Running marathons has allowed Debbie Lazaroff to see the world 26.2 miles at a time.
“I love the travel,” she said. “I love the excitement. There’s nothing more satisfying than crossing that finish line.” Lazaroff should know. She has done it 124 times.
Lazaroff, a 54-year-old from Jackson, Mich., has completed marathons in all 50 states and two foreign countries. She has run through the mountains of Wyoming and the streets of Paris. She has battled heat waves and nor’easters.
She has done strange things: She once carried a football across the finish line. And she has seen stranger things: Twice, during training runs, she has come face-to-face with a flasher.
Lazaroff buys about six pairs of running shoes each year and estimates she has run about 50,000 miles. She has no plans to stop.
“My goal is to keep running as many (marathons) as I can,” she said.
Lazaroff is not alone in her dedication to running. The 50 States Marathon Club lists about 500 runners who have completed a marathon in every state, including about 150 women.
The club consists of more than 2,000 runners from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and 11 foreign countries who have completed more than 123,000 marathons. To join, a runner has to complete a marathon in at least 10 states. More than half the members are 50 or older.
The club includes more than 300 athletes who have completed at least 100. Norm Frank, a 78-year-old from Rochester, N.Y., has finished more than 950 marathons.
A competitive skier, Lazaroff cut back on trips after she began having children. But she wanted to be in shape when she made a rare ski trip, so she took a circuit training course—which combines strength and cardiovascular exercises—in 1981 to condition her legs. At the end of her course, the instructor told the students they were going to participate in the Rose Run, a 10-kilometer race on the campus of Jackson Community College.
Lazaroff didn’t enjoy that first race, but she kept running. Ten years later, she competed in her first marathon.
It didn’t take her long to get hooked.
In November 2009, Lazaroff completed her goal of running marathons in all 50 states. That race ended at Marshall University in West Virginia where all the finishing runners carried a football 100 yards across the goal line in honor of the members of the school’s football team who had died in a plane crash.
In January she ran her first ultramarathon, a 50K, a 31-mile race.
Every marathon is different. The terrain can be flat or hilly, the course easy or difficult. Weather can play a major role. Even the aid stations, where runners replenish themselves with liquids—usually small cups of water—can vary greatly.
During a marathon in Rhode Island, a storm rolled through, bringing heavy rain and wind gusts up to 40 mph. In Wyoming, temperatures in the 90s and an extremely difficult course that started at an elevation of about 6,100 feet caused problems for several runners.
“You start in town and you go up a dirt road up to about 8,900 feet, and then you turn around and go back,” she said. “It was dusty, dirty, so you’re breathing in dust. It was an open course, so there’d be trucks going back and forth.”
Lazaroff completed the event in 6 hours 1 second, her worst time ever. She said it took some runners 9 hours to finish.
A marathon in Paris featured orange juice—with the lids still on—and sugar cubes. During a marathon in Hawaii, the wind off the ocean blew sand into the cups, and at January’s Disney World Marathon in Florida, freezing temperatures turned the drinks into “slushies.”
Then there was a half-marathon in the Grand Cayman Islands. “Their water aid stations were baggies—Ziploc baggies—and you would bite it to get your water,” Lazaroff said.
Competing in so many marathons comes at a cost. Lazaroff has four daughters in their 20s, and managing her time when they were younger was a challenge. Her husband, Steve, is president and owner of Diversified Precision Products in Spring Arbor, Mich. When her children were younger, she often took one or more on trips to marathon destinations as a way of traveling together.
The health education coordinator for the Jackson County Intermediate School District, Lazaroff runs 35 to 40 miles per week. Weekdays, she usually gets up early and runs before heading to work. She rarely misses work for marathons, since they are generally held on weekends.
Then there’s the cost of traveling. Lazaroff, who estimates that competing in an event costs an average of about $1,000, often volunteers to be bumped from flights in order to get free vouchers, and she scours online travel sites in search of the best deals.
“You have to be savvy,” she said. “I’m not frugal with my money, but if someone has a seat priced lower than mine on the plane, I’m ticked off.”
Lazaroff has competed in all 17 Disney World Marathons since the event began in 1994. It was there in 2008 that she completed her 100th marathon, and she had her personal best time—3 hours 21 minutes—in the 1998 event.
“That time probably will stand unless I really start doing speed work,” she said. “But last year I did 13 marathons, and you can’t stay at the top of your game by tearing your body down like that.
“You take a look at our top world marathoners, they point to one a year. I’ve just kind of given that up and decided I would join our little subculture of mega-marathoners and just have fun with them.”
Chris Lott, a freelance writer in Jackson, Mich., has been covering sports for more than a decade.