Rick Gibbons is a maniac. No, seriously — it’s official and everything.
There’s a website called marathonmaniacs.com that requires members to have completed two marathons in 16 days or three within 90 days in order to become a Marathon Maniac. The site lists 66 different races at marathon distance or longer that Rick has completed, including a stretch in 2010 when he conquered two in the 16-day time frame. The Midlands runner says he has now competed in 70 and has a goal of completing at least one in all 50 states.
“When people find out that you’re a runner, a lot of times they’ll ask whether you’re training for something,” Rick says. “I’m always training for something. I just about have the whole year planned out with where I’m going and what I’m doing. I’m pretty much never out of marathon shape.”
As long as the tale has persisted of the Greek messenger who ran 25 miles to deliver news of a battle victory, the marathon run has been the stuff of legend, but it’s not strictly for the maniacal. Many runners in the Columbia area have found success traversing the race’s modern distance of 26.2 miles. Local training groups, including some that travel to races in other cities, welcome others to join the community of athletes who have taken on a challenge that is equally mental and physical.
Joyce Welch of Lexington was 29 when she decided to try a “couch to 10K” training program that would prepare her for the Cooper River Bridge Run in Charleston. “I took a class at the YMCA in downtown Columbia,” she says. “We were mainly a bunch of women who couldn’t run.”
But run she did. Joyce continued to run Cooper River each year, but says she wasn’t avid. Summers were too hot for training and winters too cold. But then Joyce came upon a flyer for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training, a national program that combines nonprofit fundraising with marathon training.
“So then I did my first marathon, which was in Chicago, and I got hooked,” she says. Twenty marathons later, Joyce enjoys going on long trail runs with her Weimaraner, Elsie, and says she may try a trail marathon on Johns Island. “I just like being outside. Basically, during the summer, all I do is trails.” Now 51, Joyce is a coach herself. Certified by USA Track & Field, she works with Team Utopia Youth, preparing kindergarten through seventh graders for local road races.
Another local marathoner, Mark Stout, is not an official coach, but he enjoys assisting his friends as they train for marathons. “I’m always open to helping people accomplish that goal,” he says.
He’s been running since he was 12 but didn’t try his first marathon until 2001, when he was 34. His second marathon did not come until 2008, but he has now completed 15. “You get to about 20 miles during the race and you think, ‘Man, I’m never going to do this again,’ but it only takes a little while after the race before you start thinking about what your next one is going to be.”
Mark is a race official with the Governor’s Cup, which includes 1-mile, 5K, and half marathon runs. He has seen many folks try the mile run and work their way up to longer distances. To a non-runner, marathon training might conjure visions of a solitary pursuit dominated by silent miles in the wee hours. A well-regarded short story is even titled, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.” Both Rick and Mark say they prefer training in groups, however.
“It’s very challenging to train by yourself, and when you’re in a group, you’ve got some accountability, too,” Mark says.
Rick says enough running activity is going on all over the Midlands that it’s not hard to find a tribe of like-minded athletes for group workouts. “For me, running is my social time,” says Rick, who counts Joyce as one of his workout partners. “I probably would have stopped running long ago if I had to run by myself.”
Rick started out as a soccer player who ran to stay in shape. He got away from it and says he, like a lot of folks, put on a few pounds before returning to running. He completed Cooper River in 2001 and then a half marathon in 2002 that was held in conjunction with a marathon. “Just seeing the people doing the marathon, I thought, if they can do that then I can, too,” he says.
Rick hopes to complete his list in 2022 with competitions in New Hampshire, Connecticut, Missouri, Nevada, and Utah. After that? “I don’t know. Some of the other people who have run all 50 states just stopped running marathons without that carrot. I hope that doesn’t happen to me.”
Both Rick and Mark recommend beginners seek out the expertise of local retailers that specialize in running shoes and apparel. Many stores organize group runs and training programs.
At Fleet Feet, Jessica Hawke is the retailer’s running club coordinator and helps runners train for half and full marathons. She says she started out as a casual runner who married a cross-country athlete, inspiring her to learn more and get into coaching. “For me, it’s all about exceeding my goals and pushing myself,” Jessica says. “It’s also stress relief. I especially like the long runs during the winter.”
In fact, 50-degree weather might be just about perfect for running a marathon, according to University of South Carolina cross country coach Andrew Allden. A 30-year coaching veteran, Andrew co-wrote the portion of the USATF Level I Coaching Manual that focuses on marathon training. Research has shown marathoners run slower as the temperature rises above 50. He recommends first-time marathoners sign up for a fall race. That way the weather they race in will be cooler than the weather they trained in. A spring marathon can put a novice at risk if they are unprepared for the heat after training in cooler weather. He also takes a less-is-more philosophy toward training.
“Most people do not benefit from running every single day,” Andrew says. “Don’t feel like just because you’re training for a marathon, you’ve got to run every day. It’s not the workout you skip that causes the problem, it’s the workout you do that you shouldn’t have done. It’s more important that you stay healthy.”
Jessica is in favor of cross-training when preparing for a marathon. She suggests running as little as three days a week and mixing in other exercises, particularly those that help core muscles.
“A lot of people tend to overdo it in their training and go too fast and hurt themselves,” Jessica says. “You definitely have to do more strength training outside of running. I encourage other activities, such as bike riding or even canoeing.”
Preparing for a marathon means practicing everything. Race-day shoes, socks, and clothing should be taken for trial runs to make sure they will not be a hindrance more than 26.2 miles and several hours. What is the most common reason someone drops out of a marathon before the finish line? Andrew’s ready with a surprising answer.
“It’s not injury, it’s not dehydration, it’s stomach and intestinal issues,” Andrew says. Marathoners drink to rehydrate and eat energy foods during the race. Runners should bring their own food and arrive with the knowledge of how they are going to eat it and what their body will need. “You need to practice the same routines during your long runs. Different people’s guts are going to respond differently. Something that tastes good at 12 miles might taste terrible at 20 miles.”
The nourishment is not just for the body. While a popular candy bar commercial makes light of the fact that “you’re not you when you’re hungry,” the sales pitch is based in fact.
“I’ve seen people at 20 miles on the verge of crying and dropping out and then taking in some calories and their mood changing so that they are able to finish the race,” Andrew says. “Ideally, instead of waiting until mile 20 to take that gel or Powerbar or whatever, you should have a little at a time over the course of the race. The idea is not to build a deficit.”
It underscores that a marathon is more than a physical challenge. Jessica, Joyce, and Mark all point out the mental game inside a marathon isn’t the same as shorter races.
“A marathon is different because things start to break down and that’s where your training plan comes in,” Mark says. “I’m naturally analytical. I enjoy following a plan. If things go south, you have to be mentally strong and say, ‘If I have to walk for two minutes then I have to walk for two minutes.’”
With more and more people listing a marathon as a bucket list item, a trend has emerged toward combining it with a group trip to a tourist spot. The added incentive can serve as motivation but also needs to be approached cautiously.
“Our group occasionally participates in what we call ‘destination’ races,” Jessica says. “This is when we choose a race out of town, or even out of state, just to change things up. But we also do plenty of races in Columbia and surrounding areas.”
Mark has run in large marathons in Chicago; Washington, D.C.; and Houston and says he would try those again because they are well organized. Andrew recalls long lines of traffic at a major race his wife, Tara, was competing in. He says rookie marathoners should consider logistics such as wait times at the starting line and travel from hotel to race site.
“If it’s your first race, I’d be more likely to choose a nice, local, mid-sized marathon or something one or two hours away,” he says. “A lot of great, mid-sized marathons are out there. And what if you get hurt training? Do you feel the pressure of your family because it’s a big family vacation and you’ve spent so much money on it?”
For many experienced runners, the Boston Marathon is the goal. One has to qualify for the annual Patriots Day race by posting a fast enough qualifying time in a recent marathon. Rick and Mark ran Boston in 2005.
“It took me my fourth attempt to qualify,” Rick says, recalling his successful try as “one of those perfect days to run. I had to run a three-hour, 30-minute marathon and I ran 3:27.”
Another Midlands runner, Russell Pate, was a competitive marathoner in the 1970s and 1980s. He ran Boston multiple times, including a seventh-place finish in 1975. “When I competed, the people that showed up for a marathon were serious athletes,” says Russell, who estimates he ran between 40 to 50 marathons during his competitive career. “Now people are using the event as a source of motivation for getting fit and staying fit. There are also a lot more women, which is great.”
Russell helped promote the sport by serving as race director for the 1996 and 2000 U.S. Women’s Olympic Marathon Trials, which were held in Columbia. For years, a blue painted line traced the marathon’s course on roads through Midlands neighborhoods, at first generating interest and later serving as a historic reminder.
“It certainly drew a great deal of attention to Columbia as a center of distance running and marathoning and road racing,” Russell says. “We continue to have a very robust running community. I’d say Columbia is known to be a town that is very friendly for running on a day-to-day basis.”