When Steve Neibergall crosses the finish line at the Safaricom Marathon in Kenya on June 29, he will have finished more than just a 26.2-mile race.
The Kenya event will be the 100th marathon the 52-year-old Annapolis resident has completed since he started running the races in 2005. He has run marathons in all 50 states; when he finishes Kenya, he will also have run on all seven continents.
"I'm a very goal-oriented person," says Neibergall, president of the eastern division of Safeway. "I always had a 'bucket list' goal to run a marathon, but I thought training would be so intense that it would have to be a retirement thing."
But then Neibergall ran across the Hal Higdon marathon training guide. A former high school track and cross country runner, Neibergall was already running four to six miles a few times each week. Higdon's guide includes recommendations for runners of all levels and goals; Neibergall found a 16-week program that allowed him to keep doing shorter runs during the week, adding a long run on the weekends.
"My first marathon was the Rock 'n' Roll P.F. Chang's race in Arizona in January 2005," he says. "My No. 1 goal was to finish. I thought under four hours would be pretty darn good. My other goal was to just have fun doing it. I was able to make my goal by 12 seconds. I was pretty proud of that, but I could barely walk, my legs were so tight afterward."
After about two weeks of recovery, Neibergall wondered what was next.
"I started thinking, 'I bet I could do better if I ran another,' " he says. He ran his next marathon the following year, improving his time by eight minutes. By then he was hooked.
Runner's World magazine reports that in 2011, 570 marathons took place in the United States alone, and 551,811 people finished them. Not one to be lost in a crowd, Neibergall began setting even higher goals.
He qualified for the Boston Marathon, which he ran in 2008. Then he heard about the 50 States Marathon Club.
"I enjoy traveling and seeing other places in the country," he says. "I thought this would be fun, but I couldn't quite fathom it. I thought, 'It's going to take me 20 years to accomplish this goal?' I needed to find a way to accelerate."
Neibergall began running about one marathon per month, though sometimes he ran more. At one point, he ran marathons in two states — North Dakota and South Dakota — in one weekend.
In 2011, he completed the 50 states in his hometown of Mason City, Iowa. He had about 50 family members cheering him on, including his mother and father, both in their 90s.
"It was a great way to finish 50 states," he says. But what was next?
"In the meantime, I'd also run into Marathon Tours & Travel, a group of marathon tours based out of Boston," he says. "One of their big hooks was a Seven Continents Club."
"The club was started in 1995 when four people who ran the Antarctica Marathon realized they'd just finished running on every continent," says Thom Gilligan, president of Marathon Tours & Travel and founder of the Seven Continents Club. "It becomes not only a marathon goal but a life goal. The marathon is often just a catalyst to explore the world."
The club has about 400 members.
"It takes a lot of time and a financial investment to achieve this goal," says Gilligan. "It's not easy. There have been lots of people who have tried two or three times on certain continents. Every time you go to the starting line, you never know what's going to happen in those 26.2 miles."
But Gilligan has faith in Neibergall. "Steve's run a lot of marathons and has traveled on a lot of trips with us. He's a terrific guy and a great spirit. He takes his running seriously. I have no doubt that he'll get to the finish line."
Neibergall has run in Athens, Greece, at the Great Wall of China and in Antarctica, but he expects the African marathon to be an unparalleled experience. The marathon takes place in the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Runners use dirt roads that loop through the conservancy, where they'll run among rhinos, elephants, zebras and giraffes.
It won't be Neibergall's first time running with animals. One of his most memorable experiences was the Antarctica Marathon, which he describes as "an amazing experience. There were penguins on the course; there's no place else you'll see that. It was just really unique."
The Antarctica Marathon was challenging physically, with treacherous footing and low temperatures, but the experience was worth it.
"I kept thinking, 'I can't believe I'm running a marathon in Antarctica!' I crossed the finish line and just wanted to keep running."
The Safaricom Marathon will be challenging in different ways; the dry climate and mountainous trails make the run difficult. But Neibergall is looking forward to running in Kenya.
"It's the home of a lot of very famous and talented runners," he says. "I thought it was a great way to finish the continents."
Marathons often involve a charity component. For the Safaricom Marathon, Neibergall is raising money for Tusk Trust, a London-based nonprofit that helps preserve wildlife in its natural habitat.
Neibergall is also involved with the Back on My Feet organization, which helps homeless people get back into the workplace via running — "It's a way to get them re-engaged in society," he says — and he is on the executive board of the Columbia Lighthouse of the Blind in Washington.
Part of his work with the Columbia Lighthouse includes leading blind runners during races. In April, he ran the Boston Marathon with a 68-year-old blind athlete. His wife, Debra — a "retired" runner — was cheering from the sideline.
Fortunately, both avoided the bombing. Steve was still running, and Debra was in the hotel when the bombs exploded. Steve and his fellow runner did not finish the race.
As goal-oriented as he is, Neibergall is not sure of his next step after the Safaricom Marathon. He's tried a triathlon, discovering that he doesn't enjoy swimming and biking as much as running, and admits he needs a bit of downtime to take care of "a slight issue" with his knee.
"I'll probably do a marathon or two each year and some races for fun," he says. He ran the Baltimore 10-Miler on June 15 and says that locally, he especially enjoys the Annapolis and Cherry Blossom 10-mile runs.
He'll also continue to travel. "Iceland looks appealing. And I'd like to go to Costa Rica."
Wherever he goes next, he'll be setting goals and achieving them.
The Morning Sun
"None of us anymore have enough sense of pride of accomplishment," he laments. "Life moves so fast. Even though I've crossed 99 finish lines, the feeling of euphoria never goes away. I crossed the line. I accomplished the goal."
And then he's on to the next one.
Neibergall's training tips
Steve Neibergall encourages aspiring runners, whether they're shooting for 100 marathons or one 5K, to set goals and have fun. Here are his tips to help you get out and run:
Start slowly: "One of the biggest mistakes people make is they try to do too much too soon," he says. "Start slow and work your way up." Before starting a marathon program, Neibergall says, you should have a "good base," running two to five miles at a time. As a novice marathoner, he relied on the Hal Higdon training method; more information can be found at http://www.halhigdon.com.
Find your style: Some people prefer solitary running, while others do well with a group — it's all about recognizing your personal style. "I look at running as my time," Neibergall says. "But there are so many great running clubs. When you can find someone to work out with, you develop an accountability pattern. You don't want to let them down."
Set goals: Neibergall attributes his success with marathons to his goal-oriented personality. "As into it as I am, when my alarm goes off at 4:30, I think, 'Do I really need to run today?' But then I think about my calendar. I've got a race. Sign up for something — it gives you a goal. Even if you walk it, you got out there and did something. You'll enjoy it and look forward to it."