50 marathons in 50 states before 50: Elizabeth Proffitt's journey

So what did you get for your last birthday?

This Sunday, Elizabeth Proffitt of Birdsboro will travel to Des Moines, Ia. to accomplish the feat of running at least one marathon in all 50 states. What’s more, Proffitt will do so just months before her 50th birthday early next year.

That’s right—it’s 50 in 50 by 50.

50 marathons in 50 states is not unheard of—in fact, there’s at least one club for runners who’ve completed the task—but to go from a novice runner to “50 in 50” in seven years takes something special. As remarkable as the completion of Elizabeth’s journey will be, it doesn’t compare to the beginning.

“It just helped me cope”

Elizabeth and her husband Bill moved to Birdsboro, Pa. in July of 2005. Four days later, Bill fell ill and was diagnosed with cancer.

“It all happened so fast... and the progression was even worse,” recalls Elizabeth.

Bill passed away on December 4, 2005. Losing a loved one is never easy, but around the holidays the pain can be particularly profound. Having just moved into a new home, Elizabeth felt isolated. The mourning process made sleep difficult, and socializing was just about out of the question.

Luckily, one new friend and neighbor persisted. “Donna [Ornosky, also of Birdsboro] is a runner, and she would get me out of bed in the morning for a long run,” says Elizabeth. “The running helped me cope.”

At the time, Elizabeth was a recreational runner. She’d done a few local races, but nothing too significant in terms of distance. But it wasn’t long before the duo was completing 10-15 mile jaunts. Looking for a purpose and a goal to work towards, Elizabeth suggested running a marathon together.

On September 30, 2006—less than 10 months after Bill’s passing—Elizabeth completed her first marathon in her native Akron, Oh. in a little over 4 ½ hours.

Elizabeth works for Heritage of Green Hills, a senior living community in the Reading area that promotes a philosophy of “eight dimensions of wellness.” Elizabeth believes that four of the dimensions—physical, emotional, social and intellectual wellness—are enhanced by running.

For her, it was the emotional and social aspects that had the most profound effect. Running with Donna each day motivated Elizabeth to do something she once took for granted—getting out of bed. But running the marathons? That was another level—that was a tangible accomplishment; the establishment of a goal and the conquering of each course. Later in the fall of 2006, Elizabeth completed the Philadelphia Marathon.

As time went on, the running became less about mourning and more about Elizabeth’s own sense of accomplishment. “When I’d run by myself, in the beginning? Sometimes I’d cry the whole time,” she admits. “But when you’re out there with a friend, it’s social.”

And when you’re out there with thousands of friends, as she was in the Philadelphia marathon, it’s a competitive outlet. The Philly race was the one that got Elizabeth thinking long-term. Some people who accomplish a feat like hers will tell you it ‘just sort of happened.’ Not Elizabeth. She’ll proudly tell you that after completing the Philly race in 2006, “I set a goal to run a marathon in every state.”

To accomplish this, she joined two local groups—Fast Tracks of Valley Forge and Pagoda Pacers of Reading. These groups helped Elizabeth to complete marathons at a breakneck pace—up to 14 of them in one calendar year—and build memories that will last a lifetime.

“I still remember running the Pikes Peak Marathon in 2007,” she recalls. “Coming downhill, I decided to try to take off my windbreaker while still running. It didn’t go so well.”

Elizabeth fell and collided face-first with a boulder. Her nose broken and bloodied, it seemed her journey had come to an end. But with the help of other runners—who shielded her from authorities who no doubt would have pulled a woman with a face covered in blood off the course—Elizabeth finished the final few miles.

“I played college softball,” she reasons. “It’s not like I’ve never broken my nose before!”

Those are the memories that have helped Elizabeth Proffitt heal from the greatest loss of her lifetime. “I chose to do my last marathon in Des Moines as a way to pay homage to my management team, Life Care Services,” she says. They’ve been extremely supportive of me throughout this process.

When she crosses the finish line Sunday, Elizabeth doesn’t plan to rush into retirement—she plans to keep on running.

“I want to keep taking trips, keep running marathons around the world,” she says. “In 2009, I ran the 2500th anniversary of the original marathon in Greece. Those are the types of things I’m likely to pursue next.”

In particular, she mentions wanting to run the Jerusalem Marathon in Israel, and says she’d like to complete a marathon on each continent. Yes, EVERY one of them.

“There is a marathon in Antarctica,” she confirms. “A Russian fishing boat takes you and drops you off at this little spot… and you go out and run. That’s really all I know about it for now,” she laughs, “but it’s on my list.”

Less than eight years ago, she struggled to get out of bed in the morning following a tragic loss. Today, Elizabeth Proffitt can’t stay still.

“It’s helped me heal,” she says of her journey. “I think that running these marathons, reaching this goal—it’s helped me complete my mourning process.”

What would she say if she met someone today who was in the same position she was in 2005?

“Find something you like to do to keep your mind off the grief,” she advises. “You’re going to think of it now and then—it’s always there—but that distraction will really help you to work through the grief.”

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