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The Marathon Habit
Newburgh Goes Distance in 50 States

By Rich McManus

On the Front Page...

Last October, Dr. Janet Newburgh of the Center for Scientific Review joined an exclusive club that has only 150 or so members. Theoretically open to anyone, the club has one rather daunting requisite: members must have completed marathons in all 50 United States.


Newburgh, deputy director of the Division of Receipt and Referral, notched her final marathon of the circuit in Connecticut, at a race in Hartford. And like the proverbial journey of a thousand miles that begins with a single step, her running career began humbly, with no hint of the achievements that lay ahead.

"I ran my first mile on Christmas Day, 1977," she recalls. "I was living in Berkeley and doing research in a muscle biochemistry lab. Everyone in the lab ran, so I thought I'd give it a try."

CSR's Dr. Janet Newburgh

Newburgh had mapped out a mile-long route in her neighborhood on Alameda Island, and on her first try, clad in sneakers, pooped out after a quarter mile. But with a relentlessness that would eventually come to define her running career, she persisted, completing the course in quarter-mile bursts.

It took her another month to try a second mile. This time, the same thing happened. So again she quit for a month. On her third attempt, she was just about to bail when she saw someone walking ahead of her. "I thought, I'd better not stop now." Still, she didn't complete the mile.

Once more, she tried her loop, this time making it nine-tenths of the way. "At this point, I told my friends in the lab that I had begun running, and they were very supportive. They sent me out to get running shoes and the whole bit. They took me up to Strawberry Canyon, behind the University of California campus, and I thought I was going to die." Unlike Alameda Island, the canyon was hilly, and 2 miles was all she could manage with colleagues who were used to daily 5-mile jaunts.

"From that time on, I would run 1 or 1.2 miles fairly regularly, when it wasn't too cold. I did that for about 4 years. Then I had a baby (her fourth, in 1983; she also has two adopted children). That threw me off, and I got away from running."

In 1988, feeling out of shape, Newburgh bought a new pair of running shoes and decided to resume her fledgling career as a runner. At NIGMS by this time, Newburgh said one of her colleagues, Dr. Yvonne Maddox (now acting NIH deputy director), mentioned that she was going to run the Marine Corps Marathon, and suggested, "Why don't you come out and cheer for me?" Newburgh replied, "Yvonne, I'll do you one better — I'll run it with you."

Maddox gave her a copy of running guru Jim Fixx's book and a Runner's World article on marathon preparation, along with much encouragement, and she followed the marathon training plan to the letter. "That was a very important aspect of my success. You really need a long-term plan to do a marathon."

Newburgh notches her 50th state marathon in Hartford last fall.

By Olympic definition, a marathon course extends 26 miles, 385 yards. Spliced end to end, 50 of them would put you some 1,311 miles away, or a little more than the distance from Washington to Newburgh's hometown of Miami ("pronounced My-amuh"), Oklahoma, a little town in the state's extreme northeast corner, hard by Kansas and Missouri. It's the kind of wide-open country a gal can stretch her legs in.

But Newburgh wasn't an athlete as a youngster. She got her undergraduate degree in chemistry at Oklahoma State, and remained in the midwest for a graduate degree in chemistry at the University of Illinois. The first race of her life was in 1979, in Chapel Hill, N.C., where she ran a 10K while at the University of North Carolina. A year later she came to NIH as a grants associate, and entered her second race, the Rockville Twilighter, an 8K run that she finished in a respectable 46 minutes (a fact verifiable by consulting her meticulous race logs, one of which is devoted, according to its cover, to "Just Marathons!!")

"At the awards ceremony after that race, I saw how good the runners looked physically and decided that's for me — they looked great," she remembers. "I was 46 years old and decided to commit to running."

Another early race was the Al Lewis 10-Miler, which used to be hosted by the NIH Health's Angels Running Club in Rock Creek Park. "That was the first time I'd ever raced that distance," Newburgh recalls.

She toyed briefly with the idea of becoming a triathlete, but couldn't devote the time to swimming and biking. She was also leery of biking on suburban streets.

When Newburgh finished her first Marine Corps Marathon in 4:05, "it crept into the back of my mind that I'd like to qualify for the Boston Marathon," she said. "I didn't feel that bad — I wasn't wiped out or exhausted. And I recovered quickly. My husband said, 'You're not going to do this again are you?' and in the back of my mind I thought, yes, I am."

Within 6 weeks she was training for marathon #2, the Shamrock Marathon in Virginia Beach. She finished that one in 3:56, and learned from the newspaper the following day that she finished second in her age group, and won third place in the master's category. "It was the first time I ever won money in a race. But I still didn't qualify for Boston."

Her husband, not a runner himself, would go on to become a race organizer, helping out several times in Boston, and directing the upcoming Capital Crescent Trail 5K in June.

At Newburgh's third marathon, the 1989 Marine Corps, she did qualify for Boston, finishing in 3:38. "I had a partner for that, with whom I trained very hard," she remembers.

Newburgh in mid-marathon last June at one of her favorite races at Kona, Hawaii.

That success led to serial marathons, two to four a year, including many repeats. She completed the Boston Marathon for every year of the 1990s (including her personal best time of 3:31 in 1991, and highest age-group rating — eighth — in 1993), then found things were getting "a little bit repetitive, a bit dull." A former graduate school colleague told her about the 50-Stater Club. "That seemed like a neat new goal to aim for," she said, and in 1997 she began the quest.

Her all-time favorite race was Boston 1997. "It was the 101st running, and I was having a hard time. I had stomach problems. But the crowds were just incredible — so supportive. I thought, gee, I just love this place."

That year, she picked up the pace of her marathoning, a habit that "took a lot of planning and coordination so as not to interfere with my work or family life." She ran six marathons in 1997, completed 11 in 1998 and 1999, and peaked with 14 races in 2000. The highlights fly like footfalls: Kona, Hawaii last June, on the same course as the Iron Man Triathlon; Seattle on a rainy November day, her worst marathon (hilly, hard-surfaced, and "I've never been so wet"); the fictitious "University of Okoboji" marathon at a resort "around a beautiful blue glacial lake" in Iowa; Columbus, Ohio, and Louisville, Ky., where she was joined by her daughter; spectacular natural beauty at Grandfather Mountain, N.C., at Keene State University in New Hampshire, and Sugarloaf, Maine; the South Dakota marathon forced indoors by sleet, so that runners ran 209 laps on an eighth-mile track ("We reversed direction every hour so we didn't end up with one leg shorter than the other"); the Utah marathon in Salt Lake City, which began in the dark and featured a downhill run from the Wasatch Mountains into town.

Nowadays chiefly a morning runner 6 days a week, Newburgh is training for the D.C. Marathon on Mar. 24; she wants to run a race totally within the bounds of the District (the Marine Corps Marathon is mainly in D.C. but starts and finishes in Virginia). And once again she's at a crossroads, having won membership in the 50-Stater Club.

"I'd like to regain some speed at shorter distances," she said. "I'd like to focus on 5K races, if I can ever get marathoning out of my system."

She admits to occasional problems with motivation. "Sometimes I question why I am doing this — I'll say, I don't really want to go out and run today. So I tell myself I'll just do it for a little while. Generally that's enough to get me going again."

Newburgh, who has been mercifully free of injuries throughout her running career, says she's never bailed out of a race. You get the feeling quitting is inimical to her, that it isn't what good Oklahomans do. There's the plaque on her bookshelf praising "a runner's unrelenting self-control." And her advice on handling mid-race mishaps — "back off if you have to, but don't quit." It's the attitude that got her through her first mile, quarter by quarter.

But she's not all about solo struggles, despite another heroic sentiment on her office plaque: "Distance burns through betrayals, loves and hates." It was the connections — the lab colleagues, Maddox, training partners, cheering crowds, and family — that pushed her through her various walls. She especially credits membership in the Montgomery County Road Runners Club, which she joined in 1988, and of which she is now serving her second year as president, with inspiring her. "They really provide tremendous support to one another," she says.

Having run 26 races last year, Newburgh is considering rejoining the 50 Races/Year Club (to which she belonged from 1997 to 2000). With a goal ahead of her and inspiring company, there's no reason not to hit the road again.

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