OURAY – For runners and those who aspire to run, there’s something magical about the number 26.2. John Ferguson should know. The 57-year-old retired school teacher from Austin, Texas (now a city councilor in Ouray) has run marathons in all 50 states, and all seven continents. So far, in his lifetime, he’s bagged a total of 63 marathons, and he’s still counting.
Ferguson got into the sport in 1984. He was 28 years old, 50 pounds overweight, and had just returned with his wife Vivian from a trip to Europe where they did a lot of walking.
When they got home, they remarked to each other, “Sitting here doing nothing doesn’t seem right.”
So the couple headed to the local track. “I couldn’t do one lap,” Ferguson recalled. But he gradually worked his way up, and set a goal to complete a 10-K race in Austin. He did the race, and before he knew it, he was hooked.
In 1986, Ferguson decided he wanted to run his first marathon. He registered for the famous Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, figuring it had a nice friendly sound. By now he had been running a couple years, had lost the 50 extra pounds he had been carrying, and realized he was competitive and doing well in his age group. He set a goal for himself to finish the marathon in sub-three hours.
Big mistake, he now says. “For a first race, you should not have a time limit. I ended up dying in the end. I ran 3:13, but it was very painful, very hard. Your only goal in your first marathon should be to finish.”
Still, as painful as it was, the experience inspired Ferguson. “I knew I could do better,” he said. “I really upped my training, and came back for the White Rock Marathon in Dallas,” which he finished in 2:52, good enough to qualify for Boston, the Holy Grail of marathons. That was number three.
“My times got progressively better,” Ferguson said. “I was into it big time.”
Every morning, he would get up early and run 10 miles or so before school, racking up 60 to 70 miles a week. “To me, it was a time to reflect, to fine tune the stuff in my head,” he recalled, “and if I did it really early, I knew I would get it in. Nobody messes with ya at 5:30 in the morning.”
After he’d completed 10 marathons, he realized that each had been in a different state. That’s when he decided to go for all 50 states, a goal which he completed when he ran the New York City marathon in 2002. His best marathon time happened somewhere along the way, when he was 33 or 34. He can still rattle it off by heart – 2:39:34.
“Then I decided, ‘Let’s do the continents!’” His quest took him on a fascinating journey around the globe. The Great Wall of China. The Inca Trail. The Blue Mountains of Australia. He even did the mother of all marathons in Greece, which starts in the actual town of Marathon and finishes 26.2 miles later in Athens, in the ancient Olympic stadium.
In South Africa, he ran a remarkable marathon on a game reserve. A local bushman joined the race, and became Ferguson’s pacer by chance. “He didn’t speak a word of English, but we kind of united and agreed to run together,” Ferguson recalled. At about mile 20, the two found themselves running alongside hundreds of wildebeests and zebras, making a massive, thundering racket. “It was just him and me and the wild animals,” Ferguson said. “We finished holding hands; we tied for tenth place.”
In 2008, shortly after moving to Ouray, Ferguson bagged his seventh continent, running a marathon on the St. George Peninsula in Antarctica.
He is still infected by the marathon bug. Now he’s the race director for the fairly new Mt. Sneffels Marathon, which he started three years ago as a fundraiser for the Mt. Sneffels Education Foundation. He’s also working on the continents for a second time. So far, he’s got Europe (Florence) and South America (Galapagos Islands) checked off the list. “And we booked a trip to Ethiopia in October so that will be Africa again,” he said. “I hope my body holds up. I don’t do it competitively any more, but more as an experience.”
What is it about marathons that Ferguson finds so addicting?
“At first it was just the challenge, the mystique of it,” he recalled. “I found it was a good racing distance for me. I had good endurance and enjoyed the training.”
But the more miles and marathons he accumulated, the more he realized that “ like most things, the build-up is the best part. Setting a goal and planning for it is just as much fun as actually doing it.”
While he certainly doesn’t claim to be any sort of running guru, Ferguson is happy to share some words of wisdom for first-time marathoners.
“I think for your first time, you should choose a marathon near your home,” he suggested. “It shouldn’t be real hot or extremely difficult; it should be well established and have a reputation for being well-run. There should be adequate water stations and support for novice runners.”
Again, Ferguson stressed, in your first marathon, your only goal should be to finish. Not to set some sort of time barrier in your head that you need to break.
“You should do it to experience it. Then, if you want, you can fine tune it and set a goal.”
Ferguson also suggests that you should have a couple of years of consistent running under your belt, before you even consider going for the big 26.2.
“Your body has to adapt to the rigors and impacts of running,” he explained. “People make a mistake to go from couch to marathon. You need to build up to it.”
Specifically, Ferguson recommends maintaining a 20-mile-a-week pace for a couple of years. Once you’re ready to start training for a marathon, you should be accumulating a total of at least 40 miles per week – more like 60 if your body will handle it, with 18 to 20 mile long runs on the weekends.
“But you’ve got to very slowly build up,” he stressed. “The whole marathon program could be 26 weeks long.”
As a benchmark of fitness, Ferguson suggests that you should be comfortable going for a six-mile run before you start your official training. “From that point, gradually add two miles per week, until you reach the 10 or 12 mile mark for your long run, and then stay at that level for several weeks before building up even more,” he said.
Finally, in the last two to three weeks leading up to race day, tapering is vital.
“If 50 is your top accumulated weekly mileage, and you’ve maintained it for several weeks, bring it down to 40, then 30, then 20, then the race.”
Ferguson is happy to bust one myth about marathon training. “Speed work, hill work, it’s not necessary for a first marathon,” he said. “You just need to get the endurance and the base mileage. People make the mistake of thinking they need speed work and rigorous workouts, but all that does is put extra demands on your body. Your body is going to be stressed enough, without adding those extra demands.”
It all comes down to basic physiology, he said. “A marathon is an endurance event that uses slow twitch muscles, and that’s how you ought to train.”
The real secret to training for a marathon is pretty simple. “There are really no short cuts,” Ferguson said. “You’ve got to be wiling to put in time. There is really no substitute for running.”
Ferguson is the first to admit, there are other methods of marathon training out there. The hugely popular Galloway Method, championed by Jeff Galloway, has made marathoning accessible to people who never thought they could do it, with a run/walk method where they walk one minute for every mile.
Ferguson himself has never been one for walking. “I will say, as I get older, I have been toying with experimenting with it,” he admitted. “But never in a race. I have a hard time making myself stop and walk.”
As you embark on your own 26.2-mile quest, Ferguson offers these general tips for success:
• Train with a partner, especially on your long runs, to keep those voices in your head from kicking in.
• Get good running shoes. Make sure you have a shoe that fits your foot type, and if possible, make a trip to a big-city running store with a knowledgeable staff that can help fit you with just the right shoe.
• Obviously, watching your diet and water intake is important. Dehydration increases the chance of injury.
• Rest and recovery are equally important; always take one day a week off from your training regimen. Novices should take two days off.
• On race day, start slow, and hit water stops regularly from the start.
“Remember, it’s not easy and fortitude is essential,” Ferguson said. “Nobody said it would be easy. Running a marathon is very mental, especially toward the end. You really have to stay focused and committed. Remember, you are going to have bad patches in a marathon, and if you keep going, you will get out of them.
“But you gotta put the work in; there are no short cuts,” Ferguson said.