John Wallace made a promise to himself as he approached mile No. 22 of the 1982 Silver State Marathon in Reno, Nev.
“If I can get through this alive,” he said to himself, “I will never do anything like this again.”
Wallace, a former Longboat Key resident who now lives in Sarasota right across the bridge from Siesta Key, kept going because his wife and children were waiting at the finish line. Two weeks later, he was training for his second marathon. Now, at 70, he has done what he vowed to never do again 370 times in a total of 120 countries, all 50 states (twice) and each of the 13 provinces of Canada.
“It’s still addictive,” Wallace said. “Running like I do is absolutely an addiction. But it’s a good addiction.”
It’s an addiction Wallace plans to kick, or at least curb, for now. He plans to run two more races before retiring for at least a year, but possibly for good.
Wallace’s decision is due in part to a heart condition that is not life-threatening — but more importantly because he finds it frustrating that he is no longer competitive.
“If I were competitive, that would be one thing, but if you can’t compete, why put the stress on your heart?” he said.
Before Wallace gives up the sport, he will run the Boston Marathon for the eighth time on April 21. It is his favorite race because, as the world’s oldest annual marathon, the race is filled with mystique and tradition.
He watched as news of the bombing at last year’s Boston Marathon unfolded with a mix of sadness and relief — the latter because the marathon clock read 4:09:43 at the time of the first explosion. Wallace’s times were between 4:05 and 4:10 last year, so he imagines he would have been near the finish line at the time of the bombing.
Since then, his times have slowed to just more than five hours.
He initially planned to make the Boston Marathon his final race. Then, an American runner who lives in Kosovo offered to organize a race there, and Wallace could not pass up the opportunity.
Until 2008, Wallace could say that he had run marathons in every country in Europe. Then, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, creating a European country where he had not raced.
Wallace developed his addiction to running after kicking another addiction: smoking. When he was in his early 30s, he gave up cigarettes and started gaining weight, so he took up running. He found it was an effective stress reliever from his fast-paced career as a high-tech sales and marketing executive because by the time he ran a mile, he would be in “La La Land.”
He ran 5K and 10K races and then “just got it in my mind that I was going to run a marathon.”
During his first marathon, Wallace realizes he made a novice runner’s mistake: He didn’t pace himself and ran the first part of the race too quickly. But after he crossed the finish line with a time of 3:28:24, he soon forgot about the pain. Within a week, he was thinking about how he could do better if he trained harder and smarter.
The next year, he ran the Silver State Marathon and shaved 14 minutes off his time. He kept setting and reaching new goals, as he detailed in a 1998 article he wrote for the Australian website coolrunning.com.au.
Wallace decided to complete a marathon in less than three hours. In December 1986, he ran the White Rock Marathon in Dallas in 2:59:35. He went on to run several additional marathons in less than three hours.
He sought to run all the major races such as the Boston, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago marathons. By 1988, he had completed 21 marathons with an average time of 3:05. Realizing he had reached the physical limits of his body, he set out to push the geographic boundaries of running by seeking out races in international locations such as Rio de Janeiro, London and Athens.
In 1993, he decided to join an informal group of runners whose goal was to run marathons in each of the 50 states. He achieved that goal June 11, 1995, when he completed the Hoosier Marathon, in Fort Wayne, Ind. He reached another goal of running all 13 Canadian provinces Sept. 21, 1997.
Wallace kept racing in international destinations and formed the Country Marathon Club for runners, which has completed marathons in at least 30 countries. His friend, Wally Herman, held the record for running marathons in more countries than any runner — 99 in all. Herman no longer ran international races and challenged Wallace to break his record.
Wallace accepted the challenge in April 2008, after completing the Dead Sea Marathon in Amman, Jordan — his 90th country.
Ten months later, his family stood cheering at the finish line of the Tahiti-Moorea Marathon on the French Polynesian island of Moorea, waiting for Wallace to complete his 316th race in his 100th country. When he finished — with a time of 4:14:27 — he put on a T-shirt that read, “Poppy’s 100th Marathon Country, Tahiti 2-8-09, New World Record.”
Wallace plans to start and finish his final marathon the way he normally does. He’ll give up beer two or three days before the 26.2-mile run. He’ll eat Chinese or Thai food — something like fried chicken and rice — two nights before and pasta the night before the race.
Afterward, he will try out the local cuisine and beer. (During his travels, he has sampled everything from reindeer to giraffe to kangaroo.) Nine of the 48 members of the Country Marathon Club will participate in the Kosovo race, so Wallace says they’ll probably celebrate.
He has already scaled back his training. He once ran up to 120 miles per week but now runs about 30 to 35 miles weekly.
Wallace plans to continue running, albeit fewer miles each week, and stay active in other ways such as joining the Y, riding a bike and kayaking. He says he might have to cut back on portions and eat some of that “rabbit food” he detests — i.e. salads.
Wallace doesn’t plan to do much international travel in retirement.
“There aren’t many places left I’d want to go to,” Wallace said. “Internationally, I’m burned out.”
Still, don’t be surprised if the soon-to-be-recovering marathon addict relapses. It has happened before: Wallace has given up marathons before, once for as long as nine months, because of injuries. But he says this time is different.
“During that nine months, I still trained,” Wallace said. “This time, I’m committed to not training.”
Still, he leaves open the possibility of a return to his old ways.
“After a year, if my doctor says I’ve improved, then, we’ll see,” Wallace said.
BY THE NUMBERS
9,694 - The number of miles Wallace has run during his 370 marathons.
120 - The number of countries in which Wallace has run marathons.
450 - The number of pairs of shoes Wallace estimates he has gone through since he began running marathons.
40 - 50 - The number of countries to which John Wallace brought a copy of an Observer newspaper for an “It’s Read Everywhere” photo
Contact Robin Hartill at [email protected]