50 sub 50
Warren native and Edinboro Professor Roberts prepares to reach new milestone
How fast can you name all 50 states?
Or better yet, how fast could you run a marathon (26.22 miles) in each of the 50 states (1,311 miles!)?
That is precisely what Warren-native and Edinboro University Health and Phys. Ed professor Jim Roberts, Ph.D., intends to achieve when he completes the Maui Oceanfront Marathon in Hawaii this Sunday, Jan. 20.
On that day, he will cross his 57th marathon finish line in his 50th state — a goal that he once considered “loose” before he began crossing more and more states off his list nearly 15 years ago.
Depending on one’s perspective, either one of the above-stated challenges could seem overwhelming to the vast majority of people.
For instance, most second-graders are likely to be able to name all 50 states from memory before, let’s say, a 41-year-old news writer “discretely” glancing down at his iPhone.
I am certain many adults out there remember a time when some goals seemed more easily-achieved than others. The spongy brain of an eight-year-old can often absorb information faster than someone five times that age, and memory retention varies from individual to individual.
Likewise, with most physical exercise, conventional wisdom suggests that it’s much easier to overcome obstacles when you’re young.
But according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 40 percent of U.S. adults struggle with obesity. This gives the impression that, in the face of overwhelming odds, we make it easier to give up as we get older despite the fact many of us know we have it within us somewhere.
To paraphrase Yoda, size, nor age matters not.
Roberts has been running since junior high and at Warren Area High School under tutelage of then cross country and track coach Steve Norris, a “phenomenal athlete and a good coach.” Roberts said.
Roberts ran his first marathon at the age of 16 at Presque Isle in 1986, back when his grandmother, Peg Wilbur of Warren, would take him to his early races.
Since then, Roberts says running has always been his “go to” for stress management.
Now, at age 48, it’s his best tool for staying healthy. He graduated from Edinboro University in 1993 with a degree in Health and Physical Education and later returned to join the Edinboro faculty in 2001.
“I set goals every year,” he said.
After running his first few marathons, Roberts eventually set his sights on qualifying for the 1996 Boston Marathon. It was the 100th anniversary of the first marathon competition held at the 1896 summer Olympics in Athens, Greece.
The Boston Marathon is the longest running marathon in the United States. The first one, held in 1897, was inspired by the success at the Olympics the prior year.
When running-mate Sam Walters of Youngsville had already completed marathons in more than 15 states, he decided it was time to kick it up a notch.
Next up were races in Ohio and New York. Eventually, somewhere around 2003-04, the “loose” goal of “maybe someday” completing all 50 states began to form, but even then it seemed out of reach.
You could be “a mile away from the finish,” he says, when someone might say something like, “You’re almost there!”
According to him, you are never “almost there” until you’re there.
Twenty years after the Boston Marathon in ’96, he returned in 2016 and bested his original time by 25 minutes.
“I volunteer the Boston Marathon” with students and friends regularly, Roberts said.
One of the years he didn’t volunteer — 2013, he was busy with a guest appearance on The Travel Channel’s Dead Files as an expert physiologist.
Although the students who were volunteering in Boston at the time were stationed a safe distance from the finish line, the subsequent shutdown of all cell towers in the area made it difficult to confirm until much later that none of his students or colleagues were injured that day.
As the 50 states goal came more and more into focus, along with the knowledge of how far he has come, you might say Roberts is “almost there.”
“It’s not easy for anyone,” he says about what it takes to find the motivation. “It’s still not easy.”
He’s fought IT band syndrome, where connective tissue in the leg rubs against bone. That and Achilles tendon injuries have prevented him from running for up to six months, requiring cross-training in order to stay active and rebuild the strength needed to run.
In his field of Health and Phys. Ed, he said there’s something called “sport specificity.”
If you want to be a improve as a runner, you run. If you want to be a good cyclist, you cycle. Swimmers swim, etc, etc.
But when it comes to sickness and injury, you should be prepared to change it up. Stay active and work your way back up to where you want to be.
“When I’m healthy, “ he said he trains “about 50-60 miles a week.”
When a race is coming up, he will “train up until two-to-three weeks before and cut back so I can recover and feel good” by race time.
“I’m a road runner.” He said sometimes he trains on Big Four Road. He often enjoys running with friends “just to talk.” He will listen to music. Always listening to what his body is telling him.
According to Roberts, only 1,468 people have completed marathons in every state.
He said it’s difficult to choose which state as his favorite, but the Wyoming course alongside the Grand Tetons left an impression with its flat terrain and scenic beauty. Some events are more “well-organized” than others, citing the Wineglass Marathon in Corning, N.Y., as one of his favorite experiences. He has even crossed three different states off his list over three consecutive days.
Regardless of the destination, for Jim, he mostly looks forward to the journey with friends and family.
His wife, Lisa Roberts, will be accompanying him on the trip as well as competing in the upcoming race. This will mark her 12th marathon in her seventh state. Two of their five children, Alexis and Trenton Roberts of Warren, are also going on the trip.
Friends Marty and Pam Durnell of Warren will be joining them. It will be Marty’s 12th state and 14th marathon.
Chris Johnson, formerly of Warren, is going to be checking off his 39th state this Sunday in Hawaii.
Bill, Mary and Ian Mcfarland are tagging along but not running the events. Bill and Ian have been frequent training partners with Jim over the years.
Other local training partners include Lonnie Heeter, Scott Newton, Sam Sivak, and Joe Sienkiewicz from Warren, and Brad Nelson of Russell, who has run over 30 marathons.
Looking back, Roberts can’t help but remember the way he felt when he learned his friend Sam Walters had ran in over 15 states, and the spark of determination that inspired him.
In the years since, he has met a variety of other runners, each setting their own goals. He has ran the Boston Marathon alongside Will Ferrell (the funny one). He met a Ukrainian runner with a record of more than 200 marathons within a single calendar year.
Roberts said running marathons is probably “not for everyone.” But in keeping with his theme of setting regular goals, “Anyone who really wanted to certainly could.”
For a runner who has 56 marathons under his belt, some of which include Belgian and Swedish courses, you might be inclined to ask what more could he possibly strive for? After all, not included in his personal marathon stats is when he and his wife Lisa ran the original marathon course to Athens, Greece in 2017.
As it turns out, marathon runners are not well known for resting on their laurels.
“There’s a website,” he explains, called 50sub4.com. According to Roberts, there are only 32 athletes who have run marathons in all 50 states in less than 4 hours.
Roberts has run
He says his next goal will be to go back and “finish all the states in under 4 hours.”
Not an unreasonable goal when considering his progress.
Someone like Jim Roberts proves that no goal, however out of reach it may seem, can be achieved one step at a time.
As obscure 1980’s sci-fi character Buckaroo Banzai once said,
“No matter where you go, there you are.”