They’re usually out the door early at the Boone household, shaded by oaks and magnolias in the north Houston suburb of Humble.
Around 5 a.m., Steve, 73, laces up to run between seven and twelve miles, depending on how he feels. Paula, 56, usually covers three to five miles.
And that’s just the beginning of a day devoted to long-distance running.
The Boones founded and operate the 50 States Marathon Club, devoted to people who have dedicated extensive time, expense, and liniment to the hobby of completing a 26.2-mile marathon in all fifty states. And, in a situation like that of Sy Sperling, the late Hair Club for Men founder and eighties TV ad icon, the Boones aren’t only in charge of the Marathon Club; they’re also members.
Steve is a semiretired computer-software developer who took up distance running in 1988, when a coworker challenged him to run the Houston Marathon. It took him almost nine years after that to complete the fifty-state circuit, and overall, he’s done “the fifty” seven times, with 807 total marathons under his belt.
Paula is a retired elementary school teacher whose odyssey began with a marathon in her native Utah in 1996. Her fiftieth state was Louisiana in 2003, and in all, she’s run four fifties and 371 marathons.
“This is not a smart bunch of people,” Steve joked.
The couple began the club in March 2001, looking to provide a more organized approach to keeping track of other marathon obsessives. The group passed a milestone a few weeks ago with the addition of its 5,000th member (1,742 have completed the mission). A person must have finished marathons in at least ten states to qualify for membership, and dues are $10 annually. Those who complete the fifty receive an acrylic trophy and a coveted 50 States Marathon Club T-shirt.
Marathon, Meet Murphy’s Law
It typically takes a member five to seven years to cover every state, according to the Boones, and the path to the finish line can be fraught with travel mishaps, injuries, and, more recently, races canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If a runner misses a state for any reason—especially a state with few annual marathons—their plans to cross the ultimate finish line could be set back by at least a year.
For couples aiming to finish their last leg together, it’s not always a given that their individual marathon schedules match. Jimmy Toy, from the Houston suburb of Sugar Land, ran the Rock ’n’ Roll Las Vegas marathon in 2017 after attending a conference there. That put him one state ahead of his wife, Nurian. She planned to catch up with a Nevada marathon in 2020, but COVID put the kibosh on that. She finally drew even with Jimmy last spring, and they completed the fifty last month in Rhode Island.
Club members Steve and Pollyann Keller, who coincidentally live in Keller, Texas, near Fort Worth, earned their T-shirts in January in Maui. Their quest started 21 years ago in Oklahoma and survived numerous injuries, close calls, and disruptions that could have derailed them along the way. At one point, Steve spent months sidelined in an orthopedic boot because of plantar fasciitis. “It’s like taking a roll of dimes and putting it on the arch of your foot,” he said.
In 2018, the Kellers had plans to run a marathon in Louisiana’s Kisatchie National Forest. But on the predawn drive to the race, their rental car caught a flat tire. Along a dark, desolate road, they rolled up to the only house around for miles—and encountered a man working on his car in his garage at 4 a.m. The good Samaritan drove the Kellers to the starting line and said he’d fix their tire while they were running. But how would they get back to his house? A marathon volunteer drove them and, upon learning that the tire couldn’t be repaired, drove the Kellers to Walmart to have it replaced.
“She stayed with us, like, five hours,” said Pollyann. “She was an angel.”
Kimberly McNabb, a club member from Houston who’s scheduled to finish her fifty this Saturday in Anchorage, Alaska, has a different tale of prerace misery. Last year, when she was checked into a hotel the night before the Boston Marathon, her room faced a nightclub across the street. “It was like bombs going off from nine p.m. to three a.m.,” she said. “And then, however seriously they take the marathon in Boston, they take honking their horns ten times more. I got zero sleep.”
Most members schedule their finale for either an exotic locale—Hawaii in the winter or Alaska in the summer—or to coincide with a birthday, anniversary, or other personal milepost. Andrew Olsen and Breanna Waldrup, from Irving, got married in 2016 in Nevada’s Valley of Fire State Park one day after running a marathon ninety miles away in St. George, Utah. He ran in a tuxedo T-shirt; she wore a veil.
As the club’s official record keepers, the Boones have occasionally had to make tough decisions about what counts as a marathon. Some race organizers make their courses slightly longer than 26.2 miles, just to make sure that mistakes won’t cut their routes short. But even the best-laid plans can be foiled by the simplest of errors. Paula Boone recalls a misplaced cone at a marathon in Alaska a few years back that shortened the course by almost one mile. The club’s seven-member board of directors reluctantly accepted that event because dozens of members ran it, with about a dozen using the race to complete the fifty.
“How short does it need to be and we’re still going to count it?” Paula said. For a marathon to qualify, it must have at least ten finishers and sixty days’ prerace notice. “You can’t just throw a race together with your buddies,” Steve said.
When one club member died of cancer four states short of the fifty, her husband vowed to finish for her. When he did, he wanted to receive the commemorative gifts his wife would have accepted. The club compromised and sold him a trophy.
“Heart and Soul”
Suzy Seeley, another member from Houston, first encountered the Boones in 1998. She had just completed a grueling six-day stretch that began with the Boston Marathon, followed by San Antonio’s Medcom Marathon less than a week later. At the finish line in San Antonio, she dropped to the ground in the unforgiving heat—she recalled the feeling of “lying on the grass, dying.”
A woman hovered over Seeley and asked if she was okay, the answer being an emphatic “No!” “Here. Eat these crackers,” the woman said.
“It was Paula,” Seeley said. “That saved me. I could function as a human.” Seeley, 63, has run more than 300 marathons and holds a women’s record for having completed the most marathons (232) in four hours or less. “I did the States because Steve and Paula talked me into doing the States,” she said. “They pour their heart and soul into the running community. It’s just been an honor to know them all these years.”
The Boones estimate they spend thirty to sixty hours per week on club business. That includes responding to dozens of daily emails, plus whatever lands in the club’s P.O. box. They also compile results, order trophies and T-shirts, maintain the website, and oversee the newsletter.
Steve said his best marathon time, which he ran years ago, was 3:04. Now he finishes in six to six and a half hours; he was nearly “scooped” by the back-end patrol at the Houston Marathon this January, the thirty-fifth consecutive time he’s completed the race. Paula’s personal record is 3:31; she’s now in the seven-hour range and sometimes not among the official finishers.
The Boones plan to retire out in rural Woodville, Texas, where they recently bought 95 acres and plan to build a house to share with their six children between them, nine grandchildren, and one great-grandkid. While the Boones are preparing to move—“to the boonies!” Paula laughed—they’re not ready to move on from overseeing the club and its voluminous records, both online and in multiple filing cabinets.
“We’ll do it indefinitely,” Steve said. “Until we can actually hand it off, where I trust someone to hold the standards.”