To the outside eye Matt Fitzgerald may appear to be just another runner, logging miles in the early morning or midafternoon hours as he circles around the west side of Oakdale.
This Sunday, March 19 as he toes the line of the Modesto Marathon, however, his hope is for something greater than a memorable marathon finish. Modesto Marathon will mark the beginning of the accomplished endurance runner and author’s quest as he begins his journey of eight marathons in eight weeks.
“I wanted to take a marathon journey and just kind of play it out across the entire continent,” Fitzgerald shared, noting that it’s a journey he and his wife Nataki have spoken about for quite some time.
This is more than a Bucket List journey, though; it is a pivotal piece to Fitzgerald’s exploration for his current ‘Life Is a Marathon’ Project. A project which he hopes at its conclusion will make for an interesting book.
“It’s about doing the marathons myself,” Fitzgerald, a seasoned runner, marathoner, as well as triathlete stated. “Meeting and talking to other runners and writing about it. Exploring the marathon mystique.”
Embedding himself in his subject matter tends to be the trend with Fitzgerald. In his most recent book, The Endurance Diet (noted as a “Best Health and Fitness book of 2017” by Sports Illustrated), the author traveled the world to break bread with elite athletes. The puzzle to be solved, simple … commonality in eating habits.
Fitzgerald took a similar approach in his previous piece, “How Bad do You Want It?,” as he illustrated the journey of top athletes as they persevered through personal as well as physical set back, overcoming great adversity.
But eight marathons in eight weeks in eight varying zip codes across the United States? To some it seems insane, to Fitzgerald it’s more than research, it’s personal.
As part of the project, Fitzgerald maintains a blog on his Facebook page, Life Is a Marathon. One of his first entries revealed the personal side of the project stating, “I hoped to use the Life Is a Marathon project to raise funds for the Treatment Advocacy Center, an organization dedicated to eliminating barriers to treatment of mental illness.”
The writer shared his personal connection to this cause, as his wife Nataki was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2004. He further stated that she is since doing extremely well, hence making the timing now right for the two of them taking on this project and journey.
“Mental illness carries a stigma that makes its sufferers and their families reticent to open up,” he stated in the blog, noting that sharing a diagnosis of mental illness receives a much different response than that of diabetes.
It was a diagnosis which taught him just as much about himself, as well as the disease and, yes, his relationship with running.
“Caring for a spouse who suffers from mental illness is by far and away the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life,” he continued. “Being a runner has helped me face this challenge.
“I feel a sense of urgency about it,” Fitzgerald said of bringing awareness to the disease. “There’s a difference to be made.”
He hopes to be part of that difference.
“There’s a stigma attached to it,” he continued of mental illness, noting his wife, as an equal driver as well as participant in the project to share their story. Not as a runner or a writer, but as an expert of how it feels to live life as the often misunderstood.
For Fitzgerald and his wife, this project is more about the journey than it is about running. The exploration of what makes the runner tick, what forces an individual to voluntarily place themselves in a place of discomfort, pain, mental stress and how they come through on the other side.
“It’s a deep, deep interior journey,” Fitzgerald said of marathon running and what one learns. “You experience parts of yourself which you don’t really touch in everyday life, unless some terrible crisis happens.
“You’re really choosing who you want to be,” he said, using the example of angel on one shoulder and devil on the other as one travels the 26.2 mile marathon distance. “It’s so stark. That’s why people say ‘life is a marathon.’ It boils down into its simplest essence. If you’re interested in knowing who you are as a person, it’s a great way to do it.”
But what about the races? The eight zip codes? His running goals and the like?
As a lover of all things running, Fitzgerald recognized his eight and eight journey is not a ‘big deal’ by many running standards. Just like any other sport, running has its fair share of extremes and over the top achievers, that’s not his goal.
Staying healthy and completing all eight, minus set back as well as injury, is as simple as it gets.
“I am not running these as fast as I can,” he said. “If there’s something left in the tank at the last one in Eugene, I may, because there’s no risk.
“I want to interact with other runners.”
The schedule the Fitzgerald pair will face following Sunday’s marathon will include stops in: Clayton, New Mexico; Kanopolis State Park, Kansas; Reston, Virginia; Boston, Massachusetts; Toledo, Ohio; Wautoma, Wisconsin and Eugene, Oregon.
“I really am looking forward to every single one of them,” he said. “Each one has its own attraction to it.”
Fitzgerald’s journey can be followed on the Facebook page, Life Is a Marathon.
“I hope that after this is all over, that it wasn’t exactly as I expected it to be,” he confided. “I want it to change me. I want it to change some things.”
Donations can be made and information found about the Treatment Advocacy Center at www.treatmentadvocacycenter.org.