Calgary distance runner set to run 100th marathon of
the year on Sunday. Good thing he likes ice cream
On Sunday June 6, for the 100th time this year, Martin
Parnell will rise at dawn and devour a pile of berries,
whole milk, high-fat yogurt and Mini-Wheats. Then he
will run a marathon.
It's not the daily routine of your average 54-year-old,
but then, what the mining engineer from Cochrane,
Alta., has been putting his body through since January
is hardly normal, and neither is his goal.
He plans on finishing 250 marathons in 2010.
Five days a week, when most adults are at work, Parnell
runs 42.2 kilometres. Each session lasts about 51/2
hours, not counting a couple of eight-hour marathons
he walked in minus-30 degrees with a leg injury this
winter, a water pack frozen on his back.
He consumes 5,500 calories daily. His blood, heart
and bone health are regularly tested. He's on his
10th pair of shoes.
“It's a full-time job,” Parnell said
recently, his long legs plunged into two buckets of
Marathon 100 will put him only five short of the
Guinness world record, but Parnell isn't after records.
He is raising money for Right To Play, a charity that
uses sport to improve the lives of children in developing
countries. The organization's core values match the
beliefs instilled in Parnell when he rode a bicycle
through 10 African countries, stopping to kick rag-tied
soccer balls with youth who owned little else.
“Sport transcends boundaries,” he said.
“I hadn't really realized that until I travelled
But as he nears the halfway mark, Marathon Quest
250 is becoming more than a way for Parnell to baffle
and inspire. (“Are you nuts?” one newscaster
Researchers say the father of three is jogging into
the unknown. Despite growing participation rates in
endurance races such as ultramarathons, little is
understood about the physical effects of such superhuman
feats. Health professionals and biomechanics experts
are watching Parnell closely to see how his body withstands
the pounding that comes from running 10,550 kilometres
in a year – the equivalent of running from Cochrane
to Boston, then west to Vancouver before returning
“There's not much precedent for this,”
said Reed Ferber, a researcher and director of the
Running Injury Clinic at the University of Calgary.
“But shoot, he's almost halfway there.”
Eight years ago, Parnell ran his first five-kilometre
race and it transformed his life. His adult children
had left home, and he had lost his wife to cancer
two years before. In running, he found an outlet that
fulfilled him athletically (he grew up in England
playing soccer and tennis) and spiritually (winding
through new mountain and river terrain feels magical).
As he quickly advanced from marathons to Ironmans
to ultramarathons 160 kilometres long, figuring out
how to feed and pace his body in order to survive
“appealed to the engineer in me,” he said.
Soon after he left the nickel mines of Sudbury and
settled in Cochrane with his second wife, Susan, an
English school teacher he met on the eve of 2004,
he began looking for a way to use his passion to give
Right To Play was an important cause, he decided,
and he could afford to take a year off from his consulting
job in the mining industry.
“I was going to do Marathon Quest 365,”
he said of his initial plan to run a marathon every
day. “My wife sent me to the doctor.”
For the green light, he turned to Dr. Bill Hanlon,
a family doctor in Cochrane who has climbed Mount
Everest and skied across Antarctica. But even Hanlon
says he thought Parnell's plan sounded “a little
crazy and not really achievable.”
Few have come even close. American Dean Karnazes
ran 50 marathons in 50 days across 50 U.S. states.
In 2008, a 64-year-old lawyer from San Antonio, Larry
Macon, ran 105 marathons and set the Guinness record
for running the most marathons in one calendar year.
(Parnell won't beat Macon's record because due to
cost and other restrictions, not all of his routes
are measured by officials. Most of his runs are measured
using GPS, but he has included several races, such
as the Boston Marathon in April.)
As a compromise, Hanlon suggested Parnell try 250
marathons, allowing him two days rest a week. “There's
a strength and resolve which I think was important
not to squash,” Hanlon said.
At first, Parnell alternated nine minutes of running
with one minute of walking. But in February, he developed
a repetitive stress injury in his leg and was forced
to take 11 days off.
Without a proper training regimen or technique, runners
going as few as 10 kilometres can develop injuries,
including stress fractures, plantar fasciitis, knee
injuries and shin splints, Ferber said.
Some studies have shown that ultramarathons leave
athletes susceptible to postrace illnesses, Ferber
said. But due to a lack of funding and the relatively
small pool of people to study, no major studies have
assessed the long-term health effects of training
at extreme distances, he added.
Undaunted, Parnell began to tweak his regimen in
order to keep going. He began walking and jogging
at five-minute intervals, allowing different muscle
groups some rest, but maintaining his time of about
5.5 hours. He also switched to a flatter route and
began weekly visits to a chiropractor and physiotherapist,
who donated their time.
He's still stiff all the time, Parnell says, but
the physical challenge has begun to pale in comparison
to the mental taxation. The people who joined him
for portions of his first marathons have disappeared.
To combat boredom, he photographs scenery. He often
stops for ice cream.
The high points are always on Thursdays, when he
gives a talk at a local school, then runs the marathon
in loops around the building. Kids jog alongside him
at recess. Many have emptied their piggybanks.
One hundred marathons in, regular monitoring of his
weight, blood levels and bone density shows he's in
remarkably good health. He maintains an average heart
rate of about 110 beats a minute. He has maintained
his weight despite his massive appetite.
“His heart and his lungs have responded to
this brilliantly,” said his physiotherapist,
Parnell's biggest fear is flu or a stumble could
knock him off his schedule. The injury in February
cost him 11 of the 12 off-days he allowed himself
as a buffer for unexpected problems.
Right now it's the fundraising side he needs to work
on, he says. He's raised about $32,000 so far. But
that's well off the pace of his goal of $250,000.
Parnell, ever the optimist, believes donors will
pick up the pace as he comes closer to fulfilling
“Now that I've done almost 100, that'll be
40-per-cent done,” he said. “So I'll be
40 per cent less nuts.”