Laura Sprung does not consider herself an athlete. But most of us, upon learning that she recently completed a 26.2-mile marathon in each of 50 states, would definitely put her in that category. From her first marathon in October 2006 to the last in October 2016, it took her a mere ten years to reach her goal. She is an inspiration—especially to people who, like me, have trouble working exercise into their daily routine.
“I’ve just always loved to walk,” Sprung explained. “That is my way of knowing a place.” Having run off and on all her life, and run/walked the Charlottesville Women’s Four Miler six or eight times, in 2006 she saw an ad for a walker-friendly marathon in Oregon and began looking for a partner to share the challenge. Her old friend, Karen Axelrod from Massachusetts, agreed, and together they travelled to Portland for the event. “We had so much fun, we decided to do it again.” And again and again!
“The whole ritual is so fun. Getting ready, going to the expo, getting the bib. The first ten miles is fun, but then you start to get punchy. We had a rule that we couldn’t talk about where to go for dinner until mile 17.” They would make the time go faster by laughing and enjoying each other’s company. “Anybody can do 26 miles,” the two friends joke, “but it’s that last two tenths that sets us apart.”
“At that first race, we realized we could alternate running and walking to make better time. We finished in seven hours plus one bathroom stop.” Six months later, she completed the Flying Pig marathon in Cincinnati, plus two more that year—and the idea just snowballed. It was a fun way for the friends to get together, and to see the country. From then on, Sprung ran multiple races each year—sometimes as many as seven or eight. “The more you do, the less you have to train,” she explained. Axelrod joined her for most, but not all, of them.
“We started meeting members of the 50 States Marathon Club and Marathon Maniacs,” Sprung said, “and decided to give it a go. We wouldn’t have gone to all 50 states without this incentive.” They kept a steady pace, even as scheduling conflicts and medical issues intervened. When she finished her 50th marathon in Bluefield, West Virginia last year, the 50 States Marathon Club—which includes only 4,326 active members—gave her a medal, and her sister gave her a lovely silver necklace in the shape of the U.S. engraved with the message, “50 marathons, 50 states.”
To train, Sprung read a couple of books on how to gradually build your strength and stamina. She would run/walk from her home on Sugar Hollow Road out to the dam and back five times, or drive into town so she could run on sidewalks and streets. While working at U.Va., she walked four miles every day at lunch. At first she covered eight miles a day, then 12, then 16, then 20. She had to carry water during training, but during the marathons themselves, water tables along the way support the runners. To keep up her energy during the all-day trek, she would carry nuts or protein bars. In most of them, Sprung ran about a third of the distance and walked the rest, in a walk-run-walk-run pattern.
There are plenty of marathons to choose from; many communities hold them as fundraisers. Sprung and Axelrod preferred the smaller ones, and avoided the huge Rock-n-Roll races with many thousands of participants, like New York and Chicago. “In San Antonio, after lining up it took an hour before we even crossed the starting line!” she says. They tended to choose races that worked best with their schedules, and usually tried to match the season with the location. “In Jackson, Mississippi, it was 24 degrees, and there was ice everywhere,” she recalls. “We never got warm.”
Sprung’s personal best time was five hours, 40 minutes, achieved in Carlsbad, California in January 2008. She did this one alone and really pushed herself. Her hardest race was in Kentucky, three days after her mother died when she was still grieving. It was rainy and muddy, and at mile 24, she fell and broke her arm—but still she finished! The prettiest one was on Mount Desert Island in Maine. “Richmond one of the friendliest,” she advises. “The race is held downtown and runs through parks.” In Las Vegas, they were so slow that they got re-routed after the cut off time and got lost. They ended up walking 27 ½ miles. “At least we got our money’s worth!” she joked.
“That last marathon last year was one of the hardest I’ve run,” confessed Sprung. “We had rented a cabin and all kinds of family and friends had come to town for a party.” However, she was nursing a torn meniscus and had had a cortisone shot just six weeks before. She thought she’d be okay, but at mile 11, her knee gave out. “I couldn’t give up with all those people waiting to celebrate, so I just gritted my teeth and limped those last 15 miles!” It took her eight or nine hours to finish, but finish she did! This is only one example of the determination and tenacity needed to accomplish what she has.
The marathon culture as a whole—with the motto “We RUN this country!”—is very supportive. “We met one incredible man who didn’t start running marathons until his 50s, and was just about to do his 2,000th marathon.” “Hats off to the ‘slower sluggers,’” he told them. The participants tend to include a combination of true athletes, exercise devotees, and novices. “I couldn’t have done it without the support of Mark Lorenzoni,” she said. He encouraged her, provided shoes, and gave great advice. “The Lorenzonis [who own the Ragged Mountain Running shop and help produce many local races] are the best kind of community people. Everything they do, their hearts are in the right place.”
Laura is a joyful person, with an ever-present twinkle in her eye. Growing up in Asheville, NC, she played basketball in high school, but she especially loved to walk. “I walked everywhere in college, and while living in Boston during graduate school.” She doesn’t like red meat—calling herself a “piscapoultrytarian”—and she eats spinach for breakfast every morning. “I view it as a kind of base coat of nutrition,” she laughed. Her other hobbies including historical dancing such as Contra and English Country, plus a wide range of crafts including paper folding, jewelry making, and needlework.
Now that she has passed this major milestone, what are Sprung’s plans? “I plan to keep walking!” she smiled. Since retiring in 2013, she walks 12-15 miles at least once a week, often on the beautiful Saunders-Monticello Trail. “Maybe we’ll do half marathons and other smaller events. Or maybe we’ll just travel together and not do marathons!”