.
But within that tiny sliver of marathoners you’ll find a group that takes crazy to another level. A group that scoffs at recovery plans. A group that sees your 26.2 and raises you another, next weekend. And the week after that. And maybe even every week of the year.
They are the Marathon Maniacs, and for them, marathons are not a bucket list item. They are an addiction.
A Modest Start
Like so many great ideas, the Marathon Maniacs got its start in a bar. Steve Yee, Chris Warren and Tony Phillippi were eating at the Moon Time in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho after the 2003 Coeur d’Alene Marathon. While comparing their marathon accomplishments, it dawned on them that there should be a club for folks like them: those who defy conventional training wisdom and run several marathons a month, never mind a year.
One of their companions wrote an email saying he felt like he was amongst “a bunch of marathon maniacs.” They couldn’t disagree, so they adopted the moniker as their name.
They had no big plans, just three members and simple criteria. To become a bronze level Maniac you had to run two marathons in 16 days. To reach silver status you had to run three in 90 days, and to reach gold you needed six marathons in six months.
To even the most experienced runners, a marathon a month is unrealistic, but Yee soon learned that there were Maniacs with greater aspirations.
“They thought it was too easy and they wanted more levels to shoot for, so we had to expand,” he says. “So we created 10 star levels.”
They started small, but momentum slowly grew. Their gear began popping up at more and more races beyond their Pacific Northwest base, and in 2009 the group exploded. Now the Maniacs claim 9,200 members who pay a $40 entry fee and $15 in annual dues and identify themselves by their membership number.
Yee is #1.
The fifth largest group of Maniacs in the country calls Chicago home, a bubbling hotbed of crazy. The ranks of the Maniacs, however, aren’t all the serious athletes you’d expect.
Amanda Runnion wasn’t a running fanatic as she neared her 30th birthday. She ran the Chicago Marathon in 2011 and 2012, but she owes a bout of indecisiveness for her journey into Maniac territory.
“In 2013 I was struggling to choose between running the Kentucky Derby Marathon or the Flying Pig a week later,” she says. “Then I just figured I’d do them both.”
She PRed with a 4:17 at Kentucky, then held on for a 4:35 at Flying Pig. That’s when she heard about the Maniacs, joined the group, and decided she would aim for higher status, reaching silver before the year was out.
Heather Ziegler’s transformation into a Maniac occurred in dramatic fashion. In the fall 2010 she had run two marathons, but after losing about 50 pounds through running, she was hooked.
“I made it a life goal to run 50 marathons by age 50,” she says.
It took Ziegler just two and a half years to reach her goal, but rather than rest, she raised her bar. Now 34, she’s up to 81 marathons, aiming to do 100 by age 35. She has run marathons in 29 states and wants to hit all 50, all under four hours.
Most Maniacs run for the social aspect, Yee says.
“It’s not really for the elite,” Naperville resident Jim Laubsted says. “It’s not about running a three hour marathon. It’s that you have to finish them. You gotta buckle down. Three marathons in three months isn’t easy.”
Members love seeing other Maniacs in the crowd at races. They cheer for each other and push each other.
“Running the marathons and traveling for them, it’s not about the distance anymore,” Aaron Braunstein of Lincoln Park says. “It’s about meeting my friends and having a great time.”
Runnion shares a similar take.
“When I wear my hat or gear to a race, other Maniacs will find me,” Runnion says. “It gives you a friend out there.”
Those friends will split hotel rooms on the road or carpool to races, helping to keep down the costs of running dozens of races a year. Members of the club get discounts on entry fees, too: nothing dramatic, but saving $5 – $10 on an entry fee adds up. Top Maniacs in the Titanium level must run 52 marathons or more in a year, 30 marathons in 30 states, countries, or provinces in a year, or 20 countries in a year. That’s a tall order.
“When I look at making the Platinum level,” Runnion says, “I don’t think it would be physically hard, I think it would be expensive!”
You might expect a Maniac to put in extreme training miles each week and struggle with persistent injuries, but Yee says that’s rare. Most Maniacs stick to maintenance levels of three to five miles per day or 20 miles per week and suffer few serious injuries.
“I run four weekdays a week, but I can get by with three,” Runnion says. “Any Maniac will tell you that when you do more, the recovery is much quicker.”
Ziegler says she thinks of the marathons as just another long run in her training. Normal marathon training programs may include two to three long runs of 20 miles or more in the final weeks. Yee says being a Maniac is just adding a few miles onto those runs.
An uneasy balance
The Maniacs have a disclaimer on their website stating that the club is not responsible for the “loss of a significant other due to your addiction in this sport” or for you being “on the verge or getting into financial ruin by participating in so many marathons.”
It’s tongue-in-cheek, but there’s truth in the humor. Yee, Phillippi, and Warren are all single. “I probably always will be,” Yee says.
A single mom, Ziegler has heard criticism.
“Some family members think it’s excessive,” she says. “But it’s a benefit for our children. It’s our release to be a better parent to them in the time we spend together, and I think it sets a really good example. It is an addiction for me, and it is something you do have to find a balance to do.”
There are certainly more dangerous vices than a need to run and be “running crazy” as Laubsted puts it. And crazy is what most of these Maniacs love to be.
“People see our shirts and think ‘those guys are crazy!’ I like to be the person they’re talking about when they say that,” Runnion says.
Steve Yee, #1, Engineer, Bonnie Lake, Washington
“Most Maniacs don’t do much running during the week, but the one constant is to eat properly. You have to get in 20 miles a week, then get that protein in to heal that muscle. After the run, drink chocolate milk, eat a burger or fish.”
Aaron Braunstein, #1398, Personal Trainer, Lincoln Park
Marathons: 73, including ultras. Has run a marathon in all 50 states.
“I remember my first marathon, and my first 100-miler. The rest, I don’t even care about the time, I just love running. I love the feeling it gives me. I love the time to think, let my mind wander. It’s an expression of freedom.”
Jim Laubsted, #908, Paramarathon training group coordinator, Naperville
Goal: All 50 states (12 in the books)
Ran his first marathon at the Chicago Marathon in 1978, when it was still the Mayor Daley Marathon.
“When I started running, nobody was running for fitness. I remember running the Lakefront 10 Miler when we wrote our numbers on our bibs.”
Heather Zeigler, #3086, Supervisor of workers compensation unit, Department of Labor, Downers Grove
Goal: 100 by age 35
“When I qualified for the 2014 Boston Marathon my mom and daughter were there. Then I couldn’t get in because they had too many people signed up. It was devastating and I tried not to read too much about it this year. But that just makes me more motivated for next year.”
Amanda Runnion, #7075, Aurora, Coordinator of Community Housing at Cornerstone Services
“People see our shirts and think ‘those guys are crazy!’ I like to be the person they’re talking about when they say that. I’m looking for bigger challenges, longer races, steeper climbs. I just need more.”