For many running careers, completing a marathon in all 50 states would be the beginning of the end—the achievement of a lifetime and the perfect excuse to pause and take a breath. But for long-time RaceRaves member Tim Mullican, crossing the finish line of his 50th state at the 2017 Kona (HI) Marathon was instead the end of the beginning and the springboard to a bigger, bolder challenge.
Over the next four years, culminating in last month’s Mainly Marathons New England Series 50K in Vermont, Tim would go where few runners have gone before, as he completed an officially sanctioned ultramarathon—that is, a distance longer than a marathon—in all 50 states. Along the way his conquests ranged from 30 to 110 miles, with the 50 km (31.1 mile) distance being his sweet spot. And so naturally we wanted to know—what was he thinking?
A former high school cross-country standout, Tim is now a Professor of Biology and the Chairperson of the Department of Biological Sciences at Dakota Wesleyan University in his hometown of Mitchell, South Dakota. On top of that he’s a genuinely nice guy, a fact we appreciate all the more having met him at the Missoula (MT) Marathon in 2017. And as both his running résumé and the following conversation attest, nice guys don’t always finish last.
RR: You’ve accomplished so much in your running career, I feel I’d be remiss in not asking how it all began. When did you first get bitten by the running bug and, specifically, the 50 States bug?
TM: It’s a long story, because I began running in middle school track and cross country. I consider my coach, Jim Vella, to be one of the best coaches in the state of Oregon. I lived in a small town, but our cross country team went undefeated for two years straight, competing with some of the biggest schools in the state.
I continued running distance events in high school, making all-conference in cross country my freshman year. After cross country season was over my sophomore year, one of my teammates asked me to run the Island Marathon with him in 1975 on Sauvie Island, OR, where they now run the Foot Traffic Flat Marathon. I didn’t do enough long runs in training, though, and cramped up badly near the end, but still finished. I ran the Trail’s End Marathon in Seaside, OR the following year with similar results. I then vowed that I wouldn’t run another one until I had time to train properly.
Fast forward 38 years. I didn’t run another marathon until 2013 when I ran the River Rat Marathon in Yankton, SD. It went very well, so a ran a few more that year, along with my first two ultramarathons. The next year, I met a group of Marathon Maniacs at the Fargo Marathon and was astounded to hear one of them saying his goal was to run 52 marathons in one year. One thing led to another, and in 2015, I reached the Titanium level in Marathon Maniacs by running 30 marathons in 30 states in 12 months. By that point, I was close to running a marathon in every state, and completed my first round of the 50 states in 2017.
RR: Back in 2014, during your 50 States marathon quest, you asked on Facebook whether any “overachievers” had completed an ultramarathon in all 50 states, writing “I don’t see myself doing it… for a very long, long time, if ever.” For most marathoners who accomplish their 50 states goal, they’re happy to transition to shorter distances like the half marathon. So what compelled you to move up in distance for your second round?
TM: After running a marathon in all 50 states, I figured that I had already proved to myself that I can run a marathon, so wanted a bigger challenge. I really like being out in nature, seeing the flora and fauna and panoramic views, and ultramarathons are one of the best ways to do that.
“I like the saying that you don’t slow down because you get old. You get old from slowing down.”
RR: What has been the most rewarding aspect of your 50 States journey?
TM: I’ve really enjoyed getting to know some of the more veteran runners that I’ve met. When you’re running a longer fixed-time ultra (e.g. 12 hours, 24 hours), you have a lot of time to chat with others along the course and get to know them. Compared to some of the other veteran runners who have run hundreds of marathons and ultras, I consider myself just a beginner.
RR: What would you tell the prospective ultramarathoner who’s intrigued by the challenge but apprehensive about the distance? And what one piece of advice would you give someone who’s at the beginning of their own 50 States quest—racing, traveling, or otherwise?
TM: Ultramarathons are a whole different world compared to marathons. Most ultrarunners aren’t going out to win, but just to finish. Time is irrelevant, since the course is going to dictate your pace, particularly in the mountains. So my advice would be to not worry about your time, walk if you have to, and just enjoy the scenery.
RR: With so many races under your belt (or buckle), is there one or two that really stand out in your mind? And what about a hidden gem everyone should know about?
TM: I think my overall favorite ultra is the Siskiyou Outback (SOB) in southern Oregon near Ashland. It is run mainly along the ridges of the Pacific Crest Trail, and I’ll never forget the view of Mt. Shasta at sunrise. One of my other favorites is the Madison Marathon in Montana. It is run along the crest of the Gravelly Mountains and has beautiful views of the Snowy Range and numerous wildflowers along the course. (Editor’s note: With a starting elevation of 9,250 ft, the Madison Marathon is also one of the Toughest Road Marathons in North America.)
RR: Clearly a pastime like yours requires much more travel than gardening or stamp collecting. Has your family been able to accompany you on your travels? I know many non-running spouses tend to wait for Alaska or Hawaii race weekend. 😄
TM: I am one of those who has a non-running spouse. When I first started running ultramarathons, she did go with me and waited for me to finish. Most ultramarathons are not much of a spectator sport, however, so she stopped going with me when she realized that I wasn’t going to die. She did go with me to Hawaii when I did my 50th state for my first round of marathons. We turned it into a run-cation, going on a dinner cruise, and visiting a coffee plantation as well as some Hawaiian historical sites.
RR: Since achieving your 50 States ultramarathon goal in Vermont last month, you’ve barely paused to rest, much less rest on your laurels. How’s the body feeling, and what’s next?
TM: I’m struggling a little right now with my flexibility, but it is my own fault since I don’t stretch as much as I should after I get done with my runs. I still hope to run two or three more ultras this summer and have a 100 miler scheduled for October at the Mo’ Bell races in TN. My next big goal is to finish 100 ultramarathons which I should be able to reach near the end of this year.
RR: Running a marathon—and especially an ultra—in all 50 States is a long & arduous process that demands patience, grit & determination, with plenty of highs and lows. Did you face any notable low points along the way (e.g. injury, loss of motivation), and if so how did you push through them?
TM: I haven’t really had any major injuries. I do occasionally have lower back problems, but it has never really bothered me while running. In fact, I’ve found that the more physical activity that I do, the better it feels. Resting in a recliner seems to do more harm than good sometimes.
I don’t remember who said it, but I like the saying that you don’t slow down because you get old. You get old from slowing down.
👉 Follow Tim on RaceRaves to stay updated on all his racing adventures and his quest for 100 ultramarathons!
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Author: Mike Sohaskey
Mike Sohaskey is the co-founder of RaceRaves, the premier online reviews community for runners to share their race experiences and find their next challenge. Mike honed his creative and critical thinking skills as a research scientist, earning a Ph.D. in Cancer Biology from Stanford. He’s also completed over 100 races — including 50+ marathons and ultras — in locations ranging from Antarctica to Zimbabwe.
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