Around the year 490 B.C., the legendary Greek runner and soldier Pheidippides ran roughly 26 miles from the site of a battle on the Plains of Marathon versus the Persians back to Athens. After he delivered his message of victory, he subsequently perished of exhaustion.
Catherine Lazorko had a quite different reaction to her first marathon.
In 2003, after Lazorko finished a marathon in Philadelphia, she subsequently thought, “Hmm, I think I’ll run another 49.”
On Nov. 23, Lazorko made good on a goal to complete 50 marathons before the end of her 50th year, finishing right where her quest began in Philadelphia.
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By day, Lazorko takes steps to manage the business of Town of Chapel Hill Communications and Public Affairs, a challenge in its own right. Stepping out around town in training must be balanced with her life as wife and mother of four boys, including 17-year-old twins. Lazorko said her work-family-play schedules are mutually supportive.
“My workplace is very supportive of health and wellness,” she said, “which really helps with my running, and my running helps me deal with life and work. It all helps me feel balanced.
“On my hardest (work) days, as stressful as a day may be, I can look back at a marathon and, and think, ‘Well, the day is still not as difficult as that.’”
The 50-marathon quest began unassumingly.
“I was approaching my fortieth year, and I’d really wanted to run a marathon,” she said. “When I finished, I was only a minute shy of qualifying for Boston, and I said, ‘Man, I want to try that again.’”
Lazorko ran just four marathons over the next two years. Starting in 2006, however, she hit her stride, completing 15 over the next three years before succumbing to a rash of injuries by 2010 which only served to galvanize her determination.
“Fifty became a number when I was having health issues with my knees,” she explained, “and I realized that I felt better when I was actually running consistently, but I wouldn’t do that unless I had regular races on my calendar. So I thought a great way to stay fit over the next decade would be to run 50 of these by my 50th year.”
Lazorko, who turned 50 in August, entered 2014 still 11 marathons shy of her goal.
“I had Achilles tendonitis and plantar fasciitis the year before,” she said, “so it became really intense this year, when I ran 11 marathons.”
Over the past decade, Lazorko ran marathons as far afield as San Francisco and as close as the Tobacco Road Marathon in Cary.
She has run the New York Marathon alongside over 50,000 runners; she ran the Triple Lakes Marathon with just 116 participants. She has run in Philadelphia the most often, completing that race five times, including a 2004 effort that notched her personal best of 3:44. She has accidentally taken wrong turns, added miles, and has even run an indoor marathon.
“There’s this ‘Indoor Insanity’ race on an indoor track in Winston-Salem,” said Lazorko’s husband David Brower, the Program Director for WUNC FM. “It’s definitely high on the list of the nuttiest things we’ve ever done. Catherine ran like million laps.
“About three-quarters of the way through the race we started wondering if we should be counting the laps,” he added, laughing, “because all of the race volunteers started drinking beer. They were getting really bored though, so I don’t really blame them.”
For others looking to try the marathon lifestyle, Lazorko said consistency was key.
“You have to run a lot of training miles,” she said, “and running consistently, even if these are shorter runs, feels more effective than putting in crazy hard long runs on the weekends.”
“She just has such a positive attitude,” said running partner Diane Kelly, a fellow member of the Runegades, with whom Lazorko trains. “She’s never complained about running, and she’s a naturally gifted runner. She’s just one of those people who can go out and just run 15 miles or 26 miles or whatever.”
“I’ve found that most of my injuries have come from binge running: not running for days and then running a lot,” she added. I’m grateful for my running friends that keep me coming out every morning at 6:30 a.m. Without them, it just might not happen.”
Lazorko said support must come first from family, however.
“I feel so grateful for the support of my husband and sons over these years,” she said. That family includes oldest son Navid Lazorko, 27, who lives in Los Angeles and Sean Lazorko, 23, who lives locally. Twin sons Nick and Ben Brower, 17, are seniors at Chapel Hill High School.
David Brower said he views supporting his wife to be more of a grand adventure than a chore.
“Watching a marathon is a really great way to learn a community and experience a city,” he said. “You learn a lot about communities according to how a race is laid out. Also, I ran for the Chapel Hill / Carrboro Pacers (Youth Running Club), and I grew up idolizing Bill Rogers, Frank Shorter, Alberto Salazar, and all of those guys.”
Because spectator support is so integral to performance, Lazorko said her hometown’s Philly Marathon is her favorite.
“I’ve run Boston twice, and I’ve run New York, but Philly’s got big city sights, it’s got great fan support, and all of the fun without the hassle,” she said.
“Yeah, Philadelphia has the best spectator marathon because of the way it runs through the city,” Brower agreed. “Mile three may be just a few blocks from mile seven. You can see any (given) runner a lot.”
Lazorko admits that she has changed her strategy somewhat over time.
“I’m easier on myself,” she said. “Every race isn’t about the time now. This year at Philly, I actually found a couple pacer bands, but, evidence of age, I realized I wouldn’t be able to read them anyway. What am I going to do, pull (spectacles) out ... during the race to check my pace?”
Still, this athlete isn’t about to hang up her running shoes just yet.
“Rest is not ... part of her normal training program,” Kelly said.
For Catherine Lazorko though, the quest has become bigger than a list of races. It’s a courtship – a dance with 50 partners that has been its own reward.
“There’s something about the marathon that’s a big story (told) over hours,” she said. “You’re running with strangers and, by the end, you’re connecting with them through this unusual experience. It’s so connecting and almost spiritual, and there’s so much beauty in it. It’s very moving to me.”
And who’s to say, with a bit of well-deserved rest, that marathons won’t move Lazorko to set a new goal of achieving her 60th marathon by age 60?
“I’m actually feeling really good right now though,” she said. “I’ve already signed up for another one: Umstead.”