They walked and ran on the City Park scenic trail, blending in with the morning joggers and dog-walkers, but the 43 people with racing bibs safety-pinned to their shirts weren’t just out for a stroll on Wednesday morning.
They were part of an unheralded – but amazing – marathon.
The Red Island Marathon went off with little fanfare at 6 a.m. It’s the third leg of the inaugural New England Challenge, which stages five marathons in five states over five days. It began Wednesday in Portland, Maine, continued Tuesday in Nashua, N.H., and made its way to Warwick on Wednesday. The fourth leg is slated for Thursday in Hartford, Conn., with the final event going off Friday in Springfield, Mass. To do the Rhode Island marathon, they needed to lap the park nine times.
Thirteen people are doing all five, while 65 people are doing at least one. Many are on a quest to join the 50 States Club, whose members have run marathons in all 50 states, while others are part of the Marathon Maniacs, who travel the country putting marathon streaks together.
The Warwick field included a 71-year-old man who has completed more than 1,000 marathons, an Australian man attempting to set the world record for marathons completed in one year and two wheelchair racers who are doing a marathon in every state to raise money for the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.
“It’s just amazing to hear the stories,” said Michael Rooney, the city’s deputy director of parks and recreation.
Rooney was approached in November by Chuck Savage, a Florida architect who has run more than 300 marathons. Following the lead of a few marathon series in other parts of the country, Savage wanted to create a New England event. The proximity of the states would be perfect for the growing sub-culture of runners and walkers who make marathons a lifestyle. The 50 States Marathon Club has 3,153 members and the Marathon Maniacs organization is 8,000 strong.
Several years ago, Savage started a local event in his hometown of Ocala, Fla., which featured seven races in seven days during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. A friend of his, Clint Burleson, took that idea and set out to incorporate different states, creating the Dust Bowl series, which runs in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico.
Marathoners in search of opportunities for their quests – whatever they may be – were thrilled.
“It gets very expensive because of all the travel,” Savage said. “People who want to do a lot of marathons have to spend a lot of money. The goal was to save people money and give them a good time.”
Savage started work on the New England event last year. Jim Simpson, the 71-year-old who has run more than 1,000 marathons, has run in City Park in the past and he suggested it for one of the stops.
Rooney and Savage worked out the logistics, and Warwick’s own marathon was born.
“This is the smoothest of the three days so far and I thought this was the best race,” Savage said. “You can’t get lost here and it’s a beautiful race. This time of year is great, too.”
The Warwick participants hail from 26 states and four countries outside of the United States – Australia, Canada, Germany and Iceland. Some are high-level runners. Others walk all 26.2 miles.
They all carry stories with them.
Simpson is a legend in marathon circles. He travels the country, a camper built onto the bed of his Ford F-150, and completes a marathon everywhere he stops.
He completed his 1,000th on Jan. 1. Five months later, he’s already on 1,051.
“It’s not something that you think about doing,” Simpson said. “They just kind of add up.”
Simpson worked as a plastic injection mold maker and retired early, at the age of 43. He quickly realized he needed something to do.
“I always planned on retiring early, but I never thought about what I was going to do when I retired,” Simpson said. “For the first couple of days, I watched ‘Get Smart’ on daytime TV, and I said to myself, ‘There’s got to be something better than this.’”
Running filled the void. Simpson started with a basic fitness program, then did a few 5Ks. After hiking the Grand Canyon with his son, he decided to try a marathon.
“I thought if I can do that, I can run a marathon,” he said. “Here I am, still out here. Just having a great time.”
Simpson calls Huntington Beach, Calif., home, but is only there for two five- or six-week stretches a year. The rest of the time, he’s on the road. He sleeps in the camper in Wal-Mart parking lots. He gets up the next day and does it all over again, running in competitive marathons and walking in others.
It’s what he does, and he plans to keep doing it.
“I have a great life,” he said. “I’m very content.”
While Simpson is known for his quarter-century-long body of work, one of the other stars of the New England Challenge is locked into a more intensive timeframe. Trent Morrow of Sydney, Australia is on a quest to run 160 marathons in 2013, which would set a new Guinness World Record. When he hit the finish line in Warwick on Wednesday, he crossed number 52 off the list.
Morrow started running as part of a commitment to weight loss. With nearly 100 marathons – and a few ultra marathons – under his belt, he crafted a grander plan this year. His mother died of colon cancer 20 years ago, and lung cancer took his stepmother earlier this year.
His marathon adventure is dedicated to them and is built on fundraising for cancer research in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.
“It’s a personal mission that I’m on, and hopefully it’s inspiring others currently fighting cancer and those supporting them,” Morrow said. “Beyond that, hopefully it’s inspiring people to take on a new challenge.”
Morrow, 40, already made one stop in Rhode Island for the Cox Providence Rhode Races. He’ll finish out the New England Challenge this week before hopping on a plane for Scotland.
“It’s something I’m loving and enjoying and very passionate about, meeting so many great people and enjoying amazing places like we’re in today,” he said.
Morrow takes videos of the people and places he encounters on his journey. His subjects Wednesday were wheelchair racers Aaron Roux and Grant Berthiaume, who came to the challenge from Tucson, Ariz.
Roux and Berthiaume, along with Paul Erway, who couldn’t make it to the New England events, are on a mission to complete 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 weeks.
Berthiaume suffered a spinal cord injury 25 years ago while framing a house, and it left him as a paraplegic. Ten years later, he got into wheelchair racing and fell in love. He’s done more than 100 marathons, in addition to other races.
Roux became a quadriplegic seven years ago after breaking his neck in a car wreck. He gave racing a try three years ago and met Berthiaume by chance on a bike path in Tucson. They began training together and teamed with Erway to create their quest.
It’s a challenge, but they’re meeting it.
“We’re good training partners for each other,” Berthiaume said. “We really push each other to do the best we can.”
In addition to the races, the teammates take on speaking engagements at rehab centers on most of their stops.
“We tell them that there’s more to life than just being disabled,” Roux said.
They hope the message gets through. With dozens more causes intersecting with it on marathon courses all over the country, it’s hard to ignore.
Whether it’s in New England or Texas, marathon series are a sight to behold.
“It’s inspiring and exciting to be a part of,” said Nancy Minor, one of the organizers of the New England Challenge.
Of course, there isn’t too much time for reflection. When Wednesday’s marathon ended, the team packed up and headed for Hartford, ready for another state – and 26.2 more miles.
“Rhode Island down,” Roux said.