Published on November 12th, 2013 | by Evan Johnson
50 Marathons in 50 States, and Then Some – John Lent Goes the Distance to Go the Distance
If the two pegboards overflowing with ribbons and medals in John Lent’s Waltham home aren’t enough of a tip-off to his commitment to long-distance running, just glance at the spreadsheet he keeps of every marathon and ultramarathon he’s ever run.
The Excel spreadsheet is multiple pages long and features the date, location, time, and additional notes for every race. It is sorted, color-coded, and fully annotated. And it shows that he has run almost everywhere—a pastime that has led him to complete marathons in all 50 states.
“It’s been a slow process over a long period of time, but I keep chipping away at it,” says Lent, 59.
The names and locations of the races vary. Some marathons are benchmarks of running culture; others are far more obscure. He has run the crowded New York City Marathon as one of 25,628 competitors (his time was 3:38:49), a stark contrast to the spread-out feel of the Midnight Sun Ultramarathon, which takes place under 24 hours of daylight, 500 miles above the Arctic Circle (where he ran 84 kilometers in 9:20:53).
From his first marathon in Philadelphia on Nov. 23, 1986, (time: 3:44:51) to his most recent in Ottawa (time: 4:13:25), Lent has raced in every state in the United States—twice—for a total distance of 2,620 miles. He has also run in every Canadian territory and province and on four out of seven continents.
Lent’s journey started in Colorado while living in the Denver area. Then, running wasn’t an end as much of a means for training to summit as many of the Rockies Fourteeners as possible. He stuck to short runs, usually going no further than half-marathons.
“I had never even thought about doing a marathon,” he said. “Running was what I was doing when I wasn’t climbing and hiking.”
In 1985, when work relocated him to the East Coast and away from the mountains, Lent got a gym membership, and like millions of other Americans, went for morning bike rides and runs with a group of friends before work. A friend convinced him to register for a marathon in Philadelphia, and the two trained until the race in November 1986. A year later, he ran in Washington, D.C., at the Marine Corps Marathon. He didn’t just enjoy the long races, he was also improving; in his first four races, he cut six minutes off each time. But as he got better, he had a choice to make.
“There’re two directions and two kinds of goals,” Lent said. “If you stick to the shorter races, and if you did them a few times, you’re going to try to improve your time—getting faster. Or the other direction is endurance—can you build up to a half-marathon, full marathon, or a century bike ride?”
He decided to go the distance.
By 1994, he had been running marathons for eight years and had already run in Pennsylvania, D.C., Ohio, New Jersey, Illinois, Maryland, New York, and Wyoming, getting better times and becoming more comfortable with distance races. His work with a technology company required him to travel, and he was usually able to find races to run while on the road. By the time he was at the starting line in Cairo, West Virginia, he began recognizing people.
“I started to see familiar faces,” Lent recalled. “I didn’t know these people, but I had seen them maybe half a dozen times.”
50 States, 50 Marathons
He learned from a pair of these runners about a small club of friends with the goal of running a marathon in every state plus Washington, D.C. Lent met with Dean Rademaker, the group’s founder, who encouraged him to join. The idea of running that many marathons seemed ludicrous at first, he said.
“I thought, ‘Are you people crazy? Fifty marathons? Fifty states?’” Lent said. “But because of the way I had started, I already had six or seven states.”
Lent paid the $3 membership fee and joined the Fifty States and D.C. Marathon Group, now a national club with more than 1,248 members.
“There’s literally hundreds of people that have done this,” he said. “And then there are the maniacs. I tell people, ‘If you think I’m nuts, I know people that have been doing this for decades, and they’ve done this three, four, five times.’”
Major distance running is a punishing challenge for the body and mind. Runners commonly refer to “The Wall,” a point at which physical and mental exhaustion becomes almost too much. Lent said a long-distance race is a mental challenge, but training is key. His approach to training for such races is atypical to popular training routines.
“I have never been a high-mileage runner,” he said. “When you gravitate toward the marathon distance, you do have to get the longer runs. I’ve been running marathons for almost 30 years, but in all those years, I never ran more than 30 miles a week.”
It’s a flexible commitment that allows him to exercise how and when he wants to instead of simply training in a strict regimen regardless of how tired he may feel.
Lent trains on the back roads near his home on dirt roads over along rolling hills and farmland.
“The cyclist’s have a saying, it’s ‘Vermont ain’t flat,’” he jokes about the landscape. “But it’s beautiful, if you can get away from the cars.” As the race day grows closer, Lent begins to scale back his training. In the final two or three days before the race, he doesn’t run at all. “Really anything more than that is wear and tear on your body,” he said. “There’s no training you can do then that’ll help you.”
Lent married Mary Ann Castimore in July 1997. Four months later, he finished his 50th marathon in Saint George, Utah (time: 3:49:24). In August 2001, he finished all 13 Canadian provinces and territories. But he didn’t stop; he kept racing, averaging four to six marathons per year. It was his wife who suggested that, if he continued running, he could run different races throughout the 50 states. North Dakota and Wyoming were the hardest, he said—nearly impossible, not because of the difficulty of the course or the conditions, but because there weren’t any marathons to be found there in the 1990s. Working with other runners with the same 50-state goal, they organized a race in Wyoming, and he placed fourth overall and won his age group in a quiet race of 16 other runners.
Lent has run the Boston Marathon twice and the Burlington marathon seven times. He said he actually prefers the smaller races. In nearly three decades of running, he’s come to dislike the courses in New York City, Boston and Washington, D.C., that swell with more than 40,000 fellow competitors.
“It’s a total turnoff to me,” he said. “I like the small ones that nobody ever heard of. Today, every state has a marathon, and getting to Ardmore, Oklahoma, or Marathon, Iowa, or the Hogeye Marathon in Fayetteville, Arkansas, is not only charming but it takes you to parts of the country that you would never even know about.”
While relishing the opportunity to travel to previously unknown parts of the country and around the world, Lent has found himself to be part of a closely knit community. While visiting friends in Lyon, France, for instance, he was able to compete in a marathon on his 50th birthday in Maastricht, Belgium. When 50-state marathoners came to Burlington to check off Vermont, 32 club members came over to Lent and Castimore’s house for dinner. He has met runners at conventions who remembered seeing him at races four years ago.
While running has taken him across the country and all over the globe, the world has become a smaller place for John Lent.
Lent’s 30-mile weeks have paid off. In addition to running a marathon in every state twice—109 of which were under the time of four hours—he has also climbed the highest peak in every state. Not bad for a guy who described himself as “a bit of a slug” in high school and college.
Runners need a minimum of 10 marathons to join the 50-state marathon club. It is a challenge, Lent said, but with the right commitment and patience, a manageable one. He has yet to run marathons in Asia, South America or Antarctica. There are two races in Antarctica, and he hopes to compete in one of them. His most recent race as of press time was on Oct. 13 in Ottawa, Canada. He finished in 4:13:25, third place in his age group.
“I’m a perfect example,” he said. “Once you chisel away at it, eventually you’ll get there.”