RaceRaves member Evelyn Watkins refuses to slow down. When she’s not chasing her goal of completing a marathon in all 50 states (47 down, 3 to go!), Evelyn is a Certified Personal Trainer in Meridian, Mississippi, the Fitness Director at Naval Air Station Meridian and the Race Director for her hometown Magnolia Marathon & Half. So who better to share her wealth of race knowledge than someone who’s been on both sides of the orange cones?
With her 50 States finish line in sight at September’s Bozeman (Montana) Marathon, Evelyn chatted with us about the surgery that made it all possible, her favorite races and the passion she brings to creating a small-town event with big-time appeal.
RR: How and when did you develop a passion for the sport of running?
EW: I was not at all athletic in my younger years. I began running regularly around summer 2004 when I was single, living alone in Birmingham, Alabama and working in the Broadcasting industry. I had a lot of free time and spent it in the gym or at the local park. In 2006, a co-worker asked me to co-captain a team for an upcoming Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, my first 5K. Later that year, my TV station was a sponsor for the Vulcan Run, a large 10K in downtown Birmingham. I ran it in 1:02:25 and, at that point, never considered doing anything longer because running for more than an hour at a time caused my feet to ache for days. Then in 2007, I had two foot surgeries to straighten my big toes with pins in an effort to avoid the horrible arthritis, hammer toes & curling toes that afflicted my grandmother, and which I was told would be my fate too.
Two years later, I was working in Mississippi when another co-worker and I began running together and convinced each other that we should run our first marathon. I ran the St. Jude Marathon in 25ºF weather and cried while crossing the finish line in 5:32, more out of joy and relief than pain. I was really sore but once I hit mile 25, I felt that high and knew I could actually finish standing up, which was the ultimate goal. As with most marathoners, I swore I would never do that again, but the next day there I was, Googling other races. And I haven’t quit since. In fact, in 2012 I quit my job to go back to school and become an Exercise Physiologist & Personal Trainer.
RR: With three states to go, you’ve nearly achieved your incredible goal of running a marathon in all 50 states. What have you found to be your favorite types of races, and can you give us a couple of standout examples from your 50 states journey?
EW: I have run massive races like New York City, Honolulu and Marine Corps. And I’ve run some pretty tiny races like the Multiple Sclerosis Marathon in Texas with only 30 people and the one-and-done Beckley Marathon in West Virginia with 21 other runners. I’m not a big fan of the big ones, nor of the party, bling-y races; I prefer the smaller races with a couple hundred runners. My favorites so far have been:
- Grand Island Trail Marathon in Michigan — a beautiful race on a tiny island in Lake Superior. The island is a National Park Recreation Area. There are no inhabitants, no paved roads and amazing views of the lake. It was so peaceful there.
- Avenue of the Giants Marathon in tiny Weott, CA — this race runs through a forest of 1000+ year-old redwoods in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Your neck will likely be more sore than your legs from looking at these massive trees hovering over you. It is amazing to see and touch living things that were alive during the time of Christ. I read a lot about the area before going, and nothing did them justice. You really have to see them in person to understand just how big they really are!
- Zoom! Yah! Yah! Indoor Marathon in Minnesota — this wasn’t a new state for me, but it was a bucket-list race. The race consists of 150 Laps on an indoor track with 50 people I knew by name by the end of it. All while the weather outside was 3ºF with several feet of snow. I sprinted the last few laps to earn a coveted traffic cone trophy for third place.
- Bear Brook Trail Marathon in New Hampshire — a true mental (and physical) challenge, the race is always “longer than a marathon” and typically between 27 and 30 miles. The year I ran it was 33.5! Not knowing how far I was from the finish line after 32 miles and a thunderstorm, I was fighting disorientation and fatigue and trying to hold back the anxiety at the same time. In the back of your mind you start to think, “Is everyone else lost too?” Am I going to have to repeat New Hampshire if I get lost? What’s the cutoff time?” I knew there were a few people behind me, but when I looked at my watch and it was clicking over 8 hours, I couldn’t keep those thoughts at bay.
RR: With a racing résumé like yours, you must have plenty of stories. Can you share one memorable race day story you’ll always remember, and one you’d like to forget?
EW: Hands down, my most memorable experiences were at the Bataan Memorial Death March in New Mexico. Several tear-jerking moments occurred that day, but one stands out the most. The race provides “In memory of” bibs for runners to wear. My friend picked out one for me which read, “In Memory of Christian Pike US Navy Seal.” During the opening ceremonies, an active duty service member in fatigues and a full rucksack came up to me with tears in his eyes and said, “I knew Pike.” At first I didn’t know what he meant. But then he said with a broken voice, “He was a good man. A good leader.” I was speechless. I should have asked his name and thanked him for his service, but I couldn’t get the words out. I was almost breathless at the thought of how this man must have felt, seeing his friend’s name on a stranger’s back. I immediately texted my brother (a Navy sailor) and told him I loved him.
I may catch some flack for this one, but my least favorite race was the Honolulu Marathon. The course goes past Waikiki Beach in the first few miles, but with a 5:00 am start you don’t have daylight for at least 90 minutes into the race. So all those “spectacular views” are non-existent. The start felt like a cattle herd; it isn’t really corralled or monitored so I spent literally half the race dodging walkers and slower runners. Even if I remove my distaste for huge races, this still is one I won’t be repeating.
RR: You’re not only a runner, you’re also the Race Director for the Magnolia Marathon, now in its 7th year in your hometown of Meridian, MS. Why did you decide to start your own race, much less a marathon? That’s no small feat!
EW: Actually, it wasn’t my idea to start the race in Meridian. The LEO Club (the youth version of the local Lions Club) approached our running club for assistance in starting the race, and its original name was the LEO Run to Remember. Honestly, we had doubts that the event would succeed in our area, but they had already picked a date, obtained permits and planned the routes. We advised them on some route changes and helped them with timing, volunteers and course marshaling. Then after the second year, the Lions Club organizers basically handed it off to us when the LEO Club dissolved.
We didn’t want to see the event die, so we (myself and a few others) formed a committee, took over and changed the name to the Magnolia Marathon. And it began to grow. Our fourth year we introduced handmade finisher medals made of magnolia wood. Then last year during the planning months, our race director resigned and I took over completely. We took a major leap, moving the start and finish to City Hall and completely changing the routes. There were so many times over the past six years where we wanted to just quit. But my family and our amazing group of committee members and friends have invested so much time and effort into this event, we feel like it’s our child now. The city is now seeing the potential in our event and with the move to downtown, we anticipate it will thrive in the future.
RR: With all the races out there these days, what would you tell a runner — whether local or a traveling runner like yourself — who asks why they should run Magnolia?
EW: My goal was to build a race that I would want to return to each year. As I said, the races with a couple hundred participants are my favorites. As the race director for a small race I can meet you at packet pickup, then see you at the finish and remember you, thank you for coming and ask what you thought about the race. When you can quickly establish a rapport with your runners, they trust you and know that their opinions matter. I take those comments and suggestions along with my own experiences from races I’ve run, and use them to make Magnolia better. I understand a lot of our runners who come from out of state are just here to check off Mississippi. I want them to go back home and, when they are interviewed for newsletters like this or are asked about their favorite races, I want them to mention Magnolia.
I’m also pretty proud of our finisher medals. My father makes them each year — along with the awards — out of wood from magnolia trees that were donated from private landowners. (Magnolia trees are protected in Mississippi.) The magnolia is the state tree & flower of Mississippi and is very beautiful wood. For our fourth year in 2015 (the year we began making wood medals), the medals were square. Our fifth year, my dad got creative and made them with five sides; last year they had six and this year they’ll have seven. He plans to have eight sides for our eighth year in 2019, but after that cutting more sides becomes difficult (not to mention time-consuming), so we’ll do something else for year nine and beyond. Our latest magnolia tree we cut down was spalted and is currently drying in the attic of my dad’s shop. The medals from that wood will be amazing!
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