50 Marathons in 50 States: The David Hurley Story

David Hurley in Kansas
David Hurley in Kansas

Dave Hurley didn’t want to run another marathon. In fact, he never wanted to run—period. After a physical back in the 1970’s, his doctor told him he needed to get in better shape. A reluctant Hurley took up running.

“Back then not too many people were running, so I’d wait until all the cars left and run around Tanglewood Mall,” said Hurley, 67, a Roanoke County resident and Tennessee native. Laps in the mall parking lot turned into 5k races, which turned into 10k’s, 10 milers, half-marathons and eventually a marathon: the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC, in 1996.

“I swore I’d never do another one. It was just really hard,” he said. But he ran another one in New York City in the rain—and got pneumonia. (A sign from above?) Then he ran yet another one in Myrtle Beach—and it rained—hard. “I thought the Lord was trying to tell me never to run another marathon,” said Hurley.

So what did he do? He ran the Myrtle Beach event again the next year and almost qualified for the Boston Marathon. Then he ran a race in Pittsburgh—and did qualify for Beantown. “After that I was hooked,” said Hurley, pneumonia, bad weather and all.

Earlier this month in Wichita, KS, Hurley completed a feat that only a few hundred Americans have ever done: running a marathon in all 50 states, plus the nation’s capital. He finished first in his age group in a very respectable four hours, 19 minutes.

Hurley was a teacher for 41 years, mostly in Roanoke. Now, the ETSU and Radford grad coordinates a Title I after-school program at 12 schools, and is also an adjunct faculty member at RU. He runs, too, but not as much as you might think. A typical week involves just four days of running, and he averages only 40 miles a week or so, low by most distance running standards. The other three days he’s in the gym lifting weights, which he credits with shaving as much as an hour off his time.

Hurley says he’s competitive, but he enjoys marathons for the experience as much as the competition. “At 67, I know I cannot run as fast as someone in his 20’s or 30’s, so I only compete with my age group,” he says. He enjoys finishing in the top three in his age group, because “fourth is as good as fourteenth. They usually only hand out awards to the top three.” But more importantly, “there’s a story with each marathon” he’s completed in his quest.

There are the finishes in the football stadiums: the University of Tennessee, Notre Dame, and the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field in Green Bay, WI. “One guy ran through twice,” he was so excited, said Hurley.

The very first race in New York City took him through several of the boroughs, making it “a really multicultural experience.” His marathon in Alaska was especially memorable. “Everything is so green. You just OD0 on beauty,” said Hurley. The field was small, too—just 35 people. “They only had two age groups: old and young,” he said.

He once ran in three inches of snow in Frederick, MD. “We looked like snowmen when we finished,” said Hurley. He remembers a beleaguered co-runner telling him, “It hurts to walk and it hurts to run, so I might as well run.” That’s in contrast to the marathon in Salt Lake City, where it was 103 the day before the race.

Sometimes there was cash on the line. In North Dakota, Hurley said, “I was third in my age group and won 10 dollars. It was cab fare for the airport.” He once raced through a wild horse reserve in Wyoming and across a Montana grizzly bear sanctuary.

Hurley ran 37 of the marathons with his good friend Terry Graham, who ran all but one with a pacemaker. Graham had to stop due to health problems and a new marriage (“I don’t know which one caused him to drop out,” said Hurley). But soon thereafter while racing in North Dakota, Hurley met another Terry, this one from California, and the two ran marathons in South Dakota, New Mexico, and Kansas together. “California Terry” has run three marathons since having a heart valve replaced with one from a pig last fall.

Hurley runs all of his races at a comfortable 10-minute mile pace. “I run 26 miles and talk the whole way,” he said. “The first 20 miles is the first half of a marathon, and the last 6.2 really get you sometimes.”

His quest for 51 complete, Hurley says he’ll “take it easy and only run two or three a year now.”

And how long does the reluctant runner, the guy who was too embarrassed to run around Tanglewood Mall in the daytime, plan to keep running? His answer is unequivocal: “Forever.”

By Dave Perry