The Adventures of Marathon-Man
For Bill Wrobel, Director of the Wallops Flight Facility
, “All of life is an adventure. A marathon is just a running adventure.” Growing up in rural Ohio, he often wondered what the rest of the world looked like. Now he knows. He is about to be inducted into the elite Seven Continents Club that only admits those who have run marathons on all seven continents defined as North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania (including Australia and New Zealand), and Antarctica.
Although Wrobel always played sports, he hated track in high school. He took up running after he turned 40 because, says Wrobel, “Age catches up with you in terms of contact sports and I didn’t know what else to do. Running was a good way to clear my head.” Shortly after the birth of his triplets, a fellow engineer asked him to run a marathon, which is 26.2 miles. They targeted the hilly Pittsburgh Marathon. Wrobel says, “I always wanted to do one but didn’t know how to do it. I had no idea how to prepare for a marathon.” They found an article in a running magazine which detailed a week by week training regime. Explains Wrobel, “Every week you ramped up in terms of miles. Once you get to 20 miles, you’re good to go.” Each week, he now usually runs 13 miles on Sundays, eight miles on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and five or six miles on Wednesdays. He also cross-trains for an hour on off-days by biking, lifting weights or swimming. It takes about three months to prepare for a marathon. Wrobel approaches marathons as a mental and physical game.
He did not pay much attention to equipment for his first marathon. He bought running shoes from a local store, regular socks, and old-school cotton clothes. Now he buys shoes specially fit to accommodate how he walks and socks and clothing made out of moisture wicking materials. Wrobel says that, “I got more particular about my clothes as I got on. Even chafing of a shirt can make bare or even bloody spots over time.” He now uses a skin protectant which helps protect against chafing. “Chafing’s bad,” says Wrobel. Also, wet cotton gets heavy. After running a while in the rain, you pick up about ten pounds.” The gear is not expensive and packs easily. Each pair of shoes lasts him about 300 miles. He brings a backup pair for marathons and never wears new shoes in marathons.
The night before a race he eats a big spaghetti dinner. The morning of the race he eats bananas and bagels with orange juice. During the race he ingests gel packs of carbohydrates and drinks water. He does not take any special vitamins.
Wrobel and his colleague completed the Pittsburg Marathon in October 2001. Says Wrobel, “After that race, I could not believe how sore I was. I needed a cane just to step off the street curb. I never wanted to do another marathon again.” A fellow marathoner advised him to run one mile the day after the marathon to reduce the lactic acid built up in his muscles, a regime that he follows after each marathon. Wrobel explains that “it’s not pretty and it hurts like the dickens, but it makes a huge difference.”
In November 2004, Bill’s work required him to go to Taipei, Taiwan for several weeks. He had just started some of his long runs and he continued running in Taipei, using his GPS since he could not ask for directions. In early December 2004, he noticed that a marathon was being set up across the street from his hotel. He got a “Day of” running pass which authorized him to participate in a smaller run. Wrobel says, “I figured that Asia is one of the continents. If I’m here, I’m going to do the whole marathon.” He was not well prepared. He was not yet up to a full marathon length, he did not have his normal equipment, and did not have any skin protectant to minimize chafing. After the race, he was a self-described wreck. His socks were pink with blood which had run down his body due to chafing. “It wasn’t much fun, but I got it done,” says Wrobel. By February 2005, he had run on four different continents.
In 2003, two colleagues wanted to run a marathon in Antarctica. Wrobel did not want to go at first but, as he puts it, “Time heals all wounds.” His wife was used to him traveling about 1½ weeks out of each month anyway; however, he still wanted her approval. Wrobel asks, “How do you sell the whole Antarctica thing to your wife? We talked about it until she stopped looking at me sideways. That was the hardest part.” She finally agreed.
Although he was waitlisted at first, he eventually got in for the February 2005 marathons both in Antarctica and in nearby Ushwaia, Argentina, which is the southernmost city in Argentina and therefore counted as South America. “Once we got into Antarctica and South America, we decided that we may as well do all seven continents,” explains Wrobel.
Wrobel and his colleagues selected the Italian Skyrace through the Italian Alps in July 2006 for their fifth continent marathon. According to Wrobel, “By that point, our families had put up with a lot. We wanted to take our families to Europe in the summer. The Italian Alps are gorgeous. Also, it’s not possible to find a marathon in the lower country because many Europeans are also on vacation during the summer.” Wrobel’s routine became traveling about two and one half weeks for each marathon trip. He says, “It’s all part of that adventure thing. The race is just a part of it.” He spent about five days acclimating to the area, ran the marathon, and spent the remaining time enjoying the area with his family and friends.
Despite having practiced by doing long runs through the Appalachian Trail, Wrobel says, “This run was terrible because of the elevation issues. I didn’t get sick but somehow we made a wrong turn so this marathon took forever – 11 hours. We could have walked it in 11 hours. It was tough and we were a mess by the end.” Although he had a GPS, it only showed the beginning and end of the course, not the actual course. The marathon organizers sent out a search party because they took so long to complete the run. Remembers Wrobel, “Our wives were genuinely glad to see us, and that we had not perished. This was the toughest marathon to date. They all have something a little bit different.”
In July 2008, Wrobel and his friends ran their sixth continent marathon in Knysna, South Africa, an area famed for safaris. “This one was just a lot of really big hills with steep inclines and steep declines. It was pleasant. The temperature was good.” They saw baboons and elephant droppings along the way.
Wrobel and his colleagues ran their seventh and final continent marathon in March 2010 in New Zealand. Says Wrobel, “This was the most beautiful marathon, but it was one of the toughest courses because we had about 30 water crossings. One mile in, I was up to my knees in cold water. But by late afternoon, it felt good and cool to go through the water. It was a tough finish. We ran at least half a mile in very cold water between the ankles and the knees. It’s probably good for muscles but not conducive for good racing conditions. My feet felt like blocks of ice.”
Wrobel’s ten-year quest to run marathons on all seven continents is now completed. He still runs three times a week and up to seven to eight miles a run. He may find more adventurous runs to replace several that he already did. “More adventurous marathons are a neat way to see the countryside instead of just the city,” explains Wrobel. He is contemplating running the Bataan Memorial Death March through the desert near Los Cruses, N.M., as an alternative to the Pittsburgh Marathon. He may also substitute the Mount Everest Marathon or the Great Wall of China Marathon for the one he did in Taipei, Taiwan. Additionally, he may try to complete an Iron Man, which includes a 2½-mile swim, a 112-mile bike, and a marathon.
Reflecting back, Wrobel notes that “running gives you a lot of time to think. I think about all kinds of things.” His favorite marathons were Antarctica, South Africa and New Zealand because, he says, “They were all beautiful in different ways.” For Wrobel, “These marathons aren’t about the time you race, they’re about the adventure. Besides, I am not a very good runner anyway. But running is a great way to see a variety of things. In 26.2 miles, you’re going to come across interesting stuff no matter where you are. I’ve always liked to see what’s out there and this was a great way to do it.”