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John Wallace is no ordinary runner.
Over the course of his career, Wallace completed 378 marathons in 127 countries. He holds eight world records, including being the first to run thirty-one marathons in thirty-one different countries in a single year.
Join Wallace as he recounts the path he took, or rather ran, to become one of the most successful international marathoners in this engaging, humorous, and motivational memoir.
Plenty of obstacles appeared along the way, including the need to locate, register, and make accommodations in foreign countries without the benefit of the Internet. And when he decided to run a marathon in every country in Europe, Wallace had to find people willing to help him organize races in countries without established marathons.
But Wallace persevered and, in 2009, crushed another world record when he crossed the finish line in Tahiti—breaking the record of a marathon in ninety-nine different countries. He continued to set goals and break records, completing a marathon in nearly every capital in the world.
Whether you run, travel, or prefer the comfort of your living room couch, you’ll love this celebration of the world’s vastness—and the perseverance of the human spirit
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Prologue: On Silver States, Sharks, and Stingrays
Marathon #1—Country #1, Silver State Marathon, Reno, Nevada
It’s Sunday, September 19, 1982. Reno, Nevada. Or more precisely, if you care about these things, the Bower Mansion on Washoe Lake, twenty miles south of Reno on Highway 395, just beside a rock with graffiti on it. Dozens of runners are approaching the start line of the Silver State Marathon. There’s a blonde-haired, thirty-eight-year-old male runner on the right side of the start line. He’s wearing a Silver State Strider singlet. Race number 324 is pinned to the front. He’s a hometown boy.
He looks fit and feels good, but he’s nervous. He doesn’t know anyone at the start line. He doesn’t know much about running a marathon. It’s his first time. He started running a few years ago to lose the weight he gained when he quit smoking. He’s run a few short races in Reno—5K and 10K events—but got discouraged with those short distances when his oldest son—Chris, eleven years old with no training—whomped his butt in a recent “fathers and sons” five-mile race. John, for that is his name, has decided to run longer distances, as he always feels his best and most comfortable when he runs eight- to ten-mile runs on the weekends. He has always felt that something relaxing and wonderful kicks in after four or five miles out on the road.
But why run a marathon? Destiny? A midlife crisis; trying to prove that thirty-eight is not the end of his life (or, giggle, manhood)?
When he announced to his family and friends just a few months earlier that he would run a marathon, he had absolutely no idea how to train for one. But now he’s ready. No, not really, but as ready as he’ll ever be for his first marathon. Who ever really feels ready for their first marathon?
He’s standing at the start line, unaware that this will change his life. He had read somewhere that a 3:30 marathon (eight-minute-mile pace) is recognized as a challenging and important target for most marathoners, so that has become his goal.
It’s 6:00 a.m. The race starts. Immediately the adrenaline starts flowing. So too does the inexperience. He goes out at a 7:30 minute per mile pace—to give himself lots of margin, he thinks—he’s expecting to slow down a bit in the last six miles. But he can’t help himself. He follows the lead group, running the first mile at a sub-seven-minute-per-mile pace.
He soon realizes he can’t keep up with these top runners and backs off.
He reaches the halfway mark—13.1 miles—in one hour and thirty-eight minutes, doing great, feeling great. He’s on schedule. But he senses that he can’t sustain the pace and so drops off to an eight-minute-per-mile pace. At mile 18 his legs are rubbery and very heavy. It’s a struggle now. It’s hurting to run an eight-minute-per-mile pace. By mile 20, his legs have turned to cement. He can’t believe how much it hurts just to keep his legs moving at what he thinks is an unbelievably slow nine-minute-per-mile pace. But he tells himself he is tough and can handle this for another six miles.
At mile 22, he runs into an eight-foot-high, eight-foot-wide brick wall stretched across the marathon course. This is his first experience with “the wall.”
It is not pleasant. His body has been hit with a giant sledgehammer. But he must finish. His family is waiting for him at the finish line. So too, he thinks, is his manhood. He tries to run again. Nope. His body shuts down. Refuses to move. He tries to walk and run but the pain is excruciating, the fatigue unbearable. He starts cursing and screaming at himself. He looks up to the sky and prays, “Please, please God, just help me finish this race—alive—and I promise I’ll never do anything so stupid ever again.” He’s desperate.
But he begins to walk, his body now allowing this simple motion without unbearable pain. He tries to run again, but he hasn’t accumulated enough prayers to withstand the pain. By mile 24, his body is bored with relentless pain and so cuts him some slack. He starts to walk and run, pain and curses still with each step, but he’s moving faster and prayers are no longer needed. At mile 25 he realizes that if he can run the last mile lightly, he can still finish under that ridiculous time of 3:30. Why is that so important? He has no idea right now. More pressing matters are on his agenda.
Finally, he finally crosses the finish line. It’s a time of 3:28.
To the loud and exuberant cheers of his family he replies, in a hushed and beaten voice, “I will never, ever run another marathon as long as I live!”
Twenty-six and a half years later, on a small island in the Pacific Ocean 4,386 miles away, he runs his 316th marathon, having averaged about a marathon run every month over those three decades of running. Three decades of marathon running.
He’s not just possibly the biggest liar on the planet, but he has also set an astonishing world record—a marathon run in each of a hundred countries.
What the hell happened?
Why does someone who hurt, cried, screamed, wheezed, and prayed his way around his first marathon end up running a marathon in one hundred different countries?
And how does he do it?
Fast forward to February 2009. It’s the Moorea Marathon in Moorea, French Polynesia. Country #100 for John “Maddog” Wallace.
I chose the French Polynesia Islands as the hundredth country because it’s a place I’ve always wanted to visit, and I’ll have Nicole, my wife—who is my sports manager and personal translator—along for the trip. And, at the last moment, a good friend from Sarasota, Florida, Frank “MadMonk” Ouseley, decides to join us. The day we arrive is Nicole’s birthday, so we celebrate at a fancy French restaurant, and I give her a lovely black Tahitian pearl as a present. And also as another way of saying thank you (again) for all the years of putting up with my obsession.
The race organization has granted my request to wear bib #100 for the race. I also had a special running singlet made for the occasion that read “Pays #100” on the front and “John’s 100th Country” on the back, for which I get lots of comments before and during the race.
I am excited and thrilled to be at the start line at 4:30 a.m. The temperature is 80°F with humidity to match. We start in the darkness and relative cool, but as the sun rises, the heat and humidity soar. Maddog, for that is my race name, wilts like a prize flower. I finally cross the finish line in a time of four hours and fourteen minutes (4:14) to lots of cheers, including my own. A photographer from the German issue of Runner’s World takes a photo of me at the finish line.
The final two miles of the race are the hottest and longest two miles I’ve ever run. All I could think about was getting to the finish line alive! Even after twenty-six and half years of running marathons being alive at the finish line still feels good.
When the race announcer calls my name and tells the crowd of my accomplishment—the first person in the world to complete a marathon in a hundred countries—it really starts to sink in. It sinks in even more when two pretty Polynesian women drape a finisher’s medal and lei around my neck. But it only really, really sinks in when my family, friends, and I go out celebrating that night. At the finish line I’ve been too focused on dealing with my heat exhaustion and dehydration to be thinking about whether I’d done something special or not.
On our final day on Bora Bora, we take a boat tour around the island and snorkel in the lagoons with stingrays and sharks. It’s a bit intimidating at first when you put yourself in the water with the stingrays and sharks, even though guides assure you everything is okay because they’re used to people. The sharks are small reef sharks, and I think they’re more scared of me than I am of them, and I’m not even wearing my running gear. They’re only looking for food and most likely don’t like the look of me. I know I wouldn’t.
Stingrays are different. They brush up along your body and when they eat the food from your hand they suck it up like a powerful vacuum cleaner. If your mind wanders and you don’t pay attention, you may end up with a big hickey on your neck that will need explaining when you next see your wife. It’s the stingray’s tail you want to avoid, though—you don’t want to be stung by those. Death is not healthy. And it certainly compromises your ability to run marathons.
And so there I am, in the water of the Pacific Ocean, feeding these stingrays. For no apparent reason, my mind whizzes back to 1982 and my days of smoking. That’s before I started to run. What if I never ran? What if my future took a different turn? What if I were dead now? Hard to write this book for sure, but I never would have visited over one hundred countries. I’d never have had all the adventures. I never would have met thousands of people and made friends with people around the world. I certainly wouldn’t be swimming with sharks and stingrays right now. You wouldn’t be reading this book.
And then, just as this velvety, mushroomy-feeling stingray is about to glide into me, it hits me. I’ve not got this world record because I love running. It’s because of all the experiences—the people, the places, the food, the beers, and the wildlife brushing up against me. I’ve led an extremely privileged life. The more I’ve done, the more I want to do. Running marathons has given me a healthy—all right, obsessive—excuse to travel.
And now I’m underwater in the middle of the Pacific Ocean face-to-face with a big lively mushroom who couldn’t care less about my epiphany. As much as running a marathon is a metaphor for life, running marathons in more than one hundred countries is a metaphor for my life.
My goal of running marathons in one hundred countries didn’t depend on me beating my personal best times; instead, it gave me my best times. Each country gave me amazing, incredible experiences and memories.
Living life. Cool. Ordinary guy lives life full-on. A mad dog. I see it clearly now. I finally get it.
Ouch. And a hickey.