52 Marathons

strava maps of 52 marathon runs brendan leonard semi-rad

In 2019, I set out to run 52 marathons in 52 weeks.

When I started on January 2, running down snow-covered dirt roads near my parents’ house in central Iowa, I hadn’t come up with a solid reason why—I just figured I’d run 26.2 miles and see how it went. If it went well, I’d run 26.2 miles the next week too, and if that went well, I’d keep going. I had only told a couple people, including my wife, Hilary, and I hadn’t exactly used committed language when I said it out loud: “I think I might try to run 52 marathons in 52 weeks this year and see how it goes.”

The first one went fine: It was 21 degrees Fahrenheit outside when I started, with the chilly Iowa winter humidity hanging in the air, and a low-angle January sun lighting the bare cornfields. I saw a handful of cars, got chased by a dog down a dirt road, but not bitten, and when I finished in 4 hours and 20 minutes, I didn’t feel horrible. That was a Wednesday. I certainly didn’t feel like I could run a marathon the next morning, but maybe in a few days. The following Monday, January 7,  I ran another marathon, mostly on bike paths near my parents’ house, 4:14:36 this time. A little pain on the outside of my left knee, but nothing major. Mostly I felt good knocking out two marathons in the first seven days of the year. I figured it was better to get ahead of the one-per-week pace early in the year, in case I got sick or had a minor injury and had to take time off later. Plus, I’d rather get the running in cold weather out of the way on the front end than have to cram in five or six marathons in December.

It didn’t feel like that crazy of a thing to be doing—I had watched the film about Dean Karnazes’s 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days back in 2008, and although he’s a super-athlete, I remember thinking that he just made it feel so doable. And if he could do it in 50 days with no rest days in between, certainly I could do 52 marathons with 6 days to rest in between each one, right?

I’m certainly not the first person to do something like this—if you search the internet, you’ll find quite a few people who have done it, and far crazier things:

I had decided to do 52 26.2-mile runs—not races—in 52 weeks. Most of the time people do something like this, as far as my research showed, they run races, which is a completely different thing when you account for all the scheduling, logistics, and travel. I just wanted to do the running, so I did what I called “Strava marathons.” I started my watch, started running, and stopped when my watch said 26.2 miles.

At the beginning of the year, I planned on signing up for at least one ultramarathon, the Bighorn 100 in Wyoming in June. Training for a 100-mile race involves so many training runs that are pretty near marathon distance, so I thought running a marathon a week leading up to the Bighorn wouldn’t be that off-base, training-wise.

I had also planned to pace my friend Forest in the Hellbender 100 in North Carolina in early April. He got injured, and I half-jokingly suggested I could step in for him, and of course a half-joke always has a 50 percent chance of being taken seriously, so a month before the race, I found myself signed up to crank out 100 miles with 24,000 feet of elevation gain in the Black Mountains. I mentioned to Forest my 52 Marathons plan, saying that I thought I might just count a 100-mile race as one marathon. He said that was a terrible idea, so I changed my mind and decided to count a 100-mile race as three marathons. At the start of the race, I would start my Strava app on my phone, pull out my phone when I got close to 26.2 miles and check it, wait for it to roll over 26.2 miles, stop it, save it, and start another Strava activity. I’m sure a few people would say that’s not truly running 52 marathons in a year, and if that’s your opinion, I would invite you to do 52 marathons in a year in whatever style you decide is pure and just.

Another friend said I should extend my 100-mile races a few miles so I could get four marathons out of them, instead of three marathons and a 21.4-mile run. I told him that was a terrible idea, and that I was not interested in doing it. However, at the finish line of the Bighorn 100, I did have some regret when I checked my phone at the end of the race and saw that I was only 5.5 miles from finishing a fourth marathon. But, Hilary had brought pizza and a camp chair to the finish line, so that was the end of that.

They were all the same distance, 26.2 miles, but some of them felt like completely opposite ends of the spectrum. I ran my fastest time in just under 3 hours and 48 minutes on #48, in the mostly-flat City Park near my house (only 566 feet of elevation gain), and the slowest one was almost 13 hours, helping my friend Dave to the top of his first 14er ever, Longs Peak, in August, and tacking on a few more miles up the nearby Estes Cone afterward (7,746 feet of elevation gain).

I did most of the marathons alone, but the only time I really felt “lonely” was during Marathon #17, around Mile 62 of the Hellbender 100, jogging along through the forest around 1:30 a.m. over a path covered in fallen leaves. I realized I hadn’t seen a headlamp, a light from a house or a car, or any human beings for about an hour. There were only 75 people in the race, and I’d found a pocket somewhere in the eight miles between aid stations where I was totally by myself for quite a while, running in a small bubble of light illuminated by my headlamp, set on its low setting to preserve the battery. There was no wind in the stand of trees, and it was dead silent, to the point where if a racoon had rustled some leaves 50 feet away, I probably would have heard it. I literally thought to myself, “if this were a horror movie, it would be a perfect spot for someone to come flying at me from the right or left with an axe/chainsaw/sword,” and then quickly thought, “STOP doing that, it is not helpful.” About 20 minutes later, I finally saw the lights of the next aid station, at Mile 65.

The New York City Marathon was on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, starting on a chilly fall morning in Staten Island from a temporary village of 53,000 other runners. It was a bizarre gathering, like some sort of weird music festival with all the dry plain bagels, bananas, and Honey Stinger waffles you could eat, but that you should maybe bring your own toilet paper to if you planned on using one of the hundreds of very popular port-a-potties. Anyone who’s run it can tell you about the masses of incredible people that line the streets of Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Manhattan from about Mile 3 to Mile 26, cheering encouragement, and, as I found out, many of whom hand out Fun Size candy bars, which are incredibly satisfying. It was a long way from plodding along in the woods alone, trying to stay motivated and also not go crazy in the middle of the night.

Most of the runs, however, I did by myself, near my home in Denver. I ran 16 marathons right out my front door, sometimes taking my dog for the first few miles and then dropping him off back at the house, turning around and running the last 20-some miles. I ran another 10 marathons on the trails and dirt roads at William Frederick Hayden Park (aka Green Mountain) in Lakewood, 25 minutes from where I live, and another 12 in other places in Colorado’s Front Range within a 90-minute drive from our house. All the miles in the city, and all those miles at Green Mountain, sort of blurred together by halfway through the summer. I had thought maybe I’d take notes after each marathon, describe the weather and how I was feeling, write what I thought about while running, or what I saw, but lots of them weren’t that notable. Not that I expected they would all be amazing experiences when I started doing them.

The year started cold as I ran every week, remembering to enjoy the cool weather through spring before it got hot. In Denver some years, it seems like summer lasts six months. On July 15th, I ran the hottest marathon all year (#30), when the temperature got up to 95 degrees by the end of my run. I’m not good at exercising in the heat, but I am even worse at convincing myself to get out of bed early to avoid the heat, so I just trudged it out, taking several short breaks to walk parts of the final six miles. Eleven days later, on July 26th, the temperature got up to 89 degrees during my marathon (#32), and for the last five miles, I fantasized about the beverage cooler at the 7-Eleven near my house. After I turned out of the park for the final mile or so home, I started zig-zagging on a few blocks in order to end my run at 7-Eleven at 26.2 miles, walked in, and got the first Big Gulp of Coca-Cola I’ve had in maybe a decade. I walked home sipping it, drenched in sweat with salt marks appearing everywhere the sweat had dried, and I would be surprised if anyone on Earth was enjoying a soda as much as I was for those five minutes.

I didn’t even think to look up the dictionary definition of a marathon until late in the year, well into the project, and despite consulting a few different dictionaries, every definition I found used the word “race.” So I suppose if you wanted to be strict about it, you could say I wasn’t really running 52 marathons, just 52 marathon-length runs. Despite this semantic issue, I decided to finish the project.

As fall came, the temperature started to cool a little bit, and the idea of completing the whole mission started to seem possible, but definitely not a sure thing. I had experienced some pain in my knee for a while at the beginning of the year, but it didn’t get worse, so I just kept going and it eventually went away. The same thing happened with a weird pain in my left foot near my ankle that lasted from late August through mid-October (but never got any worse). While crossing some of the busy streets near City Park in Denver during my last three or four marathons, I definitely worried about the possibility of getting hit by a car during Marathon #50 or #51, so close to the end—or, after a snowstorm in November, slipping on some ice and injuring myself. Thankfully, none of those things ever happened.

As the temperatures got colder and I got into the last five marathons, and could sort of see the metaphorical finish line, I thought about making a big deal of the last one, maybe inviting a bunch of friends to join me, turn it into a little bit of a celebration. Then I started thinking about the date, where we’d run, running with eight or 10 people, what if someone needed to stop and use the bathroom, lining all of it up, and I realized that planning something would be a lot of work. I thought about why I was doing it, something I never really established, besides the fact that I turned 40 this year. I wasn’t doing it to raise money or raise awareness for anything (although I respect the people who have done similar things to raise money or awareness for causes), or really to inspire anyone to do the same thing. More than once, I thought about how ridiculous it was, even if I rationalized it by saying that lots of people go to the gym three times a week for 90 minutes—this was just the equivalent of doing all those gym sessions in one day. Maybe it would be cool if it inspired someone to run a 10K every weekend for a year, or even walk a 10K every weekend for a year. For themselves, or for a good cause, whatever.

I decided to do Marathon #52 by myself. I ran #51 on a Monday, December 2nd, in the snow and slush, when it was 50 degrees and sunny, and before I was even done with it, I just wanted to hurry up and get #52 over with. I thought about just filling my water bottles and heading back out on a second marathon, but thought better. A couple days’ rest would be good. Thursday or Friday I could do the last one. The weather forecast for Thursday was not ideal, 80 percent chance of rain, then snow, high of 41 degrees. I went to bed Wednesday night thinking I’d see how it looked in the morning and decide then.

On Thursday, the rain started at 8:40 a.m., and kept up until about noon, and after it let up, I told Hilary, I think I’m just going to go for it. I ate a quick bowl of oatmeal, filled my water bottles, stuffed them in my vest, and headed out the door. It was perfect, if by “perfect,” you mean “shitty conditions totally appropriate to cap a year of making yourself do things when you didn’t really feel like it”: cold, humid, cloudy, wet roads and sidewalks, clumps of dirty snow and ice hanging around. Around mile 9, it started drizzling again. This was exactly how the last one should go: lonely, and fairly miserable.

I had a moment, about mile 24.7 of 26.2,  during the final two miles of the final marathon of the year, running in the dark under streetlights, finally finding a bit of a stride after slogging out six or seven slow, low-morale miles. It was cold, it had been drizzling rain for almost three hours, but I wasn’t cold at all—I felt like a machine, just rolling along, oblivious to the weather and my own fatigue. It reminded me a little bit of a scene in a movie. Except in the movie, the runner would be training for something—something daunting, terrifying, some sort of test that would be the narrative climax of the movie. I wasn’t training for anything. I was just doing what I’d been doing every week. This was the thing, the miles and miles of being outside, by myself, moving. There was no Great Sports Contest coming up, just hopefully more running, just like this, for as long as I can keep doing it.

Other notes:

  • I did run several actual marathon races: The Colfax Marathon in Denver (Marathon #22), the Missoula Marathon (Marathon #28), the NYC Marathon (Marathon #47).
  • The ultramarathons I ran were: The Hellbender 100 (Marathons #15, #16, and #17), The Bighorn 100 (Marathons #25, #26, and #27), the Bear Chase Trail Race 50K (Marathon #42), and the Mines of Spain 100K (Marathons #45 and #46).
  • At one point in March, I needed to do a bunch of elevation gain to train for the Hellbender 100, and I needed to do a 50-mile run, but in March, not many steep trails are snow-free in the Denver area. So my best option, I felt, was to do my training run on a dirt road going to the top of Green Mountain, which was dry enough. If you go from the west parking lot over the top of the mountain to a set of radio towers, it’s 2.0 miles and 850 feet of elevation gain. So I ran back and forth on that road until I got to two marathons that day, totaling 53 miles and 12,272 feet of elevation gain, on one two-mile stretch of road.
  • I did a similar training day in May, same location, with more dry trails, 52.6 miles and 9,861 feet of elevation gain.
  • I live in Denver, which has pretty mild weather most of the year.
  • I’m self-employed, which means I can juggle my schedule to accommodate bad weather. For example, if the weather is going to be terrible on Saturday, I can usually take Friday off to run and do all my work on Saturday instead.
  • I also don’t have kids, which of course makes something like this a lot easier.
  • I ran mostly by myself, but had friends join me for parts or all of several marathons: Hilary Oliver (parts of #3, #14, and #18, all of #22, #28, and #42), Jayson Sime (all of #12, parts of #6, #10, #19, #27, #33, #40), Forest Woodward (part of #16, all of #6, #45, and #46), Dave Fecik (parts of #34, #35, and #46), Syd Jones (all of #47), and Ryan Van Duzer (all of #49).
  • I wore a hydration vest for all but two of the marathons—the Colfax Marathon, and the NYC Marathon (which doesn’t allow vests with pockets). I did this so I could carry all of my water and food and not have to return to my house or car, where I find it very easy to lose motivation to continue running. The most water I ever started a day with was about 80 ounces, in two soft bottles and a 50-ounce hydration reservoir.
  • The coldest one was Marathon #1, on dirt roads near my parents’ house in Iowa, 21 degrees, Jan. 2nd
  • The warmest temperature was 95 degrees, in Denver, on July 15th (Marathon #30)
  • Longest break between marathons was: 15 days, 12 hours (between Marathon #46 and #47)
  • Shortest break between marathons (that weren’t on the same day) was 67 hours, 41 minutes, between Marathon #8 and Marathon #9)
  • By state, here’s where I ran:
    • Colorado: 38 marathons
    • Iowa: 4 marathons
    • Wyoming: 3 marathons
    • Utah: 1 marathon
    • Montana: 2 marathons
    • New York: 1 marathon
    • North Carolina: 3 marathons

The Strava data: