From Belgium to Tel Aviv, all for the love of running

Tel Aviv Marathon: Out of 18,000 runners in the races, only Stefaan Engels ran 365 marathons in 365 days.

stefaan engels_311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
stefaan engels_311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Stefaan Engels, who is running the Tel Aviv marathon on Friday, has a bit of a running bug.
Every day from February 2010 to February 2011, the 50-year-old Belgian ran a marathon.
For 365 days. Without taking a break.
“People have no excuse to say ‘I’m too old or I’m too overweight,’ because if I can do a marathon every day, no one has an excuse to say ‘Five kilometers is too far,’” Engels told the Post by phone, just before boarding the flight to Tel Aviv near his home of Ghent, Belgium.
Though he’ll only be in Israel for the weekend, Engels said he is excited to run in the third annual Tel Aviv marathon, which is expected to draw over 18,000 runners on the different courses and 65,000 spectators.
“It will give me a chance to see a part of the world that I’ve never seen,” said Engels.
The endurance athlete is running in honor of “Linshom” (to breathe), an Israeli charity for asthma sufferers.
As a young child, Engels was diagnosed with asthma, and doctors warned him to stay inside and to avoid physical activity.
“I saw all my friends playing kickball outside, but my mother said, ‘The doctor said it’s better if you stay home,’” said Engels.
In the 40 years since Engels was diagnosed, doctors have changed their stance and now encourage asthmatic children to exercise.
Engels had been searching for a real physical challenge for the past decade.
Many of his childhood heroes were endurance triathletes and marathon runners, so he settled on trying to break the Guinness Book of World Record for most Ironman-length triathlons in one year. That’s swimming for 3.8 km, biking for 180 km and running for 42 km. Engels did 20 in a year, almost two per month. The prior record was 14.
“I said, hey, I can see it’s possible to do something great with my body and my mind, I’ve finished triathlons, now what’s next?” Engels recalled. “I can start a normal life or do one more challenge. So I said ‘Ok, I’ll do the marathons. It’s for myself, to see if it’s possible, physically and mentally, to do this in a year.’”
The mental stamina was even more important than the physical strain, said Engels, who added that almost three quarters of the effort was mental. “It was a really long year, it felt like I was doing this for five years,” he said. “Every day you wake up and say, ‘Today a marathon, tomorrow a marathon, and next week also a marathon.…’ It was like never ending. It was good, but never in my life will I do this again, not for a million dollars.”
During the year, Engels traveled to marathons in Mexico, Montreal, New York, and dozens of European cities. But he ran 260 of the marathons around his home in Ghent.
He ran eight laps on a five km track, plus an extra 2.2 km at the end.
He was joined on his local runs by anywhere between two and 200 people – running enthusiasts who didn’t know Engels but wanted to support him on his quest.
To keep his mind off the monotony of running around the same track, Engels lost himself in conversations with new running partners and music.
Engel had to eat about 6,000 calories a day during his year of marathons, three times the recommended daily diet for the average adult male.
Each day he ate at least five energy gels, five bananas and bowl after bowl of pasta, in addition to drinking six liters of water.
He tried to sleep between ten to 12 hours a night when possible. He also destroyed 25 pairs of sneakers, about one every two weeks.
“In the beginning of my project, I was really tired every day, my legs were so tired,” said Engels. “But after three or four months, my body accepted that I was running a marathon every day. It was like going to my job.
“I say to myself, ‘It’s like going to work, but it’s not more than four hours.”
To recover, Engels would take a shower and go out to meet friends at restaurants, where he would talk about everything except running.
Because of his asthma, Engels said the endurance sports are the best fit, because he can run “easy and long.”
He finished each marathon in an average of four hours, though his fastest was 3:23, during the first-ever Ghent marathon, which he initiated.
The hardest marathon was in Mexico City, where pollution and an altitude of 2,000 meters weren’t the only challenges for an asthmatic: Engels got a terrible stomach bug from the local food and was sick for days.
The best marathon, he says, was New York, because of the sheer size of the crowd. And Barcelona, because it was the last one, on February 5, 2011.
On Thursday, which also happened to be Engels’s 50th birthday, his book, “Marathon Man,” was released in Dutch.
An English version, which was written with a journalist who accompanied Engels over the year, is due out in June.
But this weekend, Engels is looking forward to sleeping in as well.
“I feel so free that I can say to myself every day, ‘You can stay home, you don’t have to run,” he said. “I like running, I’m looking forward to running [in Tel Aviv]. But one marathon a month is more than enough.”