A Marathon A Day: How One Man Ran 365 Marathons In a Row
“Impossible,” is what most people would say. Not Stefaan. After setting a Guinness World Record in 2008 for running 20 long-distance triathlons in a year, he decided in 2010 it was time to step it up even more. Way more… So much more that my body is in pain just thinking about this next sentence:
Stefaan ran a marathon a day for a year straight. 365 marathons. No rest days. No excuses.
When asked about the experience by a journalist, this is how he described the challenge:
“I don’t regard my marathon year as torture. It is more like a regular job. I am running just as Joe Average goes to work on Monday morning, whether or not he feels like it. I don’t always feel like running, but when I am done, I take a shower, have some physiotherapy for an hour and that wraps up my day.”
Clockwork. Get up, run, recover, repeat. I can guarantee you that if you show this level of commitment to anything in your life, you’ll be successful, whether it’s diet and exercise, career, finance, or relationships.
Stefaan Engels Interview
- Download the Audio version of the Interview: Get the MP3 here (Right click and save the file)
- Download the Full Transcript: Get the PDF here (Right click and save the file)
Marathon Man 365: DVD Trailer
Stefaan Engels’ Bio
Stefaan Engels is an athlete and Guinness Record Holder from Belgium. He holds records for completing 20 long-distance triathlons in 2008 and running a marathon every day for a year straight in 2010. A former creator in the design of exhibitions, Stefaan went on to become a coach and sports professional responsible for a number of major sports activity promotions in Belgium. He is also a sports ambassador to the city of Ghent.
Spencer: All right everyone, today we’re talking to Stefaan Engels. Now Stefaan you did, was it nineteen or twenty triathlons in one year?
Stefaan: Actually it was twenty in 2008 yes.
Spencer: OK, so that’s incredible in its own way, and then you also ran 365 marathons in a year, one marathon per day which is absolutely incredible, and we’re going to talk a little bit more about that today.
Stefaan: OK, fine.
Spencer: OK, to start off. How did you come up with the idea to do something like that?
Stefaan: Look, it’s a long story of course. I’m now fifty and I started running and doing sport when I was 25. I’ve run maybe six or seven hundred marathons in my life, but also professional ad campaigns for the government. I said to the people “Look, it’s important that you have a good interest in your body being healthy. If you have a good interest in your body being healthy, when you’re older, you’ll have a better quality of life.” You live longer and better, so you don’t need doctors and medicines. I will be some kind of ambassador in my country and the rest of the world will see that it’s important that you’re doing sport two or three times every week. So it was for myself, of course, a challenge. Is it possible, running a marathon every day or two twenty triathlons? But only it was an idea for a campaign. I know if I said to the world “I go every day for a marathon” I know a lot of media follow me, so it was important I found the media. If I found the media I can then bring more of my message to the world. That’s also the reason I made a really big challenge. If I say that I’m going to run maybe fifty marathons in a year then nobody will call me, or ask me why I’m doing it. If I say I go for 365 then of course everybody would say “you are crazy, this is not possible blah, blah, blah.” But I think in the last year I had six thousand interviews in the world. That’s another reason I take a big, big challenge to say 365.
Spencer: When you first got the idea to do this challenge did it scare you?
Stefaan: Of course, of course. I found nobody in the world to give me good advice. How much time must you train for this challenge? I took a year, but I was running every day. Every day I ran more and more. Every week I ran more and more kilometres or miles, without any respite. I must eat a special diet. I looked to all the doctors in my country for good advice. I was asking other runners “can you give me advice” but nobody had the answers to “what is the training for 365 marathons every year?” So it was, of course, for me a problem. But OK I say, we’ll see what it brings. I say to myself “OK every day one marathon” and for the rest of the time to think about the afternoons. Yeah, sure I think the whole year when I running every day was scary. But I was not sure if at the end of the day it was running a marathon. Maybe I fall sick, maybe a car accident, or when I was flying to other places in the world, maybe I missed my flight, and there were lots of things that could happen. So for me, every day it was kind of stressful. Who know these things even if I can do my challenge? So OK, OK, it’s passed now, and I have had a year back in normal life. Yes, it was possible, a really lucky year for me.
Spencer: Would you say it was more challenging for you mentally or physically?
Stefaan: I think of the two, in the beginning it was more physical I think. The first four months it was really hell for my body. My body was not ready to run a marathon every day really. I slept twelve hours a day and I needed kinesist massages, sometimes when I woke up in the morning and my body ached. If I was running a marathon in the afternoon my body wasn’t ready again and every month I lost two kilos in weight which was also a problem. The doctors took some blood to see that everything was OK and it was not OK. I was really tired. My mind was OK, to go back to the beginning of the story, but after four or five months it was changing, so it was more on the mental side. My body accepted that I was running a marathon every day. It was like “I’m going to my job.” I was running four hours and the rest of the day I was free to take a rest, but the mind was more of a problem. It was really hard then. I was thinking, at the beginning, that a year is soon over, but for me it was 365 days when you did the same thing, and for me it was harder. It felt like I was running five years and then then it was thirty per cent physical and seventy per cent mentally. If you do the same things every day it is hard for your mind and yes, it was the hardest part of this project.
Spencer: Over the course of the marathons and the year were there any mental strategies you came up with, that you utilised that you pushed through?
Stefaan: A strategy, well I never ran alone. I think, maybe there were only two or three days in the whole year when I ran alone, but for the rest of the year I think eight thousand people ran with me five kilometres or more, some a marathon. It was like the film Forest Gump. Everybody said to me “You’re like Forest Gump with everybody running up to you,” so every day one or two hundred people were running after me so we were talking the whole day over things. “How is it for you running again today?” People told their stories to me, so for me it was good to have all these people who said “you inspired us. Thanks, you are our hero.” Sometimes it was true that I wasn’t in the mood for talking to people and I used my music. I listened a lot to my favourite music and I had my iPhone and I had ten thousand songs so I had time enough for listening to music and music brings me to another atmosphere. I tried not to think about running. Sometimes it was a whole marathon that I was, in my mind, in another world and I tried not to think of what I was doing every day and that’s also healthy. To know also that a lot of people are running, thanks to me and thanks to my campaign and it gave a good feeling that people will say every day to me “we respect what you’re doing and you inspired us and thanks to you we’re also running” so this for me is also important for the mind too.
Spencer: I find it really interesting that you said that you ran a whole marathon, sometimes, without even thinking about running, because I read a book about a man who swam the Amazon River in South America and he said the exact same thing, where basically he’d get into the water and he’d just totally zone out and he wouldn’t even be focussed on swimming. His mind would be totally elsewhere and that enabled him to do incredible stuff as well. It’s really interesting. What was your diet like during that year?
Stefaan: In the beginning I was also looking for advice on diet. A diet specialist who knew what it takes, but that didn’t work out because she said “You must take a lot of supplements. You need vitamins and minerals” and I must take twenty five pills in the morning. It was like I was sick and I said no, after a few months I won’t take this every day so, I said no pills, no special diet. Of course if you are running a marathon every day, I lost six thousand calories every day, so I was sure that I could eat what I wanted. I could eat chips and fries and meat and chicken and pasta. I made a lot of trips around the world so I went to good restaurants and I eat what I want. I eat the whole each day. I eat six times a day of course I eat a lot of carbohydrates, I eat pasta and potatoes but I also taste the local food from Mexico, or Montreal and some places in Europe so for me it was more. I closed my eyes and then I say “what do you want to eat today” and that’s what I ended up eating at the restaurants. Also I drank what I wanted – a lot of water of course, every day I drank four litres of water but I also drink some wine or beer in the evening. So, no special diet. It was more the mental side because I was running in the day and sometimes there were hard moments for me but I think that in the evening you can go to a fancy restaurant and you can eat what you want and have desserts. You need to be aware of the mental reasons and you enjoy your evening, with good friends and good food and you eat what you want. I’m sure that I must say to runners now “don’t be afraid of the food,” of course you must know if you have a good stomach. I have a really good stomach and I can eat what I want before a race, but it’s really important and it’s also good for the mind that you eat what you want and what the books say, pasta and rice, and you must eat two hours before the race. For me, I’m sure and you must do what you want and your body needs. It’s really, really important, the food. Food and music.
Spencer: During the races did you utilise like gel packs, or any sort of like quick carbohydrate or energy drinks?
Stefaan: Yes, sure, sure. I ate a banana every day, like a whole banana is cheap and really fast carbohydrate you can take. I ate bananas everywhere in the world, so bananas were, for me important. I took five for the day and also gels. The only gel is five gels, and for the rest I took water and nothing else. OK I also liked to take Red Bull. I tried Red Bull in the first month at the last ten kilometres and of course it gave you a shot but OK after four months I used the normal sports drinks like Ekstrom. I don’t know if you know, he’s a star, in America, but it was the usual sports drinks. Mostly it was water and energy gels and bananas.
Spencer: Is there any specific brand of energy gel that you found worked the best, or was it just whatever you found?
Stefaan: No no, I also like the Bouchma Chocomount? I don’t know, it’s not a brand in Canada. It’s more a, if you give me a star, what you have in America, it’s the same. If there’s enough sugar in the water it’s OK.
Spencer: OK and when you were running the marathons was there a specific timing where you’d have a banana one hour in, or a gel one hour in or was it whenever your body felt like it?
Stefaan: No, no that was later. I have a system every half hour, every thirty minutes I take something. The whole day there’s my system, from the morning to the night I eat and drink but in a pattern also I’m still eating and drinking the whole day.
Spencer: Do you also follow the half hour schedule with water during the marathon?
Stefaan: Yes, yes.
Spencer: So you also mentioned that you were having blood tests done, I think it was weekly. Do you remember what specific things they were testing for, like were they looking at cortisol levels?
Stefaan: I don’t know the names of the tests, but I think that there were fifty different tests that he takes, like she can see in my blood if I am starting some injury or fever or something else. She can also see if there’s enough iron in my blood and other things but my blood was OK. Only at the beginning, the first months that I was really disastrous and she said “Whoa, it’s not good, from the tests” but she said that “if you are running at this tempo it’s not good, and I can see in your blood. You have two weeks and you must stay still. You cannot run.” So she asked me to change my food, have more rests, and running slowly. At the beginning I ran too fast, and also it was really cold as I started in January and it was a really hard winter in Belgium. I was running fifty days in snow and ice and temperatures were minus ten, so it was not good for my body. It was really hard for my body and the doctor saw through my blood. So it was good to know, but she said “it’s OK, it’s better or it’s really bad this week” so it was good to have a sign to be careful this week with what you’re doing.
Spencer: OK. You also said that you know you had, I think, a physiologist that was helping you out? What role did physio play in your whole year?
Stefaan: Yes, I believe a lot in the first months with sports massages. That’s what she was doing every day, giving me massages, especially on the legs, but after four months I stopped getting massages. It wasn’t for me, the massages were not working. The physiologist said that “it’s better that you’re sleeping” rather than you go in for a massage. He said “when you’re starting the day off, on your next marathon, start your first 5K slowly.” My body at the beginning was really painful, my muscles were really blocked and I had to unlock, but after five kilometres it was working better. The feeling, and then after one hour running, it was all the lactose and the problems from the day before were going. So for me it was a system that the first hour would be hard and the next three hours when running were the best moments. What I’m doing more of is osteopathy which covers the whole body, not only the legs which was when I had the massage. Osteopathy is for all bones, so for me is more important. Every day, if it was possible I went to a sauna, a steaming bath is more important than a massage.
Spencer: OK. What about – did you also use ice packs or compression shorts or pants or shirts?
Stefaan: I try also the socks, the compression socks. Also I tried six months with, and the last six months without the socks. In the beginning I believe that I could not run without compression socks. For some unknown reason I left the socks off, and for me it was the same. It’s a good marketing project and I believe that, for some people, it is helping them, but not for me. I use them only to take a long flight, I wear them for the flight, but for the rest, no. Also I never use ice-packs but I do use steam baths. For me it was more healthy, especially if you are running four hours in minus ten degrees, and your body is really cold then, and going one hour in the steam bath. The cold is very difficult.
Spencer: As far as your shoes, I find it hard to believe that you were able to use one pair of shoes for the whole year, so what was that like? Did you go through multiple pairs of shoes?
Stefaan: I used twenty five pairs, yes. So I had a system. I used seven pairs and every day take a pair, they were the same Essex Nimbus and the sponsor gave me twenty five pairs. So I used seven pairs and every day I took another pair and after three months I threw them in the trash and I’d take again seven new pairs. So that was, say every two weeks another pair. A normal runner would use one pair in a year I think, but for me it was twenty five.
Spencer: As far as like, the toll of long distance exercise on the body, you know there’s some people who say that just running one marathon is tough on the body. What’s your take on that? What do you think about that?
Stefaan: What’s the question just?
Spencer: Some people say that running a marathon is almost too hard on the body, like it is too much. It raises the cortisol levels too much. What do you say about that?
Stefaan: I believe this process. I remember my first marathon in my life. I was twenty five. I was really dead after the marathon. I had two weeks when it was not possible to normal walking, but your body must learn to accept it and what you are doing. Give your body time. After twenty five years, in my experience, my body has like, accepted it. I was running a marathon yesterday and today I feel nothing from what I did yesterday. So if you are running two marathons in a year it’s more than enough for everybody, also for myself but I can also say a lot of people in the world said to me before “you’ll damage your body and we are sure your legs and other things are broken after a year.” We did a lot of tests before, and after in the hospitals and she said “your body is now stronger than before” so I can say that running is really healthy for your body, so nobody can have an excuse to say, after my story of 365 marathons that one or two marathons are not healthy for your body. Maybe it’s hard, and also the mental side for a runner. I’m sure you must train your brain to say if you’re feeling tired. It’s not your legs that are tired, your mind says to you that you’re tired, so you must train your mind to say “I’m not tired, I will not stop the run.” For me it’s the running for a marathon is not a problem and it’s more healthy than you sitting in your chair and doing nothing for the whole day, so no, I cannot say. Of course everybody can run, but not everybody can run fast. That may be the problem that a lot of runners have, because they’re always faster, faster, faster when they’re running the marathon. So that is not a good idea. You must know what is your level, and how old you are. You must be more realistic. I cannot run as fast as when I was twenty. This is also important.
Spencer: So Stefaan, you wrote a book on the entire experience, right?
Spencer: And that’s available on your website?
Stefaan: At the webshop. My book is in Spanish and in English and I have also a brand new documentary of my story. Somebody followed me the whole year with a camera, so we have also a documentary there in the same languages. There will also be a DVD and you can also find it on my webshop.
Spencer: And last question. What’s next for you? Any big plans for the future or just keep running?
Stefaan: I’m running for my healthy body. I coach now. I teach a lot of people running, so I hope to go to Berlin in Europe. I will try to have a good time for myself, but to have a new challenge for a group. Of course, it may be not the same like marathons every day but we go to the rooftop from the road with a metal bike to Melia. We have found a trek. It’s where we are going 5400 metres, there’s a highest level that you can do mid-course. We can do it with the group on metal mountain bikes. So we go in June we are going to the Melia for two weeks and we try to go to the top on metal bikes to 5400 metres, so it’s also a challenge for everybody, also for me, but of course, mentally for me it is not such a big challenge like a marathon, but OK it’s a new small challenge.
Spencer: Is that open to the public like, can people from the public join you?
Stefaan: Yes, yes. We build also on my website a new site about the Melia and we hope to do it every year or so. It’s a new challenge for a company, who could say it’s important for team building and I coach a group to the Melia for each challenge. People can follow me on the website. It’s from 16th June to 30th June and that’s the challenge that we go to in Melia.
Spencer: Well OK. Thank you very much Stefaan.
Stefaan: My pleasure. Good luck.
Spencer: Thank you.
Stefaan: All right. We’ll keep in contact with you.
Spencer: All right. Have a great afternoon and evening. Thank you. Bye.