Tom Perri has run a marathon in all 50 states. In fact, he has done that multiple times.
He averages 36 races a year, sometimes on back-to-back days.
Now he’s reaching another milestone. He’s about to run his 600th marathon.
But the journey has been anything but smooth.
“The most common question I get is, ‘What’s my favorite marathon to race?’ And I say, ‘It’s always my next one, because I’m not guaranteed that next race,” Perri says.
Perri, who lives in Maple Grove, Minnesota, was diagnosed with Stage 4 prostate cancer in 2019. He went through aggressive treatment, including the removal of his prostate and 38 rounds of radiation. Faced with this new reality, the avid runner says he had a tough choice.
“I could either just sit in the chair and watch life go by,” he says, “or continue life as is and maybe be a runner, but just not as fast as I used to be.”
Perri’s best time for a marathon was in 2007: 3 hours, 35 minutes, 42 seconds. It’s more common for runners to take four to six hours, so Perri’s time was an achievement. He knew he’d have to accept being much slower because of his health, but he also knew he’d never run marathons for speed. He runs them for fun.
Perri’s first competitive race was a mile in eighth grade. Unfortunately, he made the rookie mistake of downing a milkshake right before the start and ended up throwing up on the side of the track.
“I still finished the mile,” he laughs.
Years later, when he decided to run his first marathon, he chose a race that happened to fall on the same weekend as his brother’s wedding. Normally, on the day before a marathon, runners rest, eat well, hydrate and try to relax. But Perri prepared with a late-night drive straight from the wedding to the start line, where he nabbed a few hours’ sleep in his car, still dressed in his tuxedo. Nevertheless, he completed the race that morning and was home in time to help his brother open wedding gifts that same afternoon. Then he slept for 12 hours straight.
Perri can’t put his finger on why he loves running so much. He just knows it makes him feel alive. So, after his diagnosis, he decided to embrace the sport he loves even more, working with health care staff to adjust his diet, nutrition and rest days. With the help of his neighbor’s dog, Otto, he began with light jogs and eventually built up his endurance again.
“Otto would be willing to run a block with me and then we’d walk and maybe run another block,” Perri says. “I don’t think, honestly, I could be still running as good as I am if it wasn’t for that little guy, because he’s the one that gets me running faster on my runs. He’s the one that motivates me on the days that I’m having a bad day.”
Since his diagnosis, Perri has run nearly 100 marathons, each one 26.2 miles. He has also run six half marathons and three ultramarathons, which are races longer than 26.2 miles. “Cancer definitely tells me what I can’t do,” he says. “But it can’t tell me what I can do.”
Not only is he defying the odds, but Perri is also helping others.
“Not only is he running, but he’s a pacer for our pace team,” says Mark Knutson, race director for the Fargo Marathon in Fargo, N.D., where Perri intends to complete his 600th marathon. “He’s helping other people accomplish their goals.”
As a pacer, Perri helps other runners finish a marathon within their target time by setting a pace they can follow. That’s especially key if they hit the proverbial “wall” which can prevent someone from finishing, both physically and mentally. When runners need some motivation, Perri will go the extra mile to help. If fellow competitors fall behind along the course, he’ll go back to get them after completing the race himself. That means he often has run 3 to 5 additional miles to bring other runners across the finish line.
“I didn’t like to leave somebody behind,” Perri says.
Perri recounts a marathon he was pacing in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2020, when a runner wasn’t able to keep up with the group the whole way.
“I finished the course, went back out on the course, ran another mile out on the course and then ran back in with her,” he said. “There’s so many runners that are thinking even at mile 25: ‘I can just drop. I don’t want the pain. I don’t need it. And it’s just that little encouragement that you give them to just get them to finish across the line.”
In fact, that’s what Perri hopes people remember most about him. Not the 600 marathons. Not the multiple races in all 50 states. Nor his cancer battle. But that he played a part in getting people closer to becoming the best versions of themselves.
“It’s all about helping another runner to do something (great),” he says. “It’s never been about me.”
[Originally reported by USA Today.]