Straight From the Source: How deciding to run a marathon in every state changed my life

  • Colin O'Donnell has run a marathon in all 50 states.

      Colin O'Donnell has run a marathon in all 50 states. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
By Colin O’Donnell
Straight From the Source
Updated 2/27/2022 5:58 PM
Editor’s note: Colin O’Donnell, senior vice president/director of operations and strategic initiatives for Paddock Publications, started his career at the newspaper 38 years ago as a reporter. The Prospect High School grad and longtime Naperville resident in January completed his mission to run a marathon in all 50 states. What started out as a New Year’s resolution became a way to enjoy the United States in a way he would never have undertaken otherwise.

Turning the corner toward the finish line, 1 mile to go, it finally hit me. I was about to complete a 12-year odyssey that took me to every state in the country, seeing places I never would have seen, meeting people I never would have met, making bonds with my running friends that will last a lifetime.

It was a lot to take in.

 

And knowing that in a few minutes I would see almost my entire family at the finish line, the emotions were overwhelming.

Proud, yes. Accomplished, yes. Amazed it was finally here, yes. It was the first time I really let myself take it all in.

It's written all over my face in that photo of me at the finish line.

How did I get here, at the finish line of the Maui Oceanfront Marathon?

It all started as I pondered a new year coming in 2010. Would I make a resolution? I thought about what was happening that year. In August, I would turn 50. I was reminded that one of my colleagues, when she turned 50, had a set the lofty goal of working out in some fashion every day, and she was continuing it well past her 50th year. That kind of dedication to a goal amazed me.

Colin O'Donnell finishes the last of his marathons to complete one in every state. This was in Hawaii.
Colin O'Donnell finishes the last of his marathons to complete one in every state. This was in Hawaii. - Courtesy of Colin O'Donnell

I knew I didn't have the motivation to do that for the rest of my life. So what could I do? I could run. By then I had a run a marathon (or two) each year since 2003. Training alone for my first marathon provided much-needed thinking time following a divorce and a turning point in my life. But in those intervening years, I was caught in the cycle of training up in the summer and letting go in the winter. How would I keep my motivation as I got older? How would I change up my habits? I had heard about people who run a marathon in every state, and that was intriguing. It would keep me running every year, all year, and combine a love of travel that I only recently had embraced.

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So that was my resolution. As I turned 50, I would run a marathon in all 50 states and do it during my 50s. I started that year with three states under my belt. That first year, I ran five marathons and raised money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Association in honor of my father, who had died of leukemia at a young age.

In a couple of years, I would run seven in a calendar year. I'd have to average four or five a year if I wanted to reach my goal.

As time went on, there were some hiccups. A couple of injuries slowed my progress, but I was still looking to finish at 60 in January 2021. And then COVID-19 hit.

Races were canceled. Training became a lonely respite as we all kept our distance. But I needed just three more states. I might finish late, but I was undeterred.

So in January, in Lahaina, Hawaii, on the island of Maui, I crossed that finish line with my family and friends watching on. That last race was one of my slowest, yet the most gratifying, partly because I was able to raise more than $7,000 for pancreatic cancer research in honor of my mother, who died of that disease at a young age. Fitting bookends, honoring my parents, keeping healthy and accomplishing a goal.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

And now I can look back and think about each of those 50 races in 50 states that make up this great country, with a smile, a sigh of relief and a body that still might have a few more miles left in it.

Celebrating with Colin O'Donnell after he finished the Maui Oceanfront Marathon are, from left, son Michael and his girlfriend, Laura Rabasco-Hernandez; son Stephen and his wife, Laura Hones; daughter-in-law Tamara Farnik and son Brendan O'Donnell; stepdaughter Maggie Pelter; Colin's husband, Mike Pelter; and Colin's stepson, Hank Pelter.
Celebrating with Colin O'Donnell after he finished the Maui Oceanfront Marathon are, from left, son Michael and his girlfriend, Laura Rabasco-Hernandez; son Stephen and his wife, Laura Hones; daughter-in-law Tamara Farnik and son Brendan O'Donnell; stepdaughter Maggie Pelter; Colin's husband, Mike Pelter; and Colin's stepson, Hank Pelter. - Courtesy of Colin O'Donnell

There are two things people want to know when they hear about this now-completed goal: How many people have done it and what was my favorite race?

According to the 50 States Marathon Club, I was finisher No. 1,693. To date, there have been 1,711 finishers. Of that number, there are 106 from Illinois.

When I set the goal at the beginning of 2010, there were only 483 finishers total.

According to the International Institute for Race Medicine, there were about 1.1 million marathon participants globally in 2018. And according to RunRepeat, a website dedicated to running and athletic shoes, less than 1% of the U.S. population has completed a single marathon.

In my world, though, I know lots of marathoners and have looked up to 50 state finishers who came before me from my suburban running circle and those who will be finishing soon. They inspired me to keep going, and perhaps my talking about it will inspire someone else.

My favorite race? I love the big city races, the thousands of people on the course cheering you on and the thousands running next to you. There is not a bigger race than New York City. It's an event. That's not to diminish my hometown race, the Chicago Marathon. I've done it six times and now that my 50-state goal is done I'll return this year to Grant Park and do another.

But the midsize and small races also have their pull.

I likely never would have gone to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, or Bozeman, Montana, but both were surprisingly charming.

Colin O'Donnell runs through the mountains of Arizona.
Colin O'Donnell runs through the mountains of Arizona. - Courtesy of Mike Pelter

There were beautiful courses in New England, oceanfront courses up and down the Atlantic and on the Pacific in California. I've gone for longer trips with family or friends -- Alaska is amazing -- and short weekend jaunts by myself to Birmingham, Alabama, and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.

I've stayed in swanky hotels and in college dorms -- thank you, Duluth, Minnesota, and Fargo, North Dakota.

I've cultivated funny stories to remind me of trips to Indianapolis and Albany, Georgia, and quirky ones, too, such as getting dropped off in the dark in a field in Arkansas, with fires going to keep us warm.

In the beginning I was focused on my times (oh, the frustration of finishing 7 seconds over 4 hours in St. Louis, and the exhilaration of getting my personal record in Indianapolis).

As I got older and slower I took more time to enjoy my surroundings while running. There were the hot-air balloons overhead in Albuquerque, the views on the downhill mountain courses in Utah and Nevada, and the whales offshore in Hawaii.

But the best part of my journey has been the love and support from my family -- especially my husband, Mike -- and my close running friends who were there week in and week out to get me the miles I needed to get to those 50 finish lines.

Running can be a solo journey at times, but it is best when celebrated with others.

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