Running like crazy

32-year-old Australian Tristan Miller is traveling the world in an attempt to complete 52 marathons in 52 weeks.

By
January 25, 2010 13:53

Running a marathon requires dedication, long hours of training and an extreme cerebral focus bordering on obsession. Leg cramps, mental walls, dehydration; finishing a 42-kilometer run is no easy task and embarking on such an endeavor should be embraced with much foresight and consideration.

So the notion of running 52 marathons in 52 weeks can only signify one thing - a short circuit in the chemical synapses that relay common sense to the brain.

Yet, 32-year-old Australian Tristan Miller sounds quite sane when discussing his Mount Everest-style goal last week, a day after arriving here for the Tiberias Marathon - the second leg of his year-long quest which began on New Year's Eve in Zurich.

"For me, it was the idea of doing something that you never thought was possible. When I started running marathons five years ago and realized that I could actually do it, I started to think about other things that maybe I could do as well," said the genial Melbourne native from the Jaffa Youth Hostel, where he was staying before heading north later in the day to scope the marathon route around Tiberias.

A combination of a personal challenge, a desire for adventure, a wanderlust to see the world and an opportunity to raise money for the international charity UNICEF, Miller's planned journey will encompass 44 countries, some 60 flights, more than 2,000 kilometers of road and paths and who knows how many pairs of running shoes.

However, the necessary mental and spiritual journey to get to the point of embarking on the superhuman endeavor has taken Miller on an equally lengthy route - a process accelerated by a series of cataclysmic events in his life that have, in essence, enabled him to liberate himself from the shackles of society.

"I started running marathons about five years ago. I had just gotten divorced and I was doing all kinds of things that weren't good for me. For a couple months I was drinking a lot, and that wasn't really a healthy choice to get back on track with. When you have your life turned upside down, you don't want it to turn into a bad story," he said.

"One day, a friend asked me to go running with him, and I started feeling a little better. He encouraged me train for a marathon, and since then I've run a half dozen. But ever since that first one, it sort of challenged me to take a crack at more difficult things."

And Miller didn't just mean running with a heavy backpack on. He meant participating in events like an 87-kilometer "torture test marathon" called Comrades in Durban, South Africa, last April, where the notion of the "52 in 52" first came to him.

"I already had been toying in my head the idea of traveling the world running marathons, and the idea crystallized in South Africa," he said. The tipping point, though, was losing his job at Google Australia, where he had worked as an advertising account manager.

"Google's an amazing company to work for, but even there, it just goes to show that no matter how great a company is, the global financial situation is stronger. They shut my entire department down," he said. "Losing my job made me realize that no matter how well your life is going, you really have no control over the rest of the world.

"When I came back to Melbourne after the South Africa adventure, my big test was saying no to job offers. It's a big decision to turn down people who are willing to give you money. It made me understand that 'wow, this time I'm going to do something completely different.'"

MILLER'S FIRST task at hand was to figure out how to finance the project, which he estimated would cost $150,000. While he had considered recruiting sponsors, he decided to keep things on a personal level.

"It would have been great to have sponsors, but with the realities of the economic crisis, I realized that if I wanted to do this on a schedule that was right for me, I would have to make a decision and take this on myself." So, instead, he sold most of his earthly possessions, including his Melbourne apartment.

"I was ready to sell my car as well, but in the end, my sister is holding onto it for me, and will sell it when I need the money later in the year. It's all just stuff anyway, and I've had it for a while," he said. "The important thing for me was making sure I wasn't worrying about the ramifications for the rest of my life. I'm a smart guy, I'll be able to get a place to live and another job, and I was fortunate that I didn't have a wife and children to support.

"I wanted to prove a point to myself that I can make a decision and take control of my own life. It's about throwing caution to the wind and not worrying about the future."

Miller found a willing accomplice to accompany him on the journey in his best friend and fellow Aussie Darren Foss, who's acting as an aide de camp and support crew of one.

As if running 52 marathons in 52 weeks in locations like the Great Wall of China, the jungles of Rwanda and the mountains of Siberia wasn't titillating enough, Miller and Foss are planning to take part in a number of other events that travelling the world makes available - like the running of the bulls in Spain.

"This is going to make the year more interesting for Darren. It couldn't be all about me. It's a year out of our lives, but hopefully the best year," said Miller. "We're putting out feelers for World Cup tickets later in the year, and we already have tickets for the Roskilde rock festival in Denmark. So we'll be doing some really cool things around the world in addition to the marathons.

"I thought that traveling around the world by myself might be a little too much and going with a friend would be more of an adventure, seeing the world together. And he'd be there to pick me up - both physically and emotionally."

As well as providing companionship and taking photos and videos for the runner's Web site, Foss will act as Miller's stand-in if the long-distance runner is unable to fulfill his marathon duties due to injury. Miller is attempting to run the marathons in the 2:50-3:40 range, which is about a half hour off his best time. While that's far off the pace of the winning time in Tiberias of Simon Kariuki Njoroge, the Kenyan runner who clocked in at two hours and 11 minutes, it's certainly a respectable pace. But even at a moderate speed without taxing his system too much, the likelihood of Miller becoming incapacitated is quite high, even though he's maximized his efforts to enter the year in top shape.

"In order to save my legs a bit, I did some training in triathlons. Instead of doing all this long-distance running and already starting the process of my body deteriorating, I started swimming and cycling. That was a good experience," said Miller, who admitted than none of the health professionals he consulted recommended taking on the 52/52 project.

"They suggested doing shorter distances, half marathons, or maybe six months instead of 12. I appreciated their input, but none of them had had any experience with something of this magnitude. None of them said you can't do it. They said it's impossible to guarantee that you'll come out the other end in good shape or without permanent damage," he said.

According to Dr. Naama Constantini, the head of sports medicine at Hadassah Optimal and of Hadassah orthopedics, the wear and tear on Miller's legs and on his general health may force him to abandon his quest at some point during the year.

"It's not one of the smartest things a person can do. It's always best to take at least two weeks in between running marathons; recovery is important for the body," she said. "He may suffer from shin splints or stress fractures and those would force him to stop running immediately, so there's not much risk of permanent damage. At the same time, overdoing it can also compromise the immune system, cause upper respiratory problems or cause an iron deficiency."

Constantini added that Miller was being wise in not attempting to break any speed records or compete for first place in the marathons.

"It's good that he's not trying to go for his best time - he wouldn't be able to keep up the pace over a long period of time. I suppose it's doable if he keeps to a moderate speed," she said.

Miller remains undaunted over the health risks: "I know I'll come back hurting - that's the spirit of adventure, that's the exciting part of the unknown."

One component in the program to keep Miller healthy hasn't gone according to plan so far - eating on the road. Miller said his diet generally consists of simple food like brown rice, vegetables, potatoes and some red meat, but he underestimated the difficulties he would encounter once he left Australia.

"I had hoped to go to supermarkets, buy the food and cook in my room, but the places I've been staying so far don't have kitchens. So I've needed to find restaurants and order simple foods," he said. "When I get to places like Dubai and Mumbai, I'll be staying with friends, so it will be easier."

MILLER HAS completed his first two marathons - in Zurich at 3:42 and Tiberias at 3:52 - but both served as examples of two different extremes he'll be facing as he heads to other countries. The Zurich marathon took place in two degrees of frost, with the streets full of New Year's revelers.

"I had a really strange feeling at the start in Zurich - the race started at midnight I was trying my best to get myself together, but we were late and got to the starting point only three minutes before it began. There was the countdown, and I was off and running in the middle of it all. I was suddenly doing it, after thinking about it and planning for months," he said. "There were fireworks going off everywhere over the skyline , and people dancing, it seemed like the party was going on all night."

In Tiberias, the unseasonably warm temperature hit 25º, and Miller - already developing a cough from the cold European weather - struggled in the heat. Speaking on his way from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem after spending a couple of days recuperating, Miller described the Tiberias experience as a shock to his system.

"It was really hot, and people were collapsing near the end. Someone had to be hospitalized for two days," he said. "For the last few kilometers I dropped down a bit and walked for a couple hundred meters, then ran a kilometer, then repeated it. At 30 km., I felt great, but at 36, not so good. That's the nature of the beast, you never know."

For Miller, the payoff in Tiberias - and in all the other countries he's going to visit - is less about the running and more about the experience, and the people he encounters.

"I was running for a while next to a guy called Avraham, and he was giving me the history of the area and what happened with the Golan Heights and Syria - what it was like in the area in the past and how it changed. It was really interesting. That's why I'm here, to hear stories, and learn from everyone whatever they have to offer."

With an upcoming schedule that includes marathons in the Canary Islands, Morocco, Italy and Egypt, he's likely to get his fill of stories and adventures, not to mention a few foot blisters. With the year mapped out, the only variable now is the final marathon, one that Miller is trying to organize for the last day of the year in Melbourne.

"I can't confirm yet that it's going to happen, but we're getting lot of good feedback. I figure that we just need 100 runners and some sponsors, and so far, 30 people have already signed up," he said, adding that if it doesn't pan out, his final marathon will be the week before the finale in Taipei.

"The plan is for the Melbourne marathon to finish at midnight. I plan to get a good hug and kiss from my mother, drink some champagne and go to sleep for a week."

Lest one thinks that a year of marathon running will satiate Miller's appetite, he's already looking ahead at even more extreme challenges for "I've entered another race - called the Marathon Des Sables. It's across the Sahara Desert - running 240 kilometers over six days in March 2011."

While that may be putting his feet too far in front of him, Miller's bald enthusiasm and confidence can go a long way toward making his dream come true, as long as his health holds out. And if it doesn't, he can always say that he tried.

"It might not be the smartest thing I've ever done, but it could be the best thing. If there's one adventure that I'm going to look back on in my life, it's going to be the one I'm having this year."

Readers wishing to sponsor Miller on his trek and contribute funds to UNICEF can go to http://Runlikecrazy.com.


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