Steve Neibergall in the final days of training for this 100th… (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore…)
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."