Most of us measure our lives in years, but not Dr. Tom Guetzloff. For the West Virginia State college chemistry professor, life is measured in marathons—65 of them, to be exact.
As Guetzloff approaches his 50th birthday next year, he isn’t simply celebrating another year older. On January 6, he’ll celebrate running marathons in all 50 states, before turning 50. And while the 50 in 50 goal is a bucket list item for many, for Guetzloff, the mission came from a dark place.
If you told Guetzloff all he would accomplish about 15 years ago, he probably would’ve laughed in your face.
Describing himself as a “big guy,” the former Division III football player says how out of shape he was, topping out at around 260 lbs. in the early 2000s. But it was with good reason. He had been busy taking care of his sick wife Christine, who had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2001.
“Those two years of being a caregiver, it was constantly always about her,” Guetzloff said. “It had to be. It always had to be about how she was doing, how she was getting places, how she was feeling.”
It was 2001 when the couple received the news that Christine had been diagnosed with severe ovarian cancer. Guetzloff was in his second year of teaching at West Virginia State when he got the phone call.
“She was having stomach issues. She thought she was pregnant because she was vomiting a lot, but it kept getting progressively worse,” Guetzloff said. “Doctors couldn’t really figure out what was wrong, and then I get the phone call from the doctor, and he just said ‘Your wife has ovarian cancer.’”
Though she underwent the necessary surgery and chemotherapy for about two years, Christine continued to get weaker, especially when the cancer started attacking her organs.
“She told me, ‘I know I'm not getting better.’”
As Christine’s health deteriorated, she decided it was time to have an important conversation with Tom.
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“She said, ‘Tom, you need to do something, you’re just way out of shape.’ She said ‘Look at you Tom. You’re not going be there for my kids and you have got be there for my kids. I might not be there for my kids’,” Guetzloff said. “We had that conversation, and I realized I really had to get into better shape.”
Guetzloff signed up for a marathon. He started running a little bit here and there, but his main focus was still on his wife.
Three weeks later, on November 15, 2003, Christine Guetzloff passed away in her sleep at the age of 34.
“I got up after, and I just said to my mom that I had to go,” Guetzloff said. “I ran 15 miles that day.”
Guetzloff said that running provided an outlet for his grief after his wife’s passing, and like many, used it as a way to channel the pain he felt. There wasn’t much thought behind the training at first. He simply went out and ran, for as long as he could, gradually increasing distance as the days passed, and working up from one mile to five, to ten some days.
Over the course of those first two years after Christine’s death, Guetzloff completed not just one marathon—but ten, starting with Disney, and running everywhere from Chicago, Illinois, to Knoxville, Tennessee. But what ultimately started out as a way of grieving soon turned into something more.
“As I was running and it went on, it sorted of shifted from being about Christine, and more about me wanting to run these for myself,” Guetzloff said.
It wasn’t until 2010 that Guetzloff wanted to push himself more. He came up with a goal—to run 50 marathons, one in each of the 50 states, before his 50th birthday. He went from running four or five marathons a year, to running 14 or 15 a year. One year he even ran 18, and another time he ran the New England plus Vermont challenge—six marathons in six days, which he prepped for by running 12 miles everyday for two weeks.
“That's when it really kicked in,” Guetzloff said. “I mapped out all the possibilities to get to 50 states prior to turning 50, and made sure I ran Hawaii last.”
Unlike his training, which tends to vary with distance depending on the number of races he’s running and the proximity of them, every race day is the same. Get up at 6 a.m., put on his black West Virginia State shirt and shorts, eat a Cliff bar, and cue up mix of Led Zeppelin’, Ozzy Osbourne, Aerosmith, Gun n’ Roses, and the occasional Lady Gaga before taking off from the start.
While he hit 50 marathons total last November, it wasn’t until this past June that Guetzloff’s 13-year quest to complete marathons in all 50 states was completed. On June 26, he ran the Hawaii Marathon for his 50th and final state with his friend Angelo, making that his 65th marathon overall.
“That was tough, mostly because of the heat while you’re running over all the black, molten rock,” Guetzloff said. “To finish the 50 (states), (Christine) was definitely on my mind, but I was also running for me, and that was really exciting.”
With his 50th birthday coming up on January 6, it seems only appropriate that Guetzloff is celebrating not with a party, but more marathons. His next race will be the Marshall University marathon this November, which he will run for the ninth time. As for his birthday? Geutzloff will be returning to Disney on January 7, the day after turning 50, to run it for the third time, bringing his marathon total up to 67.
This article first appeared on Runner's World.