Only 12 people competed in 2015's World Marathon Challenge-- an incredible test of mental and physical endurance, requiring participants to run seven marathons (over 180 miles total) on seven continents in seven days. But the only American to complete the challenge, Tim Durbin, isn't stopping there. Durbin, a 31-year-old consultant from San Francisco, has set a personal goal to run the distance of the equator -- 24,901 miles -- in the 10 years from his 30th birthday to his 40th. Even though he only started in January 2013, he is well on his way to accomplishing his goal in a fraction of the allotted time, having already completed nearly 8,000 miles.
Salon spoke with Durbin about ultra-long distance running, mental endurance and what it is that makes him tick. This interview has been lightly edited.
How did you get into ultra-long distance running?
I guess it was five or six years ago, my great uncle, who was in his early 70s at the time, was still doing half and full marathons and I figured, "I'm in my mid-20s. If a 70-year-old can do it, I have no excuse for not going out there and at least attempting it." So that got me back into running and, specifically, distances.
What got me into more specific races like this was I knew I wanted to go to Antarctica, and I didn't want to necessarily just go see penguins. [My great uncle] had always mentioned this ice marathon, so I literally googled "ice marathon" and that's when I came across the Antarctic Ice Marathon, which is like 600 miles from the South Pole on a glacier. I went down and did that in 2012 and that was a pretty amazing experience, meeting all the 50 other folks who were doing that race. When this opportunity came about by the same organizer, who had actually done this twice, individually, on his own, I jumped at the chance.
I would imagine the qualification requirements for that are pretty strict. What did you have to do?
The qualification requirements weren't necessarily all that strict, I wouldn't say. There was a medical checkup to make sure you were fit enough to do it and then after that it kind of becomes a mental and physical challenge of your own; there weren't any specific time requirements that you had to meet.
Oh, wow, OK.
You just have to be a little bit crazy to want to do it.
Right. So you did seven marathons in seven continents in seven days ... How? How did you do that? What was it like?
That's kind of the big thing of it all, it's a huge logistical challenge. We started in Antarctica, because that's where the weather really could screw up the whole seven-day part, so once we knew the plane was coming back to pick us up in Antarctica — and it actually started on time, luckily — we did the marathon there, flew five hours back to Chile and ran a couple hours later. Due to the timing and the way it worked out, we had a nice long break in Chile and then the flight to Miami, so that helped us reset our clocks a little. But after Miami is when the intensity really picked up.
We landed in Miami at like 5 a.m., we're running at 7 a.m., and then flew out at 6 p.m.. Flew to Madrid; landed in Madrid the following morning at 9 a.m.; we're running at 11 a.m.; we're on a plane to Morocco at 8 p.m. Landed in Morocco and did a midnight marathon, which, I think, was the hardest one and kind of broke everybody because it was the second in 24 hours and the third in 40 hours and it was at midnight, cold, rainy. [We] ran there, then had a longer flight via connection back to Dubai; landed there; went straight to the course; ran, and then were in Dubai for less than 12 hours before the nice, long flight to Sydney. Landed here, and we had about 12 hours left to complete the challenge. We started a race at midnight here, which was a good thing because the heat could have been a challenge. If it was during the day, that could have made it even more miserable, but I finished right about 5 a.m.
So it was quite a challenge to get around the world and basically eat and sleep on planes for an entire week.
How were you taking care of your body? Are you broken now?
Actually, not really! It's been less than a week at this point, and I feel pretty good. Back in November, as part of the Runner's' World holiday run streak, I started running at least mile a day, so I'm now up to 67 or 68 straight days of running at least a mile a day, and I've been walking around the city with my wife on vacation, which is eight to 10 miles a day. Body-wise, I'm actually in fairly good shape.
How is that possible?
All the training that went into it. Over 2014, I averaged running or walking 11 miles a day and in 2013 it was around nine and a half miles, so that two years of preparation helped me be able to do that back-to-back distance more regularly.
I've heard that one of the hardest parts of a marathon is the mental challenge. You just did that for a week. How did you find the mental stamina?
The mental thing was definitely hard. I think the biggest things that helped are: One, I had a lot of support from home, from friends and family and strangers. I would get the chance to see their words at the airports using Wi-Fi or data. And then my wife had also put together these little inspirational things she had collected from my friends the week prior to the race and I had one before each race, so it was nice to have those refreshing words.
The second thing is the 11 other people attempting the challenge with me. We had some characters in the group, so that really kept the spirits up and kept us focused and kept us going. There's some sort of saying — "It's not a sprint, it's a marathon" — but the thing I kept telling myself was, it's not a marathon, it's seven marathons. You had to pace yourself and not go out and try to kill yourself too early.
Do you listen to something while you're running? Literally, what were you doing?
I literally listen to no music. I don't do anything when I run. I started doing that as part of training for the Antarctic Ice Marathon of 2012 because I figured the batteries on my iPod wouldn't last, so I'd better be prepared to take in five to six hours of complete silence in Antarctica. In training, I don't listen to anything probably 99 percent of the time, except for the sights and the sounds of the city. That was definitely another hard part, having all that time to think. At some point you stop thinking and you're just trying to put one foot in front of the other.
That's pure meditation.
Do you have a favorite race of the week or was it all just a blur?
Yeah, there's definitely a couple that stand out. Antarctica is beautiful just because it's so surreal; Miami was a beautiful course because it was along South Beach, so all the people were out there and the sights and scenes keep you going. The running surface in Dubai was spectacular; it was a longer running path and it had a nice give to it, which was wonderful.
You're also doing this 10-year challenge, right? How did you decide to do that? How's it going?
How I decided to do that was after I came back from Antarctica in November of 2012, I was sitting back in Illinois at my parents' house over the Christmas holiday thinking, what can I do in 2013 to keep my running up and keep myself in shape? And I didn't really care about doing any other races or training for anything at that time, so I set a goal to run 1,000 miles and walk 1,000 miles, because I figured that that was somewhat reasonable and attainable. Over the course of the year, I think it works out to, total, five or six miles a day and two to three miles a day running, on average, which I figured I could do.
As it got to April and May, I was really knocking that goal out of the water so I extended it to 2,900 miles overall, which is basically the distance from San Francisco to New York. Then I was out hiking one day and was thinking to myself, well, this is great for 2013, but what am I going to do next year? That's when I started doing some research and came up with the idea to run and walk the distance around the equator over the course of 10 years, which coincided roughly with my 40th birthday. In terms of how I'm doing overall, I'm probably on pace to finish in six to eight years. Actually, in the next week or so, I'll have crossed 8,000 total miles in roughly 25 months, so I'm moving quite nicely along.
Do you have a day job?
Yeah. I used to work, when this all started... doing consulting for Fortune 500 companies. I left there just under two years ago to go work with a small social-sector firm called Hope Consulting. We do work for foundations and nonprofits, so I do have a day job.
Fitting all this stuff in is definitely somewhat taxing. There are days where I don't do that many miles so on weekends getting up early and going out and doing a run or a walk before anybody else is out and moving helps. I also am fortunate enough to be able to walk to work or, if we're going somewhere, I plan ahead and leave 10 to 15 minutes earlier and walk or run to the location rather than take a cab. It's probably saved me money overall, as well!
Are your knees okay?
Luckily, fortunately, knock on wood, I have no injuries at this point and haven't really experienced any over the past two years. I think it's probably from all the training I've done that's strengthened the muscles around the knees, so that's been really helpful. Also, from the time I was younger, my running style has changed more to an ultra's shuffle than a more natural running style, so it's a lot less impact than it used to be.
I don't even know what else to ask. This is superhuman.
It's not, though! I'm not an extreme athlete by any means and I think anybody could start small— whether it be with running, walking, whatever they want to do— and pick a goal and work toward it.
I guess so. My goal is, like, a mile.
You gotta start somewhere, right? When I started this in 2012, I couldn't run three miles if you asked me to.
Yeah. Just start slow! You can't be embarrassed to go out and run and walk a mile. I realize I'm not the fastest runner, too, so I'm not going to go run a sub-three-hour marathon or anything like that. Just keep pushing forward and listening to your body and knowing when to walk and when to run. Your body will tell you a lot.
Is there something else you'd like to talk about?
I think the only other thing might be that this wasn't necessarily only for myself. I was also, and still am, raising money for the V Foundation for Cancer Research. That came about because I think, like most of us, cancer has touched us personally. I've lost a couple of grandparents to cancer, my mom has successfully battled breast cancer, and I've watched a couple of close friends deal with cancer in their early 30s as well, so this is something that's close to home.
The reason, specifically, for the V Foundation was that I remember back in 1993 I had no idea who Jim Valvano was and was watching the first Espies. He gets up there and gives this amazing speech about his battle with cancer and all that he's going through, and that's when they launched the foundation. The motto was something like, "Don't ever give up" and that's always stuck with me. As I was thinking through this challenge, I figured I'd be saying those words a lot— and actually definitely was at certain times— to keep pushing through, so that's how I chose the V Foundation and why it means a lot to me.