How 55-year-old Martin Parnell conquered all obstacles to run 250 marathons in 2010
By Judy Monchuk
Photography by Chris Bolin
Lying in bed one dreary morning last July, Martin Parnell listened to the rain hammer on his roof and tried to ignore the constant pain from the pinched sciatic nerve in his lower back. The last thing he wanted to do was get up, pull on his running shoes and begin another solitary marathon run along the Bow River near his home in Cochrane, Alta.
He thought through his options, searching desperately for a way to avoid the trek without jeopardizing the 250-marathon mission he began seven months earlier on New Year’s Day. He saw no alternative. He got out of bed and let his routine kick in.
“It was ‘don’t think, just do the routine,’ ” he recalls. “I was literally chunking everything down into bits.”
It was the lowest point of Parnell’s amazing accomplishment, a journey that saw him run more than 10,550 kilometres — 12,978,650 steps — through rain and snow, sleet and sun. But in the summer of 2010, it was mostly rain. And it was often alone.
“I wasn’t injured enough to stop,” says Parnell, 55, a mining engineer who devoted a year of his life to raising $250,000 for Right to Play, an international organization that helps teach leadership skills to impoverished children through sport.
“I was too far from the beginning and not close enough to the end.”
At the time, his journey was getting minimal attention. Donations, which ultimately tallied $287,231.73, were trickling in. And the energizing buzz he gained from visiting children at Calgary-area schools to talk about Marathon Quest 250 was missing with the kids on summer vacation.
Those days were hardest on Parnell’s wife, Sue Carpenter-Parnell, who worried about the toll the effort was taking on Martin’s body and his psyche. As she watched him run, sometimes late into the evening to log the day’s miles, she wondered if it would be worth it.
“I don’t think anyone realized the discipline he needed to do it,” she says. “He’s hurting, the weather’s crap.”
After reaching the amazing milestone on Dec. 31, 2010, surrounded by children, Parnell has become a celebrity in the running community. Researchers want to study the impact the arduous journey has taken on his body to determine if there are lessons the general population can learn from Parnell’s endurance feat.
Running legend Dick Beardsley, whose second-place finish in the 1982 Boston Marathon was the tightest in history, is in awe of Parnell’s achievement.
“To run 250 marathons in a year? I can’t comprehend it,” says Beardsley, 54, who has logged more than 149,000 miles and was running 140 miles a week at his peak. “It makes what most of us mortal runners do look like nothing.”
But it almost didn’t happen. Halfway through his 28th marathon, Parnell felt a throbbing pain in his left leg and finished the route with a combination of running and walking. Taking anti-inflammatory pills, he pushed through Marathon 29 on snowshoes, getting in 30 kilometres before the pain forced him to walk the final 12 kilometres. His leg began to swell during Marathon 30, where he ran and walked laps around a Calgary schoolyard, the pain finally forcing him to see a doctor who detected a stress injury.
Parnell was devastated. “I say I’m going to do 250 and here I am basically done at 28.”
Dr. Kelly Brett at the University of Calgary examined the X-rays and concluded it was a repetitive strain injury on the muscle next to Parnell’s shin. He ordered rest to give the muscles a chance to recover and determine if more running was even possible. The imposed break used up the 12 spare days Parnell had allotted for the year. On March 1, he began walking marathon distances to get back in shape, then gradually alternated five minutes of walking with five minutes of running to build up strength.
In hindsight, the setback was the key to the entire journey. Reaching the end goal – 250 marathons – would call for a strategy that seems counter-intuitive in a society focused on a mantra of faster, stronger, higher. After all, the runs were a means to an end and the goal wasn’t to achieve ever-lower marathon times, but to focus attention on a cause.
“I had to think about what did I need to do to get through today to make sure I don’t damage tomorrow’s chance to reach 250,” says Parnell.
“I knew that every day I had to run a marathon. What I learned was that I didn’t have to run it in 3 1/2 hours, because I wouldn’t have accomplished it. That was a learning experience. People think ‘marathon’ and conjure up this iconic image.”
Physiotherapist Serge Tessier knew that no amount of training would prepare any body for the accumulated toll of running five marathons a week. The key to Parnell’s success and survival was building slowly, something he was forced to do after the stress injury. By the time he had finished 70 marathons, Parnell’s body was transformed into an endurance machine, consuming 5,000 calories a day to fuel the epic undertaking.
“Martin did the same thing every single workout and that allowed him to get this impossible task completed: he found this groove to get the run done,” says Tessier. “His goal wasn’t a speed goal, it was a distance goal. It would be impossible to do the 250 marathons with the additional goal of being faster each time.”
The vast majority were not organized marathons, but Parnell didn’t want anyone suggesting he was skimping on the 26-mile or 42.2-kilometre marathon distance. Ever the engineer, Parnell knew GPS accuracy could be off, so he added 300 metres to every run to ensure he had a cushion.
A weekly routine was developed that allowed for five days of running plus two so-called rest days that allowed for intense physiotherapy, blood work and chiropractor visits to help him through. Part of his regime was regular meetings with Lisa Benz, his mental trainer, to help with the emotional toll of the pursuit.
“There wasn’t anyone who had done anything so extreme,” says Benz, who helped Parnell break the mammoth journey into manageable bits. At his lowest point, that meant setting daily goals and even breaking down the day into shorter runs that would make up the marathon distance.
“He had a lot of people who didn’t think he could do it, who thought he was crazy.”
But Parnell could always focus his attention on his cause. They would discuss the issues that motivate ultra marathon runners and ultimately, his plans to help the children in Right To Play.
More than half of the runs were done along the Bow River near his Cochrane home and through Calgary’s river valley pathway system. Parnell would break the distance into chunks, stopping for a sandwich or a warm drink before continuing on his journey. Some days he had company for part of the run, but often it was a solitary trek.
Then, in September, the world brightened. The weather improved. Acupuncture sessions eased the pain in his back. And the kids returned to classes.
“All of a sudden, it was like someone had switched on a light,” says Parnell.
Each Thursday he would visit another school, talk to students about Right to Play and spend much of the school day – about six hours – running laps around the schoolyard to hit his marathon distance. Often, kids would join him during recess or lunch hour, connecting with the self-described “goofy old guy in shorts and a hat.” Some brought him pennies for the cause; others pledged their birthday money. One boy, inspired by the venture, organized his own cycling event that raised $3,000 for earthquake-ravaged Haiti.
“I was blown away by the kids, by their understanding of the issue and their vision of what needs to be done,” says Parnell.
In early October, Parnell ran his fastest pace at the famed Victoria Marathon alongside thousands of other runners, including some who were purposely running with him for the Right to Play cause. “Talk about a switch-around,” he says with a laugh, noting his time of three hours and 43 minutes was more than an hour faster than any other run in the quest, qualifying him for the Boston Marathon.
“I couldn’t understand what was going on that day; I just got into a zone and kept going.”
Parnell didn’t start running until he was 47, but soon found he had a natural affinity for it. He competed in Ironman triathlons, ultra-endurance and cycling events around the world including Africa, where he played table tennis with children and the seed for this marathon quest was planted.
Ultimately, Parnell’s achievement was a triumph of spirit and perseverance, his ability to push past the emotional realities of such a daunting task. In a world that glorifies and celebrates elite performances, Parnell looks at himself as an everyman who set his mind to making a difference and says that’s something we can all attain.
“As a kid, I did a lot of sports badly. I look at the Olympian (athlete) and I’m just an everyday guy. There’s not a hope in hell of most of us achieving that.”
Parnell is circumspect about what he has accomplished. “It’s done and I’m feeling good,” he says as he looks out over the pathway behind his home where he now runs much shorter distances.
“It looks like there’s no permanent damage. I don’t know how many lives I’ve touched. There’s definitely a ripple effect, but I don’t know where it will go.”
Parnell isn’t about to become a couch potato. In May, he will run in the 56-mile Comrades ultra-marathon in South Africa, then spend time in the west African nation of Benin, where he will visit Right to Play schools as an athlete ambassador for the organization and get a chance to meet children who will benefit from his efforts.
“Martin was kind enough to allow us to use the funds to fill funding gaps in countries around the world,” Robert Witchell, national director of Right to Play, writes in an e-mail. “Martin’s efforts help us where help is needed most. As it costs less than $50 for a child to benefit from our programming for an entire year, Martin’s efforts equates to over 5,600 children!”
Tests on Parnell’s body after the marathon quest show improved bone density and tendon strength. His diet has been cut back to 2,000 calories to adapt to the reduced running regime to help his body adjust to an expected metabolism shift. Yet his most important accomplishment could ultimately prove to be the inspiration he provides: demonstrating that one person can change the world.
“I think everyone has potential and if they put their mind to it, can achieve great things,” says Benz. “It’s being able to have those traits and persevere. Hearing about people like Martin can serve as great motivation to accomplish those goals.”
MARATHON QUEST BY THE NUMBERS
Marathon 1: Jan. 1, 2010
10,550: Kilometres run in 2010
12,978,650: Steps taken
94: Marathons run alone
5,000: Calories consumed daily
25: Pairs of shoes
122: Starts below freezing
-41C: Coldest temperature
+32C: Hottest temperature
60: Schools visited during 2010
12,000: Children made aware of Right to Play
3:43: Fastest time recorded (Victoria)
8:18:28: Longest time recorded
99: Running heart rate
168 pounds: Starting weight
161 pounds: End weight
45: Resting heart rate after Marathon Quest
50: Resting heart rate before Marathon Quest
$287,231.73: Raised for Right to Play
5,745: Children who will benefit
Marathon 250: Dec. 31, 2010
March/April 2011 Issue