Posted: Monday, June 28, 2010

Alaska was one of the final states to join the union, so what better place than the Last Frontier to finish off a 50-state, 17-year tour involving a marathon run in each state?

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Michigan's Theresa Pipher, 55, did just that, bookending the remarkable feat in the Mayor's Marathon in Anchorage on June 19 before spending time traveling across the state. She finished fifth out of 26 runners in her age class in a time of 4:51.35.

Pipher, a full-time nurse, started running in 1980 as a way to handle stress and for health and fitness reasons. She ran her first marathon, the Chicago Marathon, in 1985.

"I didn't know anything about marathoning. I had no friends that ran them, and we didn't have the Internet back then," she explained. "I had gone to an Indian wedding the night before and I ate all the wrong things."

Pipher also said she didn't do enough mileage while training but she was able to finish - eventually.

"Right after the marathon, I never wanted to do it again," she said. "But I liked the challenge. It's like getting your diploma when you cross the finish line, all your hard work - I about cry every time. Each and every marathon is an accomplishment."

And now, 30 years after she began running and 17 years after setting a goal to complete the 50-state sweep, Pipher has 62 races under her belt and a house full of framed medals.

Running 40 miles a week to train, subtracting a week for each race and then adding in the total race mileage, Pipher has run in the neighborhood of 62,000 miles, or about 22 trips from Los Angeles to New York.

"When I started training for the 50 states, you had to have run in 25 states before you could join the club," she said, referring to the 50 States Marathon Club and 50 States & D.C. Marathon Group. Pipher is a member of both groups. "I didn't really think I could do it. I just thought, 'Something different.'

"At first I was only doing two marathons a year, and pretty soon three," she continued. "A couple of years I did five. You have to come up with a schedule and it's very difficult because a lot of marathons are in the spring and a lot of them are in the fall. You have to space them out so you don't do one two weeks apart. Once I did two three weeks apart."

For her 50th birthday in 2005, Pipher did a 50-mile ultramarathon in Oregon. And for her 50th marathon, she ran the Athens Classic Marathon in Greece, which commemorates the legend of a 24.85-mile run by a messenger carrying the word of victory beginning on a battlefield in the town of Marathon and finishing in Athens in 490 B.C. - or 2,500 years ago.

The Athens Marathon is recognized as the original marathon course and was the same course used in the 2004 Olympics.

Closing one chapter

and opening another

There were a few others aside from Pipher that completed their 50-state goal in Anchorage, and they wore signs with their bibs during the race, spurring countless pats on the back and congratulations from fellow competitors.

"That was exciting and every one had questions about which was my favorite and how long did it take," she said.

Pipher said she had mixed emotions after crossing the finish line, realizing she had finally achieved something that was 17 years in the making.

"You don't want it to end," she said. "You want to cross the finish line and you're tired, but I wanted to enjoy every mile at the same time. You have mixed emotions because it's a goal that you have worked so hard for so long for. The time went by so quickly that you think, 'What am I going to do now?'

"You have to a have a goal, something to work for, so I decided that I want to run 100 marathons."

Now that all 50 states are done, Pipher said she would like to set her sights abroad and run in Paris, London, Sweden, Berlin, and on the Great Wall of China.

"Somewhere with beautiful scenery, or another country - if I can afford it. I'm going to keep running until I can't any more," she said. "I don't want to take seven, eight hours (to finish a race). I want to have a decent time and I'm very competitive. But it's funny because men seem to be able to run for a long time. Sixty-year-old men compete, but women drop."

When it comes to paying for her trips, Pipher joked that her sponsor is her husband, Tom.

"No, but I just try not to spend much money except for doing my marathons," she said. "You really just need good shoes."

Pipher said she goes through about three pairs of sneakers a year, "though he would probably tell you more," she laughed.

Pipher credits good genes for staying virtually injury free.

"And I don't eat fried foods. I eat dessert, but I don't eat much red meat. Mostly chicken and fish," she said. "I have good genetics. All of my friends get injured and for me to complete 62 marathons, I've never had to take off more than a couple of days."

She also does two triathlons a year and has competed in Ironman competitions, though triathlons aren't her favorite.

"I like to be on the bike but swimming is not my thing," she said. "Imagine jumping in a lake with 100 people all at once. You get kicked, and I've had someone swim right over me."

Her favorite races have been her first in Chicago, and the New York City and Boston marathons because of the thrill of competing against the elite runners.

"And I loved Big Sur along the coast in California," she added. "The worst was in Las Vegas where it was about 20 miles out into the desert. It was unseasonably hot and they ran out of water. And high-altitude marathons are very difficult."

Pipher said she and her husband were celebrating the completion of her 50 states by spending about two weeks in Alaska, traveling from Anchorage to Fairbanks, to Denali National Park and then to Juneau for two days before boarding a cruise ship bound for Glacier Bay.

"Alaska is expensive, and there's so much to see since it's such a beautiful state," she said. "That's why I chose to do it last so we could go on a big vacation."

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