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“Young legs” set for 40th marathon

Joanne VanBibber-Widrig found her passion at the age of 40 — and 10 years later, she’s still going strong.

Joanne VanBibber-Widrig found her passion at the age of 40 — and 10 years later, she’s still going strong.

This weekend, the marathoner will lace up her sneakers for her 40th 42-kilometre race, in Victoria.

Not bad for someone who didn’t consider herself an athlete for most of her life.

“I wasn’t a runner, I hadn’t run at all for years,” said VanBibber-Widrig on Monday, reflecting back on the genesis of her running career.

“It was one of those age things.”

It was the 1997 Victoria Marathon, and she admits that she wasn’t nearly prepared for the challenge.

“It was terrible, but it’s also the most memorable for sure… I just wanted to finish.”

She did finish, and perhaps, that would have been the end of it.

But the next year, when she was visiting her hometown of Mayo, she decided to try it again.

“It was the Mayo Midnight Marathon, and I was signing in to do the 10-kilometre version… but my hand just hovered across the page and checked off the ‘M’,” she said with a laugh.

After her second race, she really started to enjoy it.

“The first one was such a mind-altering experience, I don’t think I took anything from it,” she said. “After the second one, it became a habit.”

Over the next few years, VanBibber-Widrig became something of a marathon junkie — running as many as five races in a season. Vancouver in May, Mayo in June, Comox in September, Victoria in October and Seattle in November.

“I asked Michael Brooks (a local marathoner) how to train for a second marathon six weeks after the first,” she said. “His response was ‘You don’t.’”

VanBibber-Widrig said most top marathoners do only one a year — perhaps she was trying to make up for lost time — running 40 marathons in 10 years.

She posted her best time, three hours, 55 minutes, in Comox in 2001.

That year, she also put her name in the lottery for the New York City Marathon, but it wasn’t drawn (9/11 happened just days before the marathon, which went ahead with a much smaller field of runners).

She’s also run in San Diego, Portland, Fairbanks and the Whitehorse River Trail Marathon (she’s a fan) and had a real eye-opener in Stockholm.

“I almost killed myself in that race,” she said, citing overhydration. “It was very hot, so you’re sweating, losing salts, and drinking a lot of water.”

She ended up spending the nearly a week in bed with a debilitating headache.

“After four days I knew I wasn’t going to die.”

That was a lesson learned the hard way, and now, she’s “picking her races wisely” – she doesn’t run during the hottest part of the summer, or in balmy climates.

That pace is hard to believe, especially when VanBibber-Widrig claims that she doesn’t really like running at all.

“Shorter runs, like a 10k — you have to be fast,” she said. “I like to get into the lazy marathon pace.”

“It’s going inside yourself, you can’t get there any other way.”

After 40 marathons, she knows herself pretty well.

“I love the last six miles, but it’s not the pain — I’m not a masochist — if I could get to that place without the first 20, I would.”

Although 10 years isn’t much in a usual running career, VanBibber-Widrig’s high concentration of marathons didn’t come without a cost.

She’s nursing a hip injury that has kept her out of full-marathons this year.

She ran a leg of the Klondike Road Relay, and has been training for the last 12 weeks.

VanBibber-Widrig has a lot on her schedule — this weekend’s Victoria Marathon, then she’s planning a five-day hiking trip to Machu Picchu in Peru, and she’s not ruling out another running of the Seattle Marathon next month.

She plans to keep running, despite the effects.

“When I’m in training, I look like an 80-year-old woman, walking around,” she laughed. “I’ll do this as long as I can, then I’ll have to find something new.”

She’s interested in paddling the Yukon River Quest, but worries about developing another all-consuming passion.

For now, she’ll take it one step at a time.