When the annual New York City Marathon rolls through the five boroughs this weekend, Lisa Jost, a keen runner with dozens of marathons under her belt, will once again be nowhere near the event’s start line. Instead, Jost – who has never participated in the world’s largest footrace – will be pounding the tarmac more than seven hundred miles away, at the lesser-known Monumental Marathon, in Indianapolis, Indiana. By finishing the much smaller race, she will achieve the goal set by one of the running world’s most unique groups. The 50 States Marathon Club, as its name suggests, caters to determined runners who have completed, or are looking to complete, a marathon in every state.

“This country is so varied — the different terrain, the different types of beauty,” Jost, a stay-at-home mom from West Chicago, Illinois, said. “I get to see it all in such a unique way.”

For Jost, 47, finishing “The States,” as the challenge is known, has meant cartwheeling over the finish line at Yakima River Canyon, Washington; running after receiving an air quality alert because of wildfires on the morning of her race in Ashton, Idaho; and gingerly completing a race in Fargo, North Dakota, having tripped on an uneven pavement and scraped her knee during the race. There was the freezing-cold, driving rain of the Kentucky Derby Marathon, which, despite its views of Churchill Downs, sent Jost straight back to her hotel room to warm up once the race was over. And then there was Buffalo, New York — where Jost had to tie a cold rag around her head for ten miles to combat the extreme humidity that day — followed by a refreshing visit to Niagara Falls.

“We have over 4,100 members,” Paula Boone, membership secretary for the club, said, “and over 4,100 reasons for why they do it.”

Boone, fifty, along with her husband, Steve, 67, make up the seven-member board of directors for the club, which traces its roots back to 1983. That year, Wally Herman, from Ontario, Canada, became the first person to complete a marathon in all fifty states. Over the next decade or so, a small, informal group of runners would work their way towards the same milestone. It wasn’t until 2001, though, that a formal club was incorporated — aiming to create a community that would encourage individuals to work towards The States, rather than simply celebrate those who had achieved the accumulative goal.

“We are all bound by a common love of running, a common desire to see the vast areas of our country, and the common affection of meeting and sharing our experiences with other runners,” said Steve Boone, quoting a statement from one of the club’s founders, Tom Adair. Boone plans to run his 666th marathon at this year’s Route 66 Marathon, in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Runners are eligible to pay ten dollars to join the club once they have finished a marathon in a minimum of ten different states; members then arrange various meetings at races throughout the year, including gatherings that recognize those who have recently completed The States. The club currently has 4,116 members, who, between them, have completed more than a quarter-of-a-million marathons. Of those individuals, 1,203 have finished The States  — the oldest being 81 at the time of completion, the youngest just sixteen.

“You’ve gotta do something to stay healthy,” Don McNelly, a 95-year-old who completed more than half of his 600-plus marathons after the age of seventy, said humbly. McNally, who lives in Pittsford, New York, says he completed The States somewhere between marathon number four hundred and five hundred.

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Left: Jost finishing the Fox Cities Marathon in Wisconsin. Center: Jost’s family cheering her on during a race in New York. Right: Jost posing with her finisher’s medal after a race in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

“More people have climbed Everest,” Paula Boone, who has run 323 marathons, explained, using the world’s highest peak as an example. But very few even consider The States.
Initially for Jost, her Everest was to complete just one marathon, not fifty. That urge came in 2000 — before the club even existed — when a coworker told her that it’s possible to walk an entire marathon, rather than having to run the 26.2 miles. After researching Jeff Galloway’s “Run Walk Run” method — a technique in which an individual runs for a certain amount of time and then walks for a certain amount of time, something Jost has used for every race — she decided to attempt her first, the Fox Cities Marathon, in Appleton, Wisconsin, in October 2000. That race was soon followed by the Chicago Marathon three weeks later.

Jost was traveling back from Grandma’s Marathon, in Duluth, Minnesota, in June 2001, when a friend, running partner and 50 States Marathon Club member, Gloria Aguilera, mentioned The States to her. “I was, like, Oh, that’s just nuts! Who would do that?” Jost said. “Then I kind of sat back and thought, ‘Well, here I am doing my third race in my third state….’ The wheels started to turn.”

At the time, Jost was a single accountant in her early thirties, and, by her own description, rather free-spirited. She decided to use the challenge as a way to travel the country. In four years, she had completed a marathon in forty different states (many with Aguilera), meeting a number of 50-staters along the way.

In 2005, Jost married her husband, Rob, and became pregnant with the couple’s first child, Sean, three months later. She decided running would need to go into hiatus while building a family took priority. For a decade, Jost did not run a race of any length. “I was running after kids; that was my marathon,” she joked.

During that time, the 50 States Marathon Club saw, on average, 85 members complete The States each year. The club also acknowledges members who have added their own distinct challenges — for example, running a marathon in more than one hundred countries; ticking off more than one thousand races; winning a marathon in all fifty states; completed The States in a wheelchair; and climbing the highest peak in fifty states and running a marathon in each.

There is also a 50 States-esque club for individuals looking to complete a half marathon in every state; another for runners who have completed a marathon on every continent; and one for those who have run one hundred marathons across North America (not necessarily in all states and provinces).

“It’s amazing what so many people have achieved,” said Angela Tortorice of Dallas, Texas, who has completed The States four times. This year, Tortorice, 49, will run her six hundredth marathon. “My goal after that is to just enjoy the friendships I’ve made and take it easy,” she said.

After her fourth child was born in 2012, Jost looked into the possibility of taking up the challenge once more. In early 2015, she began running again and researched marathons taking place over the summer months, when her children would be off school. She tries to incorporate her family whenever possible. That meant Rob and the kids driving their car ahead of Jost at a tiny race of less than one hundred runners in Viborg, South Dakota (number 41), and the children getting out to write “GO MUM GO” in the dirt as Jost jogged past the nearby cornfields. The race in Ashton, Idaho, incorporated a trip to Yellowstone to celebrate the couple’s ten-year anniversary; ticking off Pennsylvania included a trip to Hershey’s Chocolate World for the children.

She chose the Monumental Marathon as number fifty so that friends and family could celebrate her achievement of running that has taken her from the Windy City to the Crossroads of America, 48 states and motherhood thrown in between.

“I have been a bit emotional and teary-eyed these past few days,” said Jost, “as I look at old pictures of past races and think back of all the different things I have seen and done through this journey and the various people that played a role in making it all happen or who came and cheered me on at various races.”

The States, said Steve Boone, is “ just one of those crazy, stupid things you do — an adventure… For me, it’s always about the next one.”

Jack Williams

Jack Williams is a British, New York-based sports reporter. He writes predominantly for the Guardian, The New York Times, and Eight by Eight magazine, a quarterly soccer publication.