Just as in life, running a marathon is all about the journey not the finish line. Neither one is a sprint to the finish, but instead a lengthy ordeal, filled with highs and lows, many struggles and, hopefully, many moments of excitement and success that make you realize it’s all worthwhile.
So says Carol Dellinger, who on Dec. 11 completed her 300th marathon as she crossed the finish line of the Honolulu Marathon.
Think about that for a moment: 300 marathons! That’s 7,860 miles, a distance equivalent to Dellinger running from her home in Spokane, Wash., to New York City and back … and then back to New York again. And, of course, it doesn’t include the tens of thousands of miles she logged in training for those races.
How long does it take to run 300 marathons? If you ran your first marathon this month, you’d have to run one every month for the next 25 years to reach that number. And that’s just about what Dellinger, who is 54, has done since the early 1990s. She works four 10-hour days as a registered dental assistant, which gives her the ability to make three-day weekends out of her marathon trips.
But it’s not her marathon frequency and her longevity that makes her special. It’s more that she understands what it’s all about and has continued to embrace the challenge and enjoy the journey year after year after year, despite some serious struggles along the way. And despite those struggles—most notably overcoming breast cancer in 2009, followed by surgery on each knee in the ensuing years—she’s learned how to give back, spread a positive message and inspire others to carry on in life and reach their own goals.
Every step she takes serves as a reminder that she’s alive and approaching another finish line achievement.
“Reaching the milestone of running 300 marathons was very special,” says Dellinger, who is a fountain of positive energy and eager to spread that zest to anyone she can. “Having a few bumps in the road made it a little bit more challenging, so it was a pretty amazing thing to accomplish. I’m pretty grateful for everything I have and everything it took to get here. Life gave me lemons and I squeezed it into the best damn lemonade you’ve ever seen.”
She’s lived an active, athletic life since she was a kid. She played volleyball and basketball in high school, played basketball in college and then played on a women’s semi-pro fast-pitch softball team in her early 20s. That’s when a teammate told her she was going to start training for a marathon. It was 1986, back when the running boom was mostly centered around the idea that anyone could run marathon, and it sparked her to start training for one, too.
“I thought, I’m going to run one, too, because she can’t do something that I can’t do also,” she says with a laugh.
And although she struggled a bit in her debut race—the Capital City Marathon in Olympia, Wash.—finishing that first one in just over 5 hours was like nothing she’d ever experienced before.
“It was the most euphoric feeling I have ever had crossing that finish line,” she says. “It was better than any home run I had ever hit.”
She was intrigued by that sensation so much that she started running more miles and more races. Then she put down her softball glove and became a marathoner in earnest, and she’s been on the run ever since.
“I knew I wasn’t fast, but I knew I realized I had great endurance,” she says.
Along the way, Dellinger learned more about how to train, ran faster and recovered better. (She ran her PR of 4:57 at the Pacific Shoreline Marathon in 2008.) More importantly, running became part of the fabric of her life, but it also helped her meet new friends, visit a variety of different places throughout the U.S. and Canada and earn the satisfaction of finishing a growing number of marathons, not to mention always staying fit through the winter months. (She primarily runs marathons, although she has also run many Race for the Cure 5K events, too.)
With her dedication to training and commitment to being healthy, she began running 12 marathons every year in 1992.
After she had run 20 marathons, she set her new sights on running 50. Once she hit 50, then 100 became her goal. Once she had 200 under her belt, continuing on to 500 didn’t seem at all unattainable.
She’s kept that up for more than two decades, but seven years ago, the day after the Portland Marathon in 2009 (her 234th marathon), she went in for a mammogram and soon found out she had ductal carcinoma in situ (or DCIS, a cancer of the milk ducts) in her right breast. It was especially devastating news because she had lost her mother to breast cancer in the mid-1980s.
“I was non-symptomatic,” she told the Inlander in 2011. “When I ran Portland I ran one of my best marathons. That’s what scary [with DCIS], is there’s no lump. The only way it’s picked up is through a mammogram.”
Having a mastectomy was a challenge and a struggle, but her commitment to running is part of what kept her strong. She canceled three marathons and put her training on hold, but she began walking days after her surgery and nine weeks later continued her marathon quest by finishing the Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona Marathon in Phoenix. (She later framed her finisher’s medal and presented it to her doctor.)
It’s a testament to her strength, passion and perseverance that she’s run 66 marathons since being diagnosed.
Her path to becoming cancer-free gave even more purpose to her running and helped her realize she could make a difference by helping to raise awareness about breast cancer and the importance of early detection. Now she often wears pink while she runs, writes a blog called Warrior Marathon Runner and regularly gives motivational talks to companies, sports teams and other groups.
She’s given talks for the Eastern Washington University football program several times and when she was in Hawaii last week, she spoke to the Hawaii Pacific women’s basketball team.
“I realized it’s not just about 26.2 miles, it’s about the journey and what it takes to get there and how you’re inspired along the way,” Dellinger says. “I’m a living, breathing example that early detection saves lives.
“Certainly there are people that lose the battle, and there are people like me that become cancer-free and persevere and move on,” she continues. “I believe we can give others hope to show that there is life after cancer by doing something like this. It’s all about inspiring others.”
Dellinger ran her 299th marathon—the Cape Cod Marathon on Oct. 30 just south of Boston—as a tribute to her mother, who was born and raised in the area. Her mother’s ashes had been spread along the coast after she died, near Mile 22 of the race.
“That was pretty special for me because I felt like my mom could finally see me run a marathon,” she says.
Because she’s running a marathon almost every month, Dellinger says she doesn’t need to train nearly as much as most runners would leading up to the next race. She runs several days a week, but she rarely runs more than 10 miles. “As long as I’m hydrated and have enough nutrition in me, I can probably run a marathon on any given day,” she says.
However, she supplements her running with long, arduous hikes on weekends, often going out in the mountains around Spokane for 3- to 5-hour treks.
“That’s what I’ve been doing for cross-training and it’s amazing what it has done to my body and my fitness level,” she says. “It’s really strengthened my legs.”
Dellinger also enjoys big city marathons, and especially enjoys the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series. Of the dozen marathons she runs every year, about five or six are Rock ‘n’ Roll races because of its support for everyday runners who are just aiming to finish. Her favorites are Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona in January and Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego in June.
“How could you not like those? They’re so much fun. It’s a party for 26.2 miles,” she says. “That series had brought attention to the fact that you don’t have to be running a marathon in 2 ½ or 3 hours. If you can do it in 5 or 6 hours, you can still enjoy the journey and chase your goal and come away with a huge accomplishment.”
With 2017 right around the corner, Dellinger is already planning to return to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona Marathon once again. She admits she’s slowed in recent years from her best times, but that’s just fine.
“In the back of the pack, everybody has a story, and it’s an amazing and inspiring thing to start talking to people when you’re running one of those races,” she says. “We’re the everyday runners who are out there pounding out the miles, and persevering.”