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52 Marathons in 52 Weeks: Justin Malin’s Story

by Justin Malin

I love running for its simplicity. The ability to just get your trainers on and just go for a run. I run to keep fit, to feel that buzz afterwards and to help with my mental wellbeing. Running allows me time to reflect on life, work things through and appreciate what’s around me.

I live in Twyford, a village in England about 10 miles from Reading [See Great Runs, Reading]. I’ve always been a keen runner, cyclist, triathlete. I had dipped my toe into Ultra running but nothing too serious. I am 50 years old, have three amazing daughters Eva, Lauren and Fleur. Like many people around this area, I spend most of my day in front of a PC.

My challenge began last October 2021 when we all started to emerge from the last lockdown. I began running to my daughter Fleur’s football matches on a Saturday morning, which was anything up to a marathon in length.

I didn’t enjoy my first marathon, but by the next weekend I had forgotten the pain and went for another marathon distance run and that’s how it began. Each week I mapped out a route to where my daughter was playing football, which was either local, mainly in the hills and along the river between Hurley and Sonning, or to an away match taking in canals, sandy ex-military parkland and a lot of footpaths. I just had to make the route at least 26.2 miles!

Starting in October in England felt like going straight in at the deep end. It was already getting colder, darker and wetter — especially when most of my runs start around 5:30am. Running the first hour in the dark was certainly an experience where I had a few close encounters with the local deer, foxes and badgers. Not sure who was more surprised…

My challenge became a bit of a talking point when we went out with friends, and over the next few months I began to believe that this challenge might be possible. It wasn’t until just before my 50th birthday in March 2022 that I felt confident enough to go for a charity place at the London Marathon, scheduled fo October 2nd, which just happened to be 52 weeks after my first marathon. It was a difficult decision around the choice of charity. Heart, Cancer, Alzheimer’s charities would have been the obvious choice and close to my heart but I chose Make A Wish UK.

Why Make A Wish UK? 

I was truly inspired to fundraise for Make-A-Wish UK by my daughter Eva, who works for the charity. She would tell me all these stories about the wishes they were granting for critically ill children. I already knew how lucky I was to have three healthy daughters, but the work of Make-A-Wish UK really brings that to life – you realise not every family is that lucky. So, I wanted to help bring a little bit of happiness to their lives. It’s not just about the wish but the fantastic memory that the child can also look back on when they are going through difficult times.

I set myself a target of £5,252 (but to raise as much as possible).

The 52 Marathons

I haven’t travelled around the world competing in different marathons. I kept it simple, low key and nearly always started my runs from home, with my hydration vest, gels, cereal bars. Most importantly my companion (music/podcasts/radio) at the ready.

Each Marathon is different. I had many great moments along the way either singing out load to my music or in deep thought running through some of the greatest, most tranquil views in the UK

Here are some of my most memorable marathons. (Good and bad!)

Good

December 2021, 6am start 3:35 time. I started the run in the dark with an LED head torch which is great but creates a feeling that you have blinkers on/ running through a tunnel and you are very mindful of your footing. Running up into the woods and hills called Crazies Hill I was startled by a couple of deer on the path. The path takes you down to the river Thames, near Hurley. It was a lovely sunrise where the mist was rising, and I passed an area where open water swimmers were enjoying a fresh start. Running along the river to Henley is very calming, with a manor house and wild white deer to keep you company, overlooking the river and old cricket pitch. It was a route I’ve done many times, through Shiplake and Sonning to finish. The only other people were the rowers and their coaches on their bikes.

One of my favourite routes was around Windsor Great Park, where I had to complete two circuits and ran one of my marathon during the Platinum Jubilee celebrations. It’s a lovely, closed road area to run but also quite challenging with the different surfaces and continually undulating parts that do test your legs more than you through they would.

Good and Bad

April 2022, 9.30am 3:19 time. The Brighton Marathon was a tale of two halves. [See Great Runs, Brighton!] The night before the race I slept in a pop up tent, which in hindsight was a particularly bad idea. It was freezing and although described as residing in the middle of the countryside, it was right next to a main road. I had very little sleep and woke up stiff. I started the race well considering, running along the undulating coastline well on course to be under 3.10 but at around 15 miles I got really bad cramp (first time I had run without my trusty vest/gels/drinks etc). My friend had also mentioned the infamous industrial estate around 18 miles where there is nothing to see and spectators are few and far between. This almost finished me, but I had my name on my running vest!! I felt famous when I came out in to the final 6 miles. I felt like everyone was cheering for me and saw the pain I was in. It was a fantastic to experience the crowds and cross that line, running just on adrenalin. I attempted to sprint at the end but that resulted in what I can describe as double cramp if that is possible.

On my 50th Birthday in March, I of course ran a marathon, which was around Windsor Great Park [See Great Runs, Windsor]. Sunny day, but legs were tired, maybe because I was 1 year older! Just a couple of weeks earlier I had run my fastest marathon of my challenge: 3:09.

Tough

October 2021, 6am start 3:35 time. Wow this was a tough one. Running around Swinley Forest, in Bracknell. Energy sapping sandy, trail surfaced area designed mainly for MTB routes (and runs alongside military areas to make you feel slightly on edge). I started my run from a dark carpark, no-one to be seen. It was freezing, raining heavily. The route was hilly and undulated just when you don’t need it to. It was by far the toughest marathon mentally and perhaps physically due to the cold (well may there were a few others). For the last 3 miles I just ran up and down footpaths in a nearby housing estate, head down, just getting it done.

January was a pretty cold and I remember doing a few sub-zero runs. I bought a great pair of mittens but reduced my running speed to take into the account the slippery ground and the fact the cold air made it ea touch more difficult to breathe.

Bad

I did have a particularly bad period of time about 6 to 8 months into the challenge when I was feeling very tired and dizzy and my blood pressure tended to be very low when I finished about 5 of my runs. During one run in May, when I ran to see my daughter play football in a local tournament,  I ended me getting lost, running 30 miles — which would have been fine if I hadn’t felt so bad. I took an hour to recover my breathing when I was meant to be watching my daughter play football. A reminder that when you dig deep, very deep, you need to know your limits. I think running along the narrow paths in firmer trail shoes caused my hips to seize up, and it was hotter that planned and I was dehydrated due to the extra mileage.

Special

Marathon #50 – With Great Runs in Boston!

Charles River, Boston. With Mark Lowenstein of Great Runs

A special mention of course has to go to my 50th marathon which was in Boston, USA. I had been asked to go to Boston on business for 4 days at the end of August, and decided it was also a great chance to see if I could do the Boston Marathon route. I quickly discovered that route really needed the roads closed to be safe (obviously that was not going to happen) and I would have spent most of my run, running to Boston, rather than seeing the stunning landmarks within the city itself.

I wrote to a few running groups/people in Boston a few weeks before the trip, and Mark Lowenstein from GreatRuns came back. We organised a Teams meeting and he agreed to create a 26.2 mile route through Boston and said he would accompany on his bike, even though I said I would start at 5:45am, as I had to then start work that day. I really didn’t believe my luck and Mark’s generosity. I was a touch anxious as I had only travelled to the US a couple of times and knew I would be tired and my body clock would be out of sync. Thankfully on Thursday morning 5.45am I went outside my hotel and there was Mark, all ready to cycle with me.  The weather was perfect but I knew it would get hotter towards the end of the run, so Mark kindly carried additional water on his bike.

Over the next 26.2 miles Mark took me around a lovely route. We spend most of the first 18 miles chatting and Mark giving a guided tour of the key highlights along the route (JFK Museum, Boston Tea Party building, along the Charles river and Universities). After about 18 miles along the Charles river, it was getting a bit hotter and I had to focus on staying strong and I did become slightly less chatty. Mark kindly suggested we could to go along the final mile of the famous Boston route Marathon (Right on Hereford, Left on Boylston), which I immediately said yes to. It was a tough run due to my lack of sleep, time difference, heat at the end and perhaps the stops and starts at some road junctions (always a challenge with running in a city). At the end I was glad that I had still finished relatively strong in around 3hrs 26 mins. The cherry on the cake was that Mark presented me with his book (Great Runs  in Boston) where he then wrote a note about the run.

Running a 50th marathon in Boston and accompanied by Mark was something I will never forget and a true highlight of my year-long challenge.

Perspectives and Lessons Learned:

I’ve had a few niggles over the year, mainly painful calves, glutes. I ran a marathon a couple of days after coming out Covid isolation, where my calves inflamed (felt ok during run). I’ve had quite a few blisters on most toes, lost a few toenails, My big toe came off during my fastest run 3hr 9min while running is pair of New Balance Rebel 2. Amazing Marshmallow soft soles that were a touch too small. I now cut the toenails that are left very short! I fell over in Windsor Great Park and had a really deep gash in my wrist which I bandaged using a sweatband and it’s still a bit lumpy, months later. Throughout the challenge I have experienced varying degrees of soreness under my heels which roll off using a tennis ball, stretching back the toes with a band. This has helped a lot.

Running so many marathons has taught me a lot. Each marathon is different and nearly always results in the last 10km being a lot less enjoyable than the first 30km! I have run all of my marathons on my own apart from Brighton, Boston and of course, the London marathon to come. I had only run a handful of marathons before this challenge and now fully understand the enormity that a marathon can bring. Truth be told, my favourite distance is 10k, where I can run during a lunchtime, and it gives me the buzz afterwards. For me, marathons, which average about 3hrs 20mins just make me feel tired. I would go as far as to say that my challenge has been as difficult emotionally as it has been physically.

I have learnt a lot about what to wear, eat before and during etc when I do my marathons. My routine the night before is just eat normally, nothing too spicey and don’t overeat or over carb. Make sure I drink normally adding electrolytes into my water.

My pre-run routine begins 30 mins before I run. I first eat a banana and drink a glass of water with 750mg of electrolytes. I then apply Huub Luub to stop chaffing, talc in my socks, I wear a Salomon Slab Sense 8L vest, with 2 x 500ml soft bottles, each filled with 750mg of PH electrolytes. I take 4 SIS gels, and a cereal bar. I always take an emergency foil blanket. Depending on the temperature I will wear arm warmers which I can take off easily, headband if I am wearing a headtorch or a hat. I always wear a cap when it’s sunny and sun protection cream. I vary my socks from compression to normal running socks. My favourite shorts are Salomon Sense with a wide band around the waist for gels if I’m not wearing a vest and liner fitted around the inner part of the leg. I am not a fan of compression shorts for marathon distance as they tend to be too tight around the waist. Need to remember a slight irritation in your clothing can become more significant over 26 miles! I don’t do static stretches before I run. I gently loosen my hips and activate my calves/hamstrings with 3 sec stretches. Post run I walk for a while and stretch all muscles a few times over the day.

I love trainers! Who doesn’t. I thought this challenge would give me the change to try out lots of shoes. In reality I have only worn a few. Hoka, Mofate Evo for my trails. (I do have Nike Pegasus 38 GTX which are good but the sole is not grippy in muddy conditions). When I am running on the road, I have worn a combination of New Balance Rebel 2 and TC, but my favourite by far are Saucony Endorphin Speed 2. An extraordinary versatile shoe. Sorry Nike, maybe another time.

My pace was pretty consistent over the 52 Marathons averaging 3:25, with my fastest being 3:09min and slowest was 3:45. When you are doing so many marathons with limited time to recover. you need to listen to your body sometimes need to slow down to avoid injury.

I usually run my marathons at the weekend and try to do a few short runs (5k to 10k runs) in the week. I don’t over stretch but make sure that I use a foam roller, constantly rolling a tennis ball under my feet under the desk.

At the time of writing this I have completed 51 Marathons. My 51st was a sombre occasion, the day after the death of Queen Elizabeth II, where I started in the dark with a headtorch for about 45 mins and listened to BBC radio throughout the run. I remembered running my 36th Marathon back in June to celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.

Sunrise, South Boston, August 31, 2022

Update on #52

I ran my 51st Marathon as a tribute to the late Queen Elizabeth II. It was quite something, listening to BBC radio reflecting on her wonderful reign.

The plan was then to run my 52nd around a local route,  finishing with a lap of honour around the local field with my daughter’s football team on September 24th. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case. I was involved in a serious road accident two days prior, which resulted in a fractured sternum. As you’d expect I was devastated. My 52nd marathon will happen, but it might have to wait a bit. An update will be posted so keep an eye out.

My first appearance at London Marathon was also due October 2nd but has now been postponed to April 23rd 2023, where I intend to do something very special indeed! 

A huge thank you to my wife, Lucy, who has been amazing, supporting me through the toughest times of this challenge, to make this all possible. Thank you!

If you feel inspired by my story and would like to donate to Make A Wish charity, my fundraising page is below

www.justgiving.com/Justin-Malin

 

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