The big project I’ve been working on, which I hope to complete within about the next decade, is to run a marathon in every state. I thought I’d share what I’ve learned so far about the relevant logistics. A reasonable person might ask, but you’re not even half way there* (Footnote 1: 16 states, but also the District of Columbia and Iceland, and doubled up on Vermont); isn’t it a little presumptuous to write something like this before you’ve finished the deed? Fair enough. But I’ve learned a few tricks so far and it would be a shame if I got hit by a bus tomorrow before enlightening the rest of the world with my cunning insights. So, here’s what you need to know…
Near vs. Far
50 staters who live in the Northeast have the distinct advantage of having so many states nearby. If you live in Hawaii and have to take a 9 hour flight to any other state, you’re a little screwed (only in the sense of trying to run 50 marathons in different states; not in any other sense since, for crying out loud, you live in Hawaii). But remember not to knock off all the close races early. It’s easy to do Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Hampshire in one year. It’s not so easy to do California, Oregon, Arizona and Montana in a year. Think long-term and leave some easy travel races in reserve for later. And remember that distance isn’t the only component of ease of travel. A long, direct flight into a big city can be a lot faster and easier than connecting flights followed by a long drive.
Awesome States vs. Shitty States
I realized recently that, while I had been conscientious about balancing my races between Near and Far, the Far ones I did were all really cool ones – Honolulu, San Francisco, Austin, Miami – meaning that at some point I was going to have to do all the super shitty states. Every state probably has some nice areas, but let’s face it, some states are unfairly awesome. The Honolulu marathon wasn’t at all one of my favorites, but it’s in Hawaii. Getting a root canal in Hawaii is more awesome than going on vacation in a lot of states. If you really mean it about doing a race in every state, at some point you’re going to have to go to Klansville, PU, Chawloogie, OY and Asswater, IK* (Footnote 2: the names of these towns and states have been changed so as not to give the impression that I’m an East Coast elitist who thinks that all of middle America is just a bunch of backwater flyover states that get in the way when you’re trying to get from Brooklyn to Sausalito). If you do all the awesome states first, you’ll have to do all the shitty states later – at which point you’ll also be getting older and probably progressively more jaded and curmudgeonly – and you’ll die thinking of the United States as a desolate, boring, shitty string of rural strip malls. So keep that in mind.
Big Races vs. Small Races
Big races get all the attention, but small races can be every bit as much fun. On the other hand, most races are small races. There probably aren’t more than about half a dozen races that are in the 30,000 person range. There are a bunch in the 1,000 to 5,000 range and hundreds that are really small, as in under 500 or even under 100. So if a state you’re looking at has a huge race – New York City, Boston, Chicago, DC – don’t miss out on that one. Finding a tiny marathon is easy.
For several years I did two marathons per year. Then moved up to three. Now four. Four is probably going to be my upper limit. If you assume a twelve-week training regimen, four marathons a year means you pretty much have to start ramping up for the next marathon the week after you finish the last one. And that’s assuming that all of the marathons are evenly spaced out throughout the year, which they never are. When deciding on a marathon, you have to look at the whole year as one puzzle to get the spacing right. Finding races where the dates work out right, combined with all the factors above and below, gets complicated fast. But fun too. I keep my own big master list of marathons that look like fun, with their dates and website addresses. I look at it all the time. I feel like a kid in a candy store.
Most of you are probably working stiffs like me, who The Man is trying to keep down via an unconscionably paltry number of vacation days. So you gotta use those babies sparingly. I don’t know why this is the case, but the vast majority of marathons are on Sundays. My personal preference is to get to wherever the marathon is a full day in advance. That way I have plenty of time to chill and scope out the area, and then just destroy myself with a horrible, shitty travel schedule after the race. For a Sunday race, that usually means an after-work flight on a Friday, getting in late, taking it easy on Saturday (sleep late, pick up bib at expo, drive some of the course, pasta dinner, get in bed at 9:00) and then, on Sunday, running the race and getting right back in the car or on a plane to come home. Yes, you’ll be sore and miserable and uncomfortable and exhausted and hardly able to function at work on Monday, and “Future You” will be telling “Past You” that you’re a short-sighted idiot – and for good measure go fuck yourself – but at least you won’t have to take a vacation day.
The Right Hotel
To me, choosing the right hotel for a marathon is the easiest travel decision of all. I stay at the one closest to the start line. Period. If I have the choice of a Ritz Carlton that is 0.28 miles from the start and a rent-by-the-hour Skank-O-Lodge with a Yelp review that says “worst place you could stay short of Auschwitz; bed bugs; clogged toilet; blood stains on the pillowcases; open air drug market in the lobby,” and which is the same price as the Ritz but 0.275 miles from the start, I will always go with the latter. The night before a race is always stressful. It’s nice not to have worry about how long it will take to get to the start. I also learned a surprising potent trick from the book “Heads in Beds” (Jacob Tomsky, 2013). When you check in to a hotel, give the front desk clerk your credit card, your driver’s license and a $20 bill. It’s amazing how far that gets you. Often a room upgrade, higher floor, better view, etc. At a minimum, free wifi or access to a concierge floor, if there is one. Nothing like a little flat-out, old fashioned bribery to pave the way.
Pulling the Trigger
Most races never fill to capacity. But some, especially the big ones, fill up within minutes of when registration opens. So if you have a race picked out, make sure to pay attention to when registration opens – not just the date but the specific time of day. When registration for a big race is getting close, my office becomes like a NASA control room. I have the best flight, hotel, rental car and Italian restaurant scoped out, ten windows open on my computer, and, within 45 seconds of clicking “complete registration now” on the marathon site, all of my travel plans are done. True, it usually turns out that seats are available on the same flight for another seven months. But what if it fills up right that second!!?? Better safe than sorry. A lot of hotels and rental car companies now offer a much cheaper rate for a non-cancelable, prepaid reservation. So if you’re really ready to go, you can save a few bucks that way. I also have found that you get somewhat better service and more leeway if you ever have to change anything if you buy a plane ticket directly through the airline’s website. And the price is usually the same as what you can find on Travelocity / Kayak / Orbitz. So I usually search flights on one of the travel sites and then buy directly from the airline.
Remember that the 50 State Project is not the End All Be All of your Existence on Earth
When I first started thinking about signing up for the Reykjavik, Iceland marathon, the thought actually crossed my mind that, if I did that one, I wouldn’t be able to chalk up another state. Fortunately, I came to my senses quickly and told myself, “dude, you are being an asshole.” Reykjavik was one of the coolest places I’ve ever been. Not going there so that I could cross Asswater, IK off the list would have been moronic beyond belief. The 50 state thing is a fun project, and a great excuse to go places you never would have gone otherwise, but it is not the end-all-be-all of your travel life. And it’s a long term endeavor. So if you ever find yourself wanting to go back to somewhere you’ve already been and even repeating a marathon there – gasp – it’s alright. God willing, you’ve got the rest of your life to get through the whole list.
There are lots of websites where you can make check-off maps of states you’ve been to. Here’s my marathon map as of now: