Wheaton College professor finishes marathons in all 50 states

As she cruised, smiling, across the finish line last month in Pocatello, Idaho, Wheaton College professor Annette Tomal held up a victory sign that announced the completion of her long-sought-after goal.

The sign read: “50 State Marathon Club.”

With her challenge to herself met, she is now a member of an elite group of runners who each have completed a 26.2-mile marathon run in each of the 50 states.

The 62-year-old business and economics professor didn't begin running until she was 48, ran her first marathon at age 49 and began her 50-state quest when she was 53.

And that was after she'd had knee surgery and a stroke.

“It's all about the mental determination to keep doing this and not quit,” she said. “I feel my purpose in life is to encourage people to pursue a goal.”

Tomal recently was honored by her Wheaton College colleagues, friends and family at a campus party celebrating her feat.

Tomal said her fascination with running began when she ran into Peter Walters, a professor of applied health science at Wheaton College, after a Sunday church service in 2000. He urged her to trying running, she said.

She and her son, then a seventh-grader, made the rounds to 5Ks in the area. Tomal, though, was sidelined by a sore knee that eventually required medial meniscus surgery, so she watched as her son completed those races. Her husband and their other two children also began to compete in running events.

After she healed, she finished her first 5K in 2002. Then a stroke in 2003 further complicated her health situation. She was 49 and, fortunately, recovered quickly.

“I was determined not to let my body beat me. So I actually hiked the Grand Canyon twice that year,” she said.

She went on to run her first 10K, half marathon and her first full marathon — the Chicago Marathon. Her involvement in running clubs led her to a worldwide running group called the Marathon Maniacs. And that group, based in Tacoma, Washington, introduced her to the idea of doing a marathon in every state and qualifying for the Houston-based 50 States Marathon Club.

“My favorite race was in Bar Harbor, Maine. I loved the town. It's just a little town on the ocean. We ran through the woods, along the water,” she said. “I carry my cellphone with me and I take pictures.”

Her friend, Annette Wulffe, is a fellow marathon runner who traveled with Tomal to 10 of the states.

“Once you see you're capable of doing this, it isn't that difficult. The marathoners are an encouraging group of people. People will totally pull other people through. It's just a very supportive group. That's how Annette is. She's real giving that way,” Wulffe said.

Wulffe, 56, of Wheaton, also now a member of the 50 States Marathon Club, said the two runners met in 2005 and became fast friends.

“We were about the same pace,” Wulffe said. In runners' circles, they became known as “the two Annettes.”

Wulffe said the logistics of running in 50 states is almost as challenging as the actual running.

“You can't miss your flight. You can't have snow stop your flight. You can't get sick,” she said. “There're so many calculations that go into it.”

Wulffe said she finished her 50-state challenge with a race in Honolulu. Races she remembers vividly include one in Salt Lake City, Utah, that featured a course that was mostly downhill. “Just running downhill is kind of tricky,” she said.

Wulffe said she no longer does marathons but continues running and bicycling.

Despite another injury, a hip stress fracture, Tomal already has several more marathons lined up.

“I like goals. I love planning the logistics,” Tomal said. “The 50-state goal is a good excuse to travel around the country.”

Still, she doesn't plan to do the 50-state tour again. Her current marathon count is at 61. She has her eye on running her 63rd marathon on Dec. 11, her 63rd birthday, in Biloxi, Mississippi. Since completing her 50-states quest, she ran the Vancouver marathon on Oct. 9 and plans to run her 62nd marathon on Nov. 12 in Asuza, California, as she joins her son in his first marathon.

Having now had surgery on both knees, though, she intersperses sprints with brisk walking in an attempt to stave off more surgery. The strategy has lengthened her race time to about 5 hours, 15 minutes. Her best marathon time was 4 hours, 38 minutes.

“I don't care about speed. I just care about doing them,” she said. “My new goal is to do marathons as long as I can. I want to be an inspiration.”

With 60 marathons to her credit already - including one in every state - Annette Tomal is aiming to run her 63rd marathon on Dec. 11, her 63rd birthday. Courtesy of Annette Tomal
Annette Tomal, a Wheaton College professor, overcame injuries and a stroke to complete marathons in all 50 states. Courtesy of Annette Tomal
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