On My Way to 100 Marathons

    BillIn our November 2014 e-newsletter, e-XTRA, we included an excerpt of Bill Smith’s story in our “Subscriber of the Month” feature. Here is his entire story.


    I started running as a kid mostly inspired by my dad, also named Bill Smith. Dad was, in many ways, an over-achiever. He ran the mile and the half mile for North Kansas City High School, usually both in the same meet, and he always had a lot to say about running and training. At the time I was less interested in running, but I idolized my dad so if he had a high opinion of running, I was going to run, too. In those days we kids rode a bike or walked almost everywhere, and I just ran there because it got the whole thing over with a lot quicker. Once every year I would run to my doctor’s office for my annual summer camp physical and always “fail” the pee test because of the run.

    After college I took up running again in about 1972, but this time I liked it, and my dad was enthusiastic about it, too. I became a member of the Kansas City YMCA and ran on their indoor track every night. It was a wood-slat inclined and concave track elevated over the basketball court, 26 laps to the mile. I kept that up for several years until one day a friend told me about a 10K on the weekend. Dad and I went to the 10K (he had never run one either), and there was an old friend of dad’s named Jerry Morrison running it. I looked at Mr. Morrison and thought, “All I got to do is stay with this old guy?” The race started, and I stayed with Mr. Morrison for a couple of miles. Jerry Morrison, I found out later, was an age group world record holder in the marathon. At age 57 he ran something in the 2:40s! Wow! Wow again, too. Mr. Morrison ran a 35 that day and I think I did a 40, but I was hooked on the competition aspect of running!

    For the next many years, I ran one to three times per day. There was always a noon run with fellow runners at work, and often also a morning run with them. Running in the 1980s with those guys at work was very formative and influencing for me. That was an extremely competitive group with one very good former college miler, another college half miler, and a part-time college coach. The small group of us would run one or two 10Ks every weekend, and it was what I call friendly-fierce. We all wanted to beat each other in the worst way, and it developed training technique and speed. The running boom back then was different than now. No one went to a race just to finish. Everyone went to a race to win in some manner: Win outright, win your (10 year) age division, be first female, or just to improve your PR. One of my goals was always to beat the first girl. Wish I could still do that.


    In 1980 a guy from work trained and ran a marathon. I had never thought of doing that before. And, obviously, by that statement you know that I also didn’t know how really fast Jerry Morrison was either. But I thought if they can do that, then I can do that. In 1981 there was no Internet or any other kind of social media, so you had to wait for the January issues of Running Times and Runner’s World to come out to see a one-page printed marathon schedule in the back of the magazine. You kept your copy for 12 months just so you had a schedule of marathons. So, in that schedule I picked out Heart of America Marathon as my first marathon. My goal was to get in under three hours. Anyone who knows Heart of America is probably rolling in laughter right about now. It is a really tough course. I wore a Timex with a chrono in it, and I wrote my required splits upside down on my number so I could see them. At the half I realized that I was behind schedule so I “caved in” to accepting a slower time and not accomplishing my goal. I don’t really know what happened, but I just started feeling better and better after that, literally charged up Easley Hill, and ran a negative split to a 2:59:35 finish. I remember the front runners got stopped by a train for a while, and that 12-year-old Wesley Paul ran it. That was my first of many. Hooked again!


    In 1997 three marathon runners invited me to go with them to the Grand Canyon to run across the canyon and back. Again, that thought had never crossed my mind! It is about a 45-mile round trip, depending upon the route you take. This is a grueling run even though it is not a race. We always went down the first weekend in November because that was the first weekend the water was turned off at the north rim, which also meant that there would be no mules on the North Kaibab Trail. What a hoot! I simply loved that run. I ended up doing this about 10 years in a row and eventually ran about every trail in the GC that was even remotely near the GC South Rim Village. For the last few years, Rob Parker and I were the only two left in our little group who stayed with it. One year we got to the north rim, and it was snowing and blowing really hard. We both hate to DNF anything, but the weather was so bad we decided if we could find any place to stay the night, we would stay there. We did, and on the way back to the south rim the next day, we found out that another runner died on the trail the night before. Another year we got across the river and ran out the Clear Creek Trail and back. Very remote run. On the way out we kept seeing shoe prints but no people. On the way back we ran upon some heavy backpackers who had been out there for weeks! Their first question was “Who won the World Series?” Weird, I thought. Another year Rob and I were almost done and climbing up the top part of the South Kaibab Trail. It was cold, but we were working so hard we had our shirts off. Just as we crested the rim we ran into a group of tourists with a guide. We stopped to talk to them for just a couple minutes, and they looked at us like we were aliens from outer space. They were bundled in parkas and we were standing there in no shirt with steam rising off of us! We both thought it was pretty funny.

    The Grand Canyon run was an ultra distance run but not an ultramarathon race, so technically I had not run one yet. I corrected that in April of 1999. I retired for the first time and entered and ran Zane Grey Highline Trail 50. I have to ask myself, “Why do I keep doing this?” Zane Grey bills itself as the toughest 50 miler in the lower 48. It might be true because it is brutal, brutal, brutal! It is tough enough that at that time the RD made you qualify, not by time but, by proving that you could deal with the difficulty. This was my first real ultra race, so it was the many Grand Canyon crossings that got me into this one. Oh man! What an absolutely beautiful course. It is mostly rough loose rock, up and down, numerous frigid water crossings, and a 20+ mile burn area that you hit at noon to 2:00 PM where there is no shade. At about 40 miles I missed a turn and went about 6 miles off course. I might have even missed the course again when I returned were it not for the fact that here came the last runner in the race running right towards me. He turned left, I turned right and we were together for a while. By this time it was getting really cold because of the altitude and the hour, and he was completely unprepared. I gave him my jacket and gave him some food, and we stayed together. The sweep ran into us and made us quit at the 44 mile aid station. I was OK with it. I had already put in more than 50 miles and had become discouraged after all the difficulty. But, I still had not run an ultra! I ended up running Zane Grey several more times as well as several other 50s. I like trails a lot, and I like the challenge of ultras, but I am getting to the point where I don’t enjoy the pain quite so much now.


    Between 1981 and April of 2008, I ran 35 marathons, several ultras, and many half marathons as well as some adventure runs like the Grand Canyon double crossing. Some of the most beautiful, or most enjoyable were Pike’s Peak (6 times), Berryman Trail (6 times), Whiskey Row (4 times) and Grandma’s.

    Conventional wisdom back then was to only run a couple or maybe three a year and no food until you are done. Let me tell you, not eating is how you “hit the wall.” Now we have GU as well as many other nutrients, and I hardly remember what hitting the wall even feels like. I just remember it was very unpleasant. Again, what were we thinking?

    I guess my favorite venue in the early days was to go run Zane Grey 50 on the last weekend in April and stay in Arizona a week to run Whiskey Row a week later. Both are difficult runs. I was impressed with myself, but when I got to Prescott, I found out that there were several runners who also did both runs. Dad’s birthday was also late April, and I remember a couple times calling him up in Kansas City after the race to wish him happy birthday, but also just to hear him tell me how proud he was of me. You know, I have to think about how easy we have it these days. Imagine how much any runner born in the 1920s would have given to have hundreds of races all over the globe to choose from, great shoes, gear and nutrition products, jet planes to get you there, and a lifestyle with at least some amount of free time in it. So, I have a lot of respect for any accomplishment those pioneers made, including my dad. By the way, at ages 69 and 70 he did Grand Canyon with me twice. What a privilege that was for me!


    In the fall of 1990, Clarence Gass and I both decided that we were in great shape for a marathon, but were not entered in any marathon. We pulled out our copies of Runner’s World and Running Times and found the Bulldog Marathon scheduled for early December in Altus, OK. It was certified and sanctioned, so we entered and drove down. The RD’s instructions were to meet in the lobby of the Holiday Inn the night before the race for a pre-race meeting. We were there, and not much happening. Another runner walked up and we began to chat until the RD arrived, walked over to us and said, “Well, it looks like we’re all here. Let’s begin!” There were only three entrants, and we were two of them. We all three happened to be staying in the same motel so the RD picked us up in the morning and drove us out to the point-to-point start area. He had several stop watches hanging around his neck and told us we did not have to wait until 7:00 AM but could start whenever we were ready. There were no aid stations because in his words, “You are not going to lose more than 3% of your body weight in water, so you don’t need any water until you are finished.” He was an MD so I decided to try it. For some reason, my friend Clarence dropped out at the half marathon, and the other runner and I ran together. I eventually pulled away and finished alone in a cotton field in 2:56. Timothy Burns from Wichita arrived a few minutes later in 3:13. I walked over to him to congratulate him. As I reached out to shake his hand I said, “Congratulations Timothy. This is the first marathon I have ever won.” He replied, “Thanks. It is the first marathon I have ever finished second….and last!” I like to finish embellishing the story by saying that it was so tough that a third of the field dropped out! A year later the RD was trying to promote the race with Runner’s World so they called me to interview last year’s winner, and a couple months later Sports Illustrated called to do the same thing. Both resulted in a one-paragraph comical race report.

    Bill & Holly_cropFAST FORWARD TO 2007

    In 2007 I was approaching 60, and my marathon times were slowing considerably. I ran Grandma’s with my daughter in 4:44 (she ran faster) and felt like things were really getting hard for me. I decided that if I started training hard like I used to, maybe I could really “kick some ass” in the M60-64 group after December 2 when I turned 60. I started training right, and it seemed to be working. I was making good progress until I picked up a cold in January. It was just a cold, but I could not totally get rid of it. Every time I ran my lungs would burn, I would stop to walk, and then start again. I noticed that this would completely go away after about eight miles so I started goofing around like this every day to get eight miles behind me so that I could start real training. However, the burning lung thing just would not leave. I had already entered the Shamrock Marathon on March 16, 2008, and I knew I needed to lose this lung thing if I was going to do any good at the Shamrock. I quit running all together for the month of February to try to rest up and lose the lung issue.

    I went to the Shamrock, and it was the most miserable race of my life so far. It was very cold, rainy and windy, and my lungs never stopped burning. I finally finished in 5:04. When we got home my wife made me go see my doctor. He brought out two EKG charts: one from my October physical, and another he did during my visit. They were different, and something called T-Wave Inversion had developed. His office is next to the hospital so he told me to take the charts over to the ER and check myself in so they could figure this thing out.

    I was in the hospital three days, and I became a museum piece. They brought probably a half dozen doctors and doctors-to-be in to see me and meet me because my BP was normal, my resting pulse rate was about 44, and all my enzymes and other markers were good. They knew something was wrong but could not find it. Finally, the attending cardiologist wanted to do an angiogram just to eliminate artery blockage. He prepped my wife and me for the remote possibility that they might want to insert a stint. When I woke up, it was a whole new world. My three main arteries were 85%, 95%, and 100% plugged, yet I never had a heart attack and was able to run a sub-8:00 min one-mile and finish a marathon. The cardiologist said that the only thing that saved me was my massive set of collateral arteries that I had developed over the years through all that running. Thankful for that, whatever it is.


    Two weeks later I had open heart surgery involving a triple bypass. Never expected that! When I got to the recovery area, I was supposed to be there three days but was there seven days because my stomach would not resume working. The nurse told me it would help if I would walk around. That was all I needed to hear. I walked out the door pushing an IV cart and started walking around the hospital floor. It felt great to be doing something! The floor plan was a large rectangle, and soon I began to notice that the floor tile was laid out in a pattern of colors. On one trip around, I counted the number of 12” floor tiles in one pattern, the next time around I counted the number of patterns in one lap, and the third time around I did some mental math to figure out that 15.5 laps equaled a mile. For the next several days I walked at least five miles per day, keeping track of laps by carrying a couple Styrofoam cups with me and placing my fingers either inside or outside the cup to do the counting.

    Eventually I was released from the hospital. I asked my wife to drop me off at the gym for a treadmill walk on the way home – mostly symbolic. Eight weeks later I did Swan Lake Marathon, my first post-surgery marathon in Viborg, SD. It was slow (6:10), but I am glad I did it. My cardiologist was not happy about it, but he told me he knew I would do it anyway so keep my HR under 120. My wife, daughter, and xon-in-law Charlie all ran with me, and I would just jog until my heart rate reached 120 bpm, then walk until it got back down to 90. So as it turned out, I ran two marathons 10 weeks apart with open heart surgery in between. I went back to the Shamrock the following year (2009) and ran a 3:41 and cried after crossing the finish line. It had been a long year. What a relief!

    Since the April 2008 surgery, I have run 57 more marathons including the Shamrock and Pike’s Peak again. At this point in my life, I can say that I just love everything about a marathon. I like developing a workout plan and staying with it, the discipline it requires, the travel involved, the start line excitement, the race itself, and all the little races inside the big race. Maybe most of all, I love the last half mile or so as I am approaching any finish line – an exhilarating combination of expectation, relief and sheer excitement. I also really enjoy my post-race beer and cigar routine, when I get the chance to do that. Of course, the people you meet along the way are the real attractions. I have some great marathon friends all over the country whom I would otherwise never know. Running has been an integral part of my entire life. I have thought many times while running a marathon just how fortunate I really am to still be able to do what I love. I have no knee or joint pain at all. The heart thing is just a thing, to me. I do try to do everything right so that the problem does not show up again, but I am not going to stop running because of it, and I never feel like I need to. Besides, the cardiologist watches me every 4 months. He will catch it before I do, I think.


    Here is a list of some of the highlights, either in accomplishment via only my own opinion, or in course beauty, race quality or venue.

    • Pike’s Peak – Claimed to be America’s ultimate challenge. I would challenge that statement, but it is a difficult race. This is probably the single most exciting finish line I have ever crossed, and of course the scenery cannot be surpassed. Every runner should consider Pike’s Peak.
    • Berryman Trail – My absolute favorite annual marathon. Others must think the same thing because it sells out in hours.
    • The Inca Trail – This is not a race, that I know of. In 2010 my wife Holly and I signed up with Andes Adventures to do a 10-day adventure run. A part of that run was a two-day trek of the Inca Trail, ending in Machu Picchu. Climbing that last steep set of stairs and seeing Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate high on a mountain top is simply breathtaking. It is a little pricy, but absolutely incredible. Simply fantastic in every way. I want to do it again.
    • Boston – I have run Boston twice. Unfortunately, I was there in 2013, and again in 2014. In 2013, I was about 15-20 minutes behind the bomb and hit a barricade at 25.6 miles. We never did make it back to our hotel room at the finish line and spent the entire day figuring out how to survive in the cold wind with no money, no phone, no credit cards, and only the wet sweaty clothes we were running in. But, if you can qualify, you should run Boston at least once in your life. What an experience.
    • Big Sur – Just a beautiful course. It was foggy the day I did it, but we drove it the next day. I want to do it again!
    • Kansas City – Yes, I live in KC, but I still say it is a really great marathon. Actually one of the most beautiful city marathons.
    • Whiskey Row – Again one of my favorites. It is like a mini-Pike’s Peak with the peak at 10 miles instead of 13 miles. It is an out and back so you actually hit the peak again at 16 miles.
    • Bataan Memorial Death March – I need to do this one again before the last survivor passes away. There are only about twelve left now. The single most emotional, moving race I have ever run. You get to meet, listen to, hear about and shake the hands of the actual few survivors of that terrible WWII event. There have been movies, books, and songs all written and produced about it. The race is semi-difficult but entirely worth the effort.
    • St George – Beautiful course.
    • Big Island International Marathon – In Hilo, HI. Beautiful course. The day I ran it, we started in the dark with high winds and heavy rain, but somehow it was really OK. Conditions improved as the morning progressed.


    I always have a plan at least a year in advance for these races. I am working on 50 states, as well as 100 marathons. The main focus right now is 100 marathons which I will complete at Kansas City Marathon October 19, 2015. The RD has already reserved bib 100 for me. So, the plan to get there is:

    93: Rehoboth Beach Marathon 2014

    94: Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans 2015

    95: Shamrock Marathon

    96: Berryman Trail Marathon

    97: Missoula Marathon

    98: Okoboji University Homecoming Marathon

    99: Pike’s Peak Marathon

    100: Kansas City Marathon!! 


    My first goal is to complete 100 marathons. I know it is not a big deal. There are runners who have done literally hundreds and even a thousand marathons. But, it is a goal of mine. I am looking forward to being more selective after 100, too. Right now some of my marathons are just there to be another click to 100.

    Marathon 99 is Pike’s Peak, and I plan it to be a double. A doubler is a person who runs the ascent on Saturday and then runs the full marathon on Sunday. This is something I have never done before.

    Third goal is to complete 50 states. By the end of the year I will have 33 completed, and 34 by the time I reach 100. Getting close.

    After 50 states, the goals are still there, but a little out in the future so not so defined or planned. I still believe I have a small chance to do a sub four in all 50 states, so I am trying. I want to run Zane Grey one more time in 2016. I plan to do my first, and most probably last, 100-miler in 2016, too. I want to do the Inca trail again. Then, there are the six majors to do. When I finish 50 states I will have Boston, New York, and Chicago done. Then I will have to get to London, Berlin, and Tokyo. I have been planning for years to run the length of Route 66 someday. When I was 60, it still looked easy to do. At 66, it looks a lot harder. I may be 68 before I get a serious chance to consider it, so we will see how it is going at that time. There is also a long list of marathons I want to run that I have never run even once. That list is really long. I had better get started. Maybe if I can manage to retire again next year, I can find the time!

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