Touring the United States, One Marathon at a Time

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This weekend, Colorado runner Ken John hit a milestone few runners can imagine — he completed his 50th marathon in 50 states.

Mr. John, 60, crossed his final marathon finish line at the Pittsburgh Marathon on Sunday in 4 hours, 41 minutes and 4 seconds. Mr. John, the Fort Collins development director for Murphy Center for Hope, which helps homeless individuals and families, said he never intended to run even one marathon, let alone 50.

“I don’t consider myself a serious runner,” he said.

Runners are known for setting bucket-list goals and unusual running streaks. The ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes famously completed 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days. Pete Kostelnick recently broke the world record for fastest run across the United States. The world’s longest running streak ended earlier this year when 78-year-old Olympian Ron Hill took a rest day after running every day for 52 years and 39 days.

But Mr. John is not a running celebrity like Mr. Karnazes. He’s not even your typical running enthusiast. “I’d rather bike or hike the Colorado Trails over running any day,” he said. But ever the pragmatist, he turned to running as a more convenient way to exercise when long work hours and travel prevented him from long bike rides. “Running was and still is a means to an end,” he concedes.

But after tackling his first road race — the Steamboat Marathon in Steamboat Springs, Colo. back in 1992, he was hooked on the marathon experience — the sense of accomplishment, the competitiveness and the sightseeing. “I can’t say that I fell in love with running after my first marathon. But what I did like was that it gave me something to train for.”

One marathon turned into two. After he qualified and ran the Boston Marathon in 1999, he realized he had already run races in 10 states, and decided to go for all 50, embarking on a two-decades running tour of the country, 26.2 miles at a time. Mr. John kept meticulous records of his marathon finishes and times, and ended up running in a few states more than once. By the time he crossed the finish line in Pittsburgh, his final marathon tally was 56.

A few events stand out, he says. Big Sur, which he ran in 1996 alongside sandy-white California beaches, was the most beautiful. The cheering crowds were the most memorable part of the 1993 New York City and 1999 Boston marathons.

He ran the Los Angeles Marathon in March 2000 in pouring rain. While running in Kona, Hawaii in June 2010, he had expected mild weather and a scenic view, but instead ran on a hot blacktop highway with lava fields on both sides.

His adventures included curving around white-marbled Washington monuments at the Marine Corps Marathon in 1994, flying through the Magic Kingdom alongside Disney-costumed characters in the Walt Disney Marathon in Orlando in January 2004, listening to jazzy beats along Jackson Square for a mile of the Mardi Gras Marathon in New Orleans in February 2006, and running across Louisville’s famous Churchill Downs racetrack in the Kentucky Derby Marathon in April 2014.

In October 2015, during a back-to-back marathon weekend, Mr. John discovered he had plantar fasciitis halfway through his first race in Bristol, New Hampshire. The injury, common among distance runners, can cause piercing pain along the arch and heel of the foot. But after the race, Mr. John was determined to complete the Green Mountain Marathon in North Hero, Vermont the following weekend. He did, powering through sharp pain every step of the 26.2 miles.

“There are so many factors that enter into the equation of it being a good or bad race — your training, health on race day, wind, humidity, course elevation, rain, heat, cold, how pretty or boring the scenery is, and even psychologically how many people are there in the crowd to support you,” he said. “To have a really good day all or most of those things have to coincide. To have a bad day only one or two of them can be present and it can wipe out the best training.”

Mr. John chose Pittsburgh as his final marathon because he grew up in the area. When he crossed the finish line, he retired his running shoes. Now he plans to lace up his hiking books to achieve two more milestones. He hopes to hike the nearly 500-mile Colorado Trail (he has only 105 miles left.) And by the end of the summer he expects to reach his goal of climbing 100 mountains over 14,000 feet. He has nine “14’ers” left to achieve it.

For Mr. John, what makes these goals most meaningful is the support he’s received along the way. The experience has taught him that running is not really an individual sport, but a group effort from his wife, family, and 60-year-old running partner, Allen Weaver, a close friend from Nebraska who “has literally run beside me for thousands of miles.” Mr. Weaver ran the half-marathon race in Pittsburgh, but joined Mr. John as he crossed the marathon finish line.

The biggest lesson of running 50 marathons in 50 states? “Mental toughness,” Mr. John says, “and learning that your body can do more than you think it can.”