For this impressive event, competitors race seven marathons on seven continents in seven days. Durbin finished the seventh race in Sydney, Australia, to take seventh place in the event with an average time of 5:22:45 for each marathon. He was the only competitor from the United States in this year’s event.
I got Durbin on the phone recently to ask him about this grueling race and get his advice on marathon training.
MTA speaks with World Marathon Challenge finisher Tim Durbin
Q. What gave you the crazy idea to do something like this?
I think the crazy idea probably started a couple years ago when I first did the Antarctic Marathon in 2012. That was kind of an adventure in itself as a way to get to the seventh continent without just seeing penguins. From that, kind of my love of travel and having traveled all seven continents, when this opportunity popped up to attempt something kind of crazy like the World Marathon Challenge, I jumped at the opportunity.
Q. What kind of preparation does a runner have to do for an event like this?
For me, it was just kind of a continuation of my own personal goal. So, after doing the (Antarctic) Ice Marathon in 2012, I had been sitting around at home over Christmas at my parents house and thinking, What am I going to do to stay in shape? That’s where I set a goal — at the time it was to just run a 1,000 miles, walk a 1,000 miles in 2013. That expanded and grew as I knew I was going to beat that goal over the course of 2013. But then I started thinking about what I was going to do after that. That’s when I set a goal to run and walk over the course of 10 years 24,901 miles, which is the distance around the equator.
In 2013, I was already running kind of on average about three and a half miles a day and walking another six. Up to that, basically in 2014, and then once I knew I was going to take on the challenge where I was going to be doing seven back to back marathons, on weekends and kind of during the week probably over the course of about 10 weeks, went out and I would run between 10 and 15 miles and then follow that up with another seven walking, so I was doing basically four or five days of 20 miles back to back to back, just to make sure I knew physically that my legs could take it as well as I was mentally prepared to go that many consecutive hours in a very repetitive fashion.
Q. This was a fundraiser for the V Foundation? What’s your motivation for that charity, in particular?
The reason that I specifically chose the V Foundation was, I think like most people, that cancer has touched my family personally. I’ve lost two grandparents to it. My mother has beaten breast cancer. I’ve also had a couple graduate school classmates who, in their early 30s — so they’re my age — battle cancer. One actually had a form that took his life in the last two years. So it’s kind of sobering to see folks who are in their mid-30s battling these diseases as well.
So cancer research is the cause, and I specifically chose the V Foundations because I remember back in 1993 — it’s probably one of the first true sporting events I remember watching — is the first ESPYs when Jimmy V got up there and gave his speech while he was battling terminal cancer. That’s when they launched the Jimmy V Foundation with the motto, “Don’t give up … don’t ever give up.” I think those words are fitting not only for cancer survivors and the battle they go through on a daily basis but I thought the motto fit a challenge like this perfectly, where you’re going to be tired, facing conditions that you’re not used to, and probably having moments where you’re thinking, “Why the heck am I doing this? It’d just be easier to quit and go home.” Those words and stories help keep you going. If they can go through that, running seven marathons on seven continents is nothing.
Q. Describe a low point and how you worked through it.
The lowest point over the seven days was definitely our fourth marathon. Or actually, sorry, it was in our fifth marathon. It was in Morocco. We started running at midnight local time. It was 40 degrees and kind of a light drizzle out. There was no one out on the streets other than us. So you’re alone with your 10 other competitors and you’re not seeing them very often at all. That, I think, was definitely — from conditions it was a low point and the fact that it was our second marathon in basically 24 hours and third that we were going to be completing in 40 hours, made it a lot more mentally draining and challenging as well.
What really helped me get through that was my wife — the lovely person that she is — had put together these little cards for in between each leg. Unbeknownst to be, before I left she had reached out to my parents and friends and family all over the world to provide me with words of inspiration. So, it was those little stories and tidbits of random thoughts that made me feel like I was at home and knowing that I had a bunch of people supporting me even though they weren’t there really helped me to push through that.
Q. What lessons from running seven marathons in seven days could you share that might be applicable to someone training for their first marathon?
I think the training will have to start somewhere and start small. … I just started slow. I was comfortable doing a run/walk for 30 minutes where I’d run 5 minutes, walk a minute, run 5 minutes, walk a minute. Just take it one step at a time and listen to your body. If you go out and you start running one day and it doesn’t feel good, don’t push yourself. If it feels like something’s wrong or you might injure yourself if you keep going, stop because your body’s going to tell you what’s happening and you just have to listen to that.
Q. What’s the fueling strategy for a group of races like this, and how does it differ from fueling for a single race?
For me the fueling strategy wasn’t probably all that different because I didn’t do a good job of training with the things I thought I was going to need to fuel with. My advice would be, if you’re planning on using gels or something like that during a race make sure that you use those when you’re training so your stomach is used to it by the time you’re out there in training.
For me, I started out — when I usually run at home, even long runs 20-plus miles in distance, I don’t really use any gels or anything like that — and I thought, well I’m going to need a little energy. So after the first race I had used some things that my body wasn’t typically used to in terms of Shot Bloks, and it definitely screwed with my stomach a little bit. So, after that, I went back to how I had trained, which is basically I do my longer run in the morning. So I wake up and I have a Clif Bar or something like that and then I’ll go out for my run. Over the course of the run I usually have just water and maybe some Gatorade or another sports drink, and I went with that strategy the rest of the races basically.
I would eat my last big meal on the plane before I went to sleep, and then in the morning I would just have that small breakfast bar instead of the actual plane’s breakfast, which would have been a little bit bigger. I treated every run like it was a morning run and then would, depending on how I felt in the race, they had oranges and little snacks there as well. I may have grabbed some of those things. But for me the fueling strategy would have been the same for one race as it was for seven, and just getting into that routine.
But, the important thing is, making sure whatever you’re planning on doing in a race, plan to at least try out and do on a consistent basis in training to find out what works for you.
Q. Be honest: If you had to, would you have crawled to finish the last one?
Without a doubt, I would have crawled to the finish. There were points along the way, especially in Morocco, where you’re like, it’d be much easier to just go home right now. But then everyone is following you and you’ve invested so much of your time training, as well as financially, in a race like this that, at that point the only thing that would have stopped me would have been probably some heart ailment or something like that that put me in a hospital. I would have found a way through like a broken bone or something like that to push through it and crawl if I had to.
Q. How many blisters?
I only had two blisters, and that was right after the first one. That was because I was stupid and forgot to cut my toenails. So the were just a little tad too long and rubbed. But that was the only time I had any blisters.
Q. A lot of people struggle for a few days after one marathon. How did your recovery go after seven?
It actually went quite well. I was in Australia with my wife for a week after the race and one of the other runners there had started a run streak, which is to try to run at least a mile a day every day for a year. So I had picked that up as part of the Runner’s World holiday streak just before Thanksgiving. So I actually kept that going the week after the race in Australia, and just walking around Sydney and Melbourne I think we walked like 70-plus miles. I think there was a time when my wife’s legs were probably sorer than mine were, just because she’s starting to get back into training for an upcoming race. I recovered pretty quickly.