He’s ran at sea-level in Alaska and 6,000 feet in Colorado. He’s trod across the Golden Gate Bridge in California and through the Sandhills of Nebraska.
On Sunday, Juneau runner John Kern was cruising the streets of Tulsa, Oklahoma, checking off a milestone over 16 years in the making: run a marathon in all 50 states. Kern crossed the Williams Route 66 Marathon finish line in 4 hours, 18 minutes, 30 seconds, good for third in his age group and 346th overall.
“It was a great run,” Kern said several hours after the race by cellphone. “That’s the one thing that people don’t realize is that every run is like starting over. You never know what it’s going to be like. It’s 26 miles, anything can happen.”
Kern said it was the first run he’s done in which the temperatures got progressively colder throughout the day. He said the colder than expected temperatures that hovered right above freezing might have actually worked to his advantage. He recalled feeling particularly strong on the last few miles.
“I was coming along and the last sign post I’d seen was Mile 22,” Kern said. “And next thing you know, I’m coming up on Mile 24 and I thought, ‘Wow, now I really got this! There’s only two miles left.’”
Since his inaugural marathon in 2002, there’s been no slowing the retired City and Borough of Juneau Capital Transit superintendent. He’s run in 66 marathons, including the past 16 Frank Maier Marathons on Douglas. Kern’s eclipsed the four-hour mark in over 20 different states and finished in the top-three in his age group in 17 different states.
Kern set his personal best on May 3, 2009, in the Eugene Marathon when he clocked a 3:30:47.
Early on, Kern was drawn to running in the Boston Marathon. To do so, however, he would have to qualify for a spot. He wasn’t fast enough in debut marathon, so he signed up the next year and the year after. He eventually sought out marathons out of town that were flat like Juneau’s and gave him the best chance at reaching his qualifying time.
He came agonizingly close to reaching his qualifying time in the Fargo Marathon in North Dakota in May 2006 and the North Olympic Discovery Marathon the following month. Then, five years after completing his first-ever marathon, Kern got his qualifying time in the Frank Maier Marathon, and by the spring of the following year, he was at the Boston starting line.
Kern’s next goal was to complete 10 marathons in 10 different states, which would allow him to join the 50 States Marathon Club, an online community that tracks members’ pursuit of running a marathon in all 50 states.
The joy of finishing a marathon and the strong sense of community it offered kept Kern coming back for more.
“You have the infusion of endorphins and I find that it lasts for three or four days, sometimes a week afterward, where you just have this great feeling — you just finished a marathon,” Kern said. “I wouldn’t belittle that for anybody.”
He can only remember once traveling to a place and having time for nothing other than to run. That’s partly by design, said Kern. As a self-described history buff, Kern enjoys learning about each place he visits in addition to running on its roads and trails.
“Typically I research the area and the history and make a journey of it,” Kern said. “That’s certainly made it more than going off and running marathons.”
But it’s also partly out of necessity.
“Typically I do a lot of road trips because a lot of these (places) aren’t major Alaska Airlines destinations,” Kern said.
For example, take the site of the Green Mountain Marathon: South Hero, Vermont. The small Vermont island community is over 200 miles away from the nearest major metropolitan city. To cover it, Kern blocked off two weeks and carted himself from Maine to New Hampshire to Vermont and back to Maine, running a marathon in each state.
“It’s been great fun and I think that’s my biggest takeaway is that I’ve made it great fun,” Kern said. “The travel, the runs, the company, the 50 States Marathon Club, the (Marathon) Maniacs, it’s a great community. I don’t know if I can stop.”