DECATUR — Mary Cole had never called herself a runner, but now at 45 years old, she wears the label like a badge of honor.
“I didn’t like the name before, because I never thought I could do it,” she said. “It is now a compliment.”
A Decatur dentist, Cole is also part of an elite group of people who have run a marathon in all 50 states. According to the 50 States Marathon Club, nearly 4,500 runners have crossed this finish line.
“It took two years and nine months,” she said of completing a marathon in each state.
She finished her last state, Alaska, two weeks ago. Cole had planned to meet her goal by the age of 50, but set a faster pace for herself.
“I was going to make it an eight-year plan,” she said. “Then I got impatient and did it a little quicker.”
Becoming an athlete
As a child in Louisville, Ky., Cole wore orthopedic shoes to correct her pigeon toes, so she didn’t participate in sports.
“I was the person everybody asked for test questions,” she said. “You weren’t going to pick me for a sports team.”
Although she was not a runner, she did join the Navy in her 20s, and physical activity became a part of her daily life. In boot camp she was required to run 1½ miles, during which she quickly would become sick.
“Running was not my thing, so I chose swimming,” Cole said. “You had to do push-ups and sit-ups, but swimming was my better sport.”
After eight years as a Navy dentist, life happened quickly for Cole and the years brought heartache. She and her husband struggled to have children, losing three babies during two separate pregnancies. The first baby who died was from a set of triplets. The death caused Cole to suffer depression.
“I didn’t work or anything,” she said. “I just took care of the kids.”
The couple added one more child to the family and eventually moved to Decatur. For more than 10 years, exercise was not a priority for the new mother.
“It was not something I even thought about,” Cole said.
Following a miscarriage with twins, Cole felt a renewed desire to be healthy.
She had another wake-up call after her mother had a stroke, and she said the rest of her family was not healthy, causing her to look at her lifestyle.
“My family dies early, 45, 60, most of them died from strokes or cancer,” she said.
Cole researched what she needed to do to get going, and as she began improving her health, she said she felt better. She also watched what she ate.
“Everything you put in your body affects everything,” Cole said.
Cole began her first exercise challenge with a 5K run. Although she struggled through the 3.1 miles, she found other runners to be positive influences.
“I couldn’t do it at first, but everyone was so encouraging,” she said.
In the beginning, marathons were not a consideration. She wanted to focus again on swimming, so she tried a mini triathlon. The challenge encouraged her to try more running, so she tried a half marathon and felt good afterward, she said.
As she took on more steps and longer runs, she introduced another challenge to her life: She wanted to see the world.
Cole’s first marathon was in Springfield, and she gradually added to her race itinerary, attempting one every weekend.
Cole said her journey to run a marathon in all 50 states isn’t about the run, but to inspire others to be more confident, “and to do things they thought they could never do before, at any age,” she said. “Age is just a number.”
Cole adheres to the idea that runs should be fun, and she dresses up for many of the marathons in outfits such as Dorothy from “Wizard of Oz,” Wonder Woman or an old lady.
“I like to inspire people to finish and just be healthy,” she said. “I have a different aspect than the majority of others.”
Many mishaps can prevent a runner from finishing a marathon, including an injury or getting lost, things Cole has experienced and overcome.
“It can happen,” she said.
Cole does not focus on her marathon times, but instead finishing before the allotted time has expired.
“It’s not about winning anything,” she said. “Sometimes I stop and take pictures.”
Most of the marathon trails are picturesque.
“Disney is my favorite,” she said. “I got to ride a roller-coaster in the middle (of the marathon).”
Cole’s health is no longer a worry. Her life insurance company has her placed in the "Super Health" category.
“It’s the top of the line,” she said. “They said no one gets that category.”
She credits her good health to the running and eating well. Cole reads labels looking for limited and chemical-free ingredients. She avoids sodas, high-fructose corn syrups and artificial sweeteners.
“Diet is everything,” she said. “You can run all the marathons in the world, but if you eat horrible then you are not going to be healthy.”
Future plans include more marathons and repeating all 50 states.
Cole is also helping other runners achieve the 50-state mark. Sharron Thornton is a fellow runner on the way to the same milestone. Thornton has run in 34 different states, starting the challenge two years ago. The two have shared a total of 43 marathons together.
“I signed up for a marathon and we ran side by side,” Thornton said. “Mary was so inspirational.”
The advice Thornton found most helpful didn’t involve running, but nutrition.
After Thornton ran her first marathon, she felt tired and sluggish. Cole recommended multivitamins and probiotics.
“And I felt great. I had the energy now,” Thornton said. “Anything she recommends, I try.”
The running comrades do not train for the marathons, other than local events held throughout Decatur. They instead attempt a different marathon each month. According to Thornton, the joy of running a 26.2-mile race doesn’t always come from the actual running, but the journey along the way.
“A marathon shows you the highlights of the city you are running in,” she said. “You get a mini vacation and a marathon.”
Cole has met people from around the world during the marathons. She's heard from others that her faith, attitude and confidence have been inspirational.
“The words ‘crazy’ and ‘maniac’ have become compliments,” she said.
Contact Donnette Beckett at (217) 421-6983. Follow her on Twitter: @donnettebHR