How the Heck Do You Run a Marathon in Every State?

I’ve been asked “why?” more times than I can count but surely “how” is also an important question — at least if you’re intrigued by the 50 states marathon challenge, but not sure where or how to begin.

So how does one go about running 50 marathons in 50 states? I’ve done 33 of the 50 states so far, and I have some thoughts! The answer isn’t straightforward and it’s important to be honest with yourself about your strengths and limitations before attempting a goal like this.

Creating your timeline:

When do you hope to accomplish this goal? Are you looking to knock it out before you turn 40? Finish sometime in the next 50 years? Or are you one of those folks that wants to do a marathon every weekend and knock it out in a year? When I decided to conquer the 50 states, I had no idea how long it would take me. 9 years and 2 kids later, I’d like to finish it up in the next 4-5 years. But how do you even begin to know what your timeline should be? Well, let’s start with some simple math. Divide 50 by the number of years you are thinking. Got your number? That’s how many marathons you need to run each year. Does it sound doable or does it make you want to throw up? If it sounds ok, let’s continue to do some more evaluation.

Physical and mental considerations:

When I first embarked on this journey I was only running a few marathons per year. Say you’ve decided 4 marathons per year will get you to your goal. Great! Let’s see if that’s realistic. Questions to ask: Have you run a marathon before? How did your body recover from it? How about your brain? Were you mentally and physically ready to jump back into training just a week or two after your race? If the answer is no, then maybe you need to consider running fewer marathons a year, at least until you get some more under your belt.

Work and family obligations:

Let’s stick with the example of 4 marathons a year. This goal means you will basically be training all year round. It’s doable for sure. I’ve been doing it for years, but it takes dedication, flexibility, some creativity, and a supportive family. Make sure that this training commitment fits your lifestyle. Do you have a job that allows you to travel? Even though I don’t work weekends, I generally end up needing to take at least one vacation day from work per race, to get to my destination and back.

Budget and travel expectations:

Traveling to 50 states can be a large financial commitment, but there are ways to make it as affordable or as extravagant as you would like. I like to make a long weekend out of each trip. If I’m going to take the time and money to travel to a state, I want to spend some quality time there seeing what makes that state unique. Over the course of my travels I’ve experienced everything from hiking a glacier, to riding a horse in the Black Hills, and eating alligator. That’s part of the reason I’m not trying to knock out all 50 states in just a few years: I want to be able to explore and enjoy.

There are other options to make it more affordable. You can drive to races with running buddies, camp, use Air BnB, or stay with friends. Races in smaller cities can often be less expensive with more affordable lodging, but sometimes they are harder to get to. The hotel in South Dakota was way less expensive than Boston, but the flight was way more expensive than the flight to Boston. In smaller cities you often have to add in the cost of a rental car whereas bigger cities have public transportation. There are race series that allow you to knock out 4-5 states in a week at minimal cost, and there are ways to complete two states in one trip. There is even a Facebook group I found that is dedicated to race discount codes. You need to decide what work best for you and your budget.

Choosing your races:

How do you find a race in each state? There are several websites out there, but my go-to ones are marathonguide.com and runningintheusa.com. The Marathon Maniacs and 50 States Marathon Club are also good resources.  On marathonguide.com, you can search by months of the year or by state.

I usually plan my races out a year in advance. I know what weekends work for me and I try to find a state I haven’t done that is held on one of those weekends. I’m finding the closer I get to finishing the 50 states, the harder it is to find races that fit in my family’s busy schedule. If there is a race that you have your heart set on and it fits in your schedule now, do it before life gets in the way. I’ve had my eye on the Route 66 marathon for years, but now it conflicts with an annual ice skating competition that my girls attend each year. I’m kicking myself for not doing it years ago. I’ve also decided to keep Hawaii till last. What better way to celebrate such a huge accomplishment than a trip to Hawaii?

When choosing a race, make sure you read the race reviews. It’s one thing to run a race that isn’t well organized when it’s in your backyard, but when you’ve spent hard-earned money to get there, you want to make sure you are entering a reputable race. I also avoid first-time races. I get it, every race has to have a first year, but I prefer to let them work out their kinks before I hop on a plane to get there. I also avoid races that don’t have any past results or sketchy looking websites. I want to make sure the race I’m signing up for is a real race and not a scam.

Race reviews do more than tell you if a race was managed well. They also give you a better idea of the terrain, weather, crowd support, race size, aid stations, transportation, host hotel information and, if the course is certified or Boston eligible, and even the number of port-o-potties. Use these reviews to find the race that best suits your running personality and excels at the race aspects that are most important to you. As I tackle some of my remaining western states, I’m looking for races with the lowest elevations possible and ones that have aid stations more frequently near the end of the race. I also look for races with easy race day logistics and hotels located right near the start or finish.

Training for multiple marathons per year:

No matter how long it takes you to accomplish this goal, you’re probably going to be running multiple marathons a year. You will likely need to modify your training and your race expectations. I don’t think it’s feasible to try to train to race each and every state. I know I would get burned out mentally and injured physically if I did that. You can still race marathons, but maybe you focus on two of the four each year to really race.

I’ve used races in the place of a long training run. In 2017 I ran Boston with my friend who was pregnant, and three weeks later I ran the Wisconsin Marathon in Kenosha. I’m not sure I recommend that, but I have done it a few times. I’ve also raced my goal race and then a short time after paced my husband through another 26.2. I’ve changed my strategy over the years, but I’ve learned that I can’t do exceptionally high mileage, I need to run my recovery runs slower, and generally I have to remember that I’m in this for the long haul.

I’ve learned that 4 marathons a year is better for me than 5. I find that even though I shouldn’t be, I am still a little disappointed that I can’t PR each race. But there’s a strength and a security that comes with having 32 states under my belt. Each time I line up, I think of how many times I’ve done this before. I’ve been through the highs and, more often, the lows that come with the marathon and have always come out on the other side. No matter how much pressure I put on myself to perform, the main goal is to check off another state and to explore another piece of our country. Each marathon I complete shapes me and makes me into the person I am, just as my travels mold me.

There are so many ways to run the 50 states, will you make it one of your goals?

I'm a running mom of two little girls, who is busy balancing life, work and marathon training. It's always training season for me because I'm on a quest to run a marathon in every state, while constantly striving to be the best runner I can be. Running has led me to some great adventures and I always have a good story to share!

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