Earlier this month, when temperatures in Massachusetts plummeted to the single digits, the biting cold drove committed runners and weekend warriors alike to the relative comfort of indoor treadmills. But Renee (Garrison) DeMarsh G’91 saw it as a good dry run for her next race.
On January 30, DeMarsh and 53 other hardy souls from 11 countries will run a marathon at Novo Station, Antarctica. Anticipated average temperature: 14 degrees Fahrenheit.
What DeMarsh is more concerned about are the six marathons she’s running after that one, which she will run in the following six days.
“Now I’m worried about all the hot marathons, and there’s like five of them,” said DeMarsh, 52, a physical education teacher at Carver (Massachusetts) Elementary School, who is running the World Marathon Challenge – seven marathons on seven continents in seven days. She’s running to raise money for two charities close to her heart: the Carver Elementary Running Club and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Cape Cod and the Islands.
On January 25, DeMarsh will take a commercial flight to Cape Town, South Africa, and hopefully do a little sightseeing. She promised her students she’d get footage of penguins. It will be her last chance for any tourism for the rest of her odyssey.
On January 30, the group will board a charter flight bound for Antarctica, where they’ll run their first marathon, then hop on the plane and head back to Cape Town for the second marathon (Reminder: Those are 26.2 miles. Each.) on January 31.
“The first two are going to be really challenging, I think,” DeMarsh said, as if the next five wouldn’t break the average person. “I did the math, and when I finish in Antarctica, by the time we start in Cape Town it’s only going to be 13 hours in between. That’s going to be tough.”
From Cape Town, they fly to Perth, Australia for marathon #3 on February 1, and then on to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, for the fourth marathon on February 2. Here, they get a block of time in an actual hotel, so they “might get to sleep in a bed that isn’t flying around,” DeMarsh said. Also, showers.
Marathon #5, on February 3, is in Lisbon, Portugal; marathon #6 is in Cartagena, Colombia, and finally, on February 5, the group lands in Miami for the seventh and final race. There, DeMarsh will be met by her two daughters and one of her high school teachers. Along the way, she’ll be sending video back to her students at Carver Elementary.
“I imagine there will be some races where I’ll feel better and some where I’ll feel miserable,” she said. “Hopefully, my training will be good.”
DeMarsh is accustomed to big challenges and long miles ahead. Her first-ever road race, which she completed just out of college, was the Mount Washington Road Race, 7.6 super steep miles up to the summit of the tallest mountain in New England. Prior to that, she had only ever run 8 flat miles.
“I thought, ‘That looks great, I’ll try that,’” she recalled. “It was a fairly miserable experience.”
While getting her graduate degree in Communication Sciences and Disorders at Emerson (“It was a great department and a terrific experience with really great professors.”), and starting a family, DeMarsh said she got away from running. In her early 30s she began jogging for exercise again, but didn’t do another race until she was 47. In five years, she’s worked her way up to ultra-marathons.
Last summer, she did a 100-miler in Vermont, running the last 18 miles in the pouring rain. At night, she ran by the light of glow sticks hanging from the trees. Her daughter was allowed to run the last 12 miles with her, because after more than 24 hours without sleep, it was a good idea to give the runners a little support; three miles from the finish line, they lost the trail and had to retrace their steps for a few miles to get back on track.
“It’s really, really hard to turn back,” she said, but “I wasn’t going to quit at Mile 97.”
In order to run 183.4 miles in 168 hours, DeMarsh has been training by stacking up long runs; on a recent week, she ran three 20-mile runs three days in a row. And she’s been careful to pace herself – the Challenge is about endurance, not speed. Runners have at least eight hours to run each marathon.
But just getting registered for the Challenge was, in itself, a challenge.
The entry fee, which includes charter flights between all marathons, in-flight meals, hotel accommodations where time allows, medical support, marathon events, video/photos, and event-related swag (T-shirts, souvenirs), is 36,000 (about $44,000 as of this writing). It does not include airfare from runners’ hometowns to Cape Town, or the flight back home from Miami.
To help raise that kind of money, DeMarsh has been securing corporate and foundation sponsorships. So far, she has the support of HMFH Architects, Ocean Spray, and the Patriots Foundation, among others. And her students have raised about $2,100 for her, “which is kind of funny, because it was supposed to be me raising money for them,” she said. But DeMarsh is covering a large piece of the entry fee herself, much of it through a personal loan.
While she hasn’t always been an ultra-marathoner, fitness has always been a priority for DeMarsh – it’s what prompted her to change careers from speech pathology to phys ed – and she’s trying to pass on her love of running and the outdoors to her students.
She started a Running Club at Carver Elementary, and today leads 150 students on runs through the trail behind the school. The wooded trail is not accessible to people with disabilities, however, so she’ll be using the World Marathon Challenge to pave a portion so more students and community members can use it.
She’s also using the Challenge to raise money for (and awareness of) Big Brothers Big Sisters. DeMarsh has mentored a Little Sister through the organization for three years, and on Cape Cod, where she lives, she said there are about a hundred kids waiting for a Big.
DeMarsh’s Little is interested in many of the same things she is: sports, health, outdoor activities. For the girl’s birthday last year, DeMarsh got her a fitness tracker, and the two compare their steps when they get together.
“I think I’m going to beat her next week,” DeMarsh deadpanned.