As soon as I stepped into the office of Annette Tomal, associate professor of business and economics at Wheaton, I realized that she is a competitor unlike any I’ve seen before. Dozens of glistening medals draped the office walls. Beneath the medals, a cork board dedicated to her running achievements revealed her commitment to an ambitious goal: running marathons in each of the 50 states.
Last Saturday, Tomal accomplished that goal in Idaho, the final state on her list. That makes a grand total of 60 marathons — seven of which were in repeat states — that she’s completed, all while pressing through a hip stress fracture and three meniscus tears. “What motivated her to pull off this extraordinary feat?” I wondered. While the room’s decor gave me a small glimpse, it wasn’t until I heard Tomal share her stories with animated energy that I began to understand the seemingly insatiable craving for challenge that underlies her accomplishments.
Tomal did not start running until she was in her 40’s, when her son decided to sign up for a 5K and she joined him. Tomal decided to give it a go since she “didn’t want to live life having never ran a 5K.” Before she knew it, she was running her first marathon in 2003. Three or four years later, Tomal upped the goal again, this time challenging herself to run a marathon each year. Impulsively, she decided to run a marathon in Indiana just two weeks after she finished one in Chicago. The quick turn-around from marathon to marathon caused Tomal a lot of pain, but she said, “I knew I wouldn’t quit … this is when I fell in love with marathons.”
Tomal had tasted the runner’s high and she couldn’t get enough. After noticing runners wear T-shirts reading “The Marathon Maniacs,” she and a friend did some research and discovered more about the group, which required prospective members to run two marathons in two weeks, or three in 90 days. The mission fueled Tomal’s aggressive determination once again, so of course she decided to join.
After joining the club, she found another group called The 50 States Marathon Club, with an even more extreme ambition: running a marathon in every single state. That year, she ran a marathon about every month, finishing 13 within the year, and off to a great start. But that’s when things changed. In early 2009, Tomal got a stress fracture in her hip, forcing her to use crutches for an entire semester and making simple actions like walking painful. After this experience, she told herself that she would never run another marathon again.
Her love for marathons may have been dormant, but it wasn’t long before it would be rekindled. In 2011, during a summer program, a student told her about his plans to run in the Chicago marathon — and she immediately signed up. That memorable marathon stirred her craving for challenge once again. Tomal looked back at this marathon and said, “It was the best marathon I’d ever ran, and the happiest run I’ve ever had.”
Now more aware of the physical toll of running marathons too frequently, Tomal began to slow her pace, running about a marathon every two months in 2012. Since that year, two meniscus tears forced her to slow down again in the goal to run in all 50 states, but she refused to let go. Soon she signed up for the next state’s marathon and nothing held her back — not even having to walk parts of a race in order to finish. Looking back at the marathons in Oregon and Hawaii that she had to walk, Tomal grinned and said, “I just love doing marathons.”
This love for running is the reason that she’s kept at it — not the medals or recognition. It’s also the reason that she is still planning to run more marathons, even after accomplishing her goal. She’s already signed up for a marathon for almost every month this year. Despite the physical and mental roadblocks she’s faced, the experience has been “an incredible journey,” she said. Her advice for students: “Whatever life brings you, adjust your goals, adjust your expectations and go from there.”