At mile 17 of the Houston Marathon, Steve Boone, 57, is miserable. He’s exhausted, overheated and dripping with sweat, but he maintains a steady stride through the streets of Texas’ largest city, determined to cross the finish line of the 26.2-mile footrace.
Seeking a distraction, the founder of the 50 States Marathon Club turns to another runner and says, “Look for George Bush Sr.; he and Barbara live here.” The Bushes have been known to watch as runners pass through their neighborhood.
A sighting of the nation’s 41st president would give Boone a psychological boost and something to talk about for miles. He scans friendly faces in the crowd, supporters holding out orange slices and chunks of banana to energize the runners.
“We turned the corner, and he wasn’t there,” recalls Boone, recollecting details of the January race.
Disappointed, the long-distance runner perseveres toward the finish line, knowing that his wife Paula, 40, and dozens of other club members are confronting their own physical and mental challenges along the grueling course.
“We still have to run the best we can,” says Boone, a computer software designer from Humble, Texas (pop. 14,579). “We will never quit.”
On the road again
Boone ran his first marathon in Houston in 1988 at age 39 after two friends bet he couldn’t do it. He since has completed about 340 marathons, including three marathons in each of the 50 states. Paula has run two marathons in each state and plans to run her 200th marathon in Wilmington, Del., in May.
The couple met at the Boston Marathon in 1997, and together they’ve seen much of the country on foot. They’ve raced through California’s giant redwoods during the Big Sur International Marathon, run through the streets of New Orleans’ historic French Quarter during the Mardi Gras Marathon and jogged through the foggy Appalachian foothills of West Virginia and Kentucky during the Hatfield & McCoy Marathon.
“Our adventure is like a travel book,” he says. “You turn the pages one step at a time.” The Boones run 30 to 40 marathons a year, sometimes two in a weekend. They usually fly to out-of-state destinations the day before the race to register and get a good night’s sleep.
Join the club
Boone, a former member of the 50 States and D.C. Marathon Group, founded the 50 States Marathon Club in 2001 because he wanted to improve communication and cooperation among runners by launching a website.
Both organizations now maintain active websites, and hundreds of long-distance runners belong to both. Boone’s club has grown to 1,300 members and includes athletes from every state and nine foreign countries. Runners must finish marathons in at least 10 states before they can join either club.
“I was 48 before I started, and I got hooked,” says Don McNelly, 86, of Rochester, N.Y., who has completed more than 720 marathons. “It’s an addiction, really, but a positive addiction.”
The club’s youngest member, Brenton Floyd, 21, of Harrison, Tenn. (pop. 7,630), finished his first marathon at age 10 and has since completed about 350 marathons and other long-distance races.
Club members often team up along the course to chitchat, trade jokes and pass the time. “You look for the 50 States shirt at races and say, ‘Oh, there’s somebody I have something in common with,’” Paula explains.
A test of human endurance
Marathons test human endurance like few other sports. Whether a runner is slow or fast, running 26.2 miles is a physical and mental challenge that often involves muscle cramps and blistered feet, and requires psychological distractions to ward off the pain and fatigue.
“When it gets really irritating, I start going through particularly bad days at school,” says Paula, a former third-grade teacher. “Correcting papers, all the things I had to do—that seems to pass time.”
“If I’m running with friends, we start cracking more jokes,” she adds.
Paula also looks forward to the traditional kiss her husband gives her before and after each race. He usually proposes again, too. “Would you marry me again, even in Rhode Island? Even in California? Even in Kentucky? Even in Iowa?” he asks. The answer is always yes, she says.
Long-distance runners have different motivations and abilities. Top athletes crave the competition and can run a marathon in a couple of hours. All marathoners desire the personal challenge, even if they walk across the finish line after the crowds have gone home.
Fran Drozdz, 63, a motivational speaker from Litchfield Park, Ariz. (pop. 3,810), started running in 1979 to lose 30 pounds before the Honolulu Marathon. Now a veteran of more than 50 marathons, she continues to run “for the health of it” and to set a good example for her two grandsons. “They are my heart, and I want to be around to see them graduate, marry and have children,” she says. “I want my grandsons to know that fitness is an everyday thing like brushing your teeth and is part of living your life to the fullest.” Once Drozdz completes a marathon in all 50 states—she has run in more than 30—she wants to run marathons on all seven continents. “I’m living my life like I have six months left to live,” she says, “and I am not running anymore for competitive fast times but the time of my life.” Going the distance
Nearly an hour after Steve Boone crosses the finish line in Houston with a time of 4 hours, 57 minutes and 43 seconds, his wife Paula and fellow runner Dave Bell, 44, of Highlands Ranch, Colo. (pop. 70,931), complete the race amid a cheering crowd.
“Dave and I crossed the finish line and we heard people say, ‘There’s George and Barbara Bush,’” Paula recalls. “We walked over and got to shake both of their hands. They said, ‘Congratulations, we’re proud of you.”
Shaking hands with a former U.S. president tops the list of marathon memories for Paula, who along with her husband has run thousands of miles while participating in footraces across the nation.