About halfway through the 2017 Mayor’s Marathon in Anchorage, Alaska, Carmen Cruz passed her husband and two kids, who were standing along the tree-lined course to watch her run. In response to their “Looking good!” and “Go, Mom!” cheers, Cruz called out something she had rarely felt in any of her previous marathons.
“She told me, ‘I’m tired,’ ” recalls her husband, Reidan. “She’s never tired!”
Whether it was jet lag and lack of sleep the night before, or the rigid training regimen she’s followed for years, Cruz’s fatigue was well earned. In finishing the Alaska marathon, the 52-year-old Manhasset Hills athlete became part of an elite group of about 1,200 runners to complete a 26.2-mile marathon in all 50 states, according to the 50 States Marathon Club, based in Houston. And she did it at a foot-blistering pace: For most distance runners, completing one or two marathons per year is plenty. In 2009, when Cruz decided to focus on the goal of running in every state, the number of marathons she ran per year jumped to an average of five — roughly one every 10 weeks.
Choosing which marathons to run was based on the states she needed to check off her list, and whether she had the weekend of the event free. Some states have fewer marathons, so scheduling depended on when the races took place. Last year, for instance, between March and July, she ran marathons in Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland and Montana — random locations based on her criteria.
Preparing for the Alaska marathon, she realized she was coming to the close of an eight-year odyssey. “Part of me was tired,” she says of her feelings during the Anchorage race. “But part of me was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is coming to an end.’ ”
Cruz achieved her marathon milestone while raising two children — Kiana, 19, and Kyle, 16 — and working part-time as an accountant.
In addition to endurance, reaching her goal required organizational skills for scheduling each marathon, travel planning, tracking of her training progress and providing verification of her finishes to the 50 States Marathon Club (50statesmarathonclub.com), the organization that certifies runners attempting this every-state-of-the-Union challenge.
Cruz, who grew up in Brooklyn and New Jersey, says her motivation to complete the 50-state goal was to see the country. “Although I love running, this quest was more about the thrill of visiting new places,” she says. “I’m an avid traveler.”
She traveled solo for some marathons; other times, her husband or friends went along. She’s run in extreme cold, sweltering heat and high altitudes; in cities large and small.
Cruz estimates that each weekend trip to run a marathon cost between $800 and $1,000, including airfare and hotel. “If we were retired, maybe we would have just driven from one state to another,” Cruz says. “A lot of older 50-state runners do that.”
Cruz’s interest in running began when she attended an information session for the Team in Training marathon fundraising program, run by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, in 2002. There she met Pete Macaluso, a cyclist from Huntington who was battling leukemia. Macaluso encouraged Cruz to run her first marathon and to raise money to fight cancer simultaneously.
After a disappointing race in the 2002 Long Island Marathon (she had to walk part of the distance), she decided to give it one more try, and ran the New York City Marathon that November. She completed that race 30 minutes faster and felt great. “I was on cloud nine for weeks afterwards,” she recalled. “I was hooked on marathons.”
Macaluso succumbed to cancer in 2004, but his wife, Connie, and son, Eric, have remained close friends with the Cruz family. “My dad believed in following your passion,” says Eric Macaluso, who is 46 and lives in Denver. “Dream big and have fun along the way, was his motto. Carmen has done that.”
Cruz’s 50-state marathon quest is also part of a larger trend. “You’ve got older people running 50 states or seven continents, running up mountains and across deserts,” says Amby Burfoot, editor-at-large for Runner’s World magazine. “It’s astonishing.”
Burfoot, 70, believes it’s part of a new attitude toward aging. “I think we’re the first generation of people who really want to aim for lifelong fitness,” he says. “You find challenges, and you put them in front of yourself, because these are the carrots that keep you going.” Burfoot’s own carrot is to run the Boston Marathon next April, 50 years after he won the race in 1968. And now that Cruz has run in all 50 states, she also says her next goal is to run the Boston Marathon.
The 50 States Marathon Club was launched in 2001, when husband-and-wife runners Steve and Paula Boone of Houston started a website to keep track of individuals who were attempting to see America on foot. “We decided to kind of codify everything,” says Paula Boone, 50. “The idea really took off.”
The majority of those who have completed or are engaged in the 50-state-marathon quest are older. “For the most part we’re weekend warriors, we’re not elite athletes,” says Paula. “It’s something we enjoy and it’s a way to stay in shape and see the country.”
The average time for completion of the 50 states, she says, is between five and 10 years. She adds that, like Cruz, most people have already completed a number of marathons in different states before the idea of doing all 50 strikes them.
That’s what happened to Vinny O’Shaughnessy, 56, of West Babylon, who has known Carmen Cruz since 2007, when they were still running with Team in Training. When he heard a few years later about her 50-state-marathon quest, he recalls, “I thought, ‘She’s crazy.’ ” But the more he heard about it, the more intrigued he became. Having retired from his job with the Lloyd Harbor Police Department in December, O’Shaughnessy has now embarked on his own goal to race in all 50 states.
This year’s Alaska marathon was state number 10 for him, and he played a key role in Cruz’s victory to complete her 50-state goal. “Carmen is a little faster than me, but I could see she was having a rough time, so I stayed with her,” O’Shaughnessy says.
Having O’Shaugnessy there, Cruz says, “was huge. He was fun and positive, and helped me to be strong.”
The mid-50s temperatures were perfect for running and O’Shaughnessy describes the scenery around Anchorage as “majestic.”
In addition to O’Shaughnessy and Cruz’s family, Eric and Connie Macaluso made the trip to Anchorage to support her. “I thought it was appropriate that a Macaluso cheer her across the finish line, because it was a Macaluso that helped her get started,” Eric says.
She completed the race in 4 hours, 28 minutes, 56 seconds — about a half-hour slower than her typical times. As she approached the final mile, Cruz says, “Part of me was like ‘woo-hoo’ excited, but part of me was bittersweet. It was almost happening too fast. I thought about walking the last mile to make it last a little longer.”
Those thoughts, though, were quickly banished, as Cruz did what she’s always done and says she will continue to do — albeit a little less frequently — in the years ahead.
She kept running, to the end.