That was the goal. 50 half-marathons in 50 states by the time she was 50. When Sue Ledwith challenged herself to it she was 45 and she completed all 50 states by the time she was 47. Three years earlier than she expected. So she kept going and this weekend crossed the finish line of her 97th, she'll have 100 half marathons in the books before she's 50. She never considered herself a runner, she was looking for something to do that was "hers" and she found it in running.
Sue is the youngest of four, when her Mom was pregnant her two older brothers hoped for a boy while her sister wished for a girl. A self-proclaimed TomBoy and Jock, Sue likes to think they all got what they wanted.
The first thing I noticed when I met Sue was her tattoos. I was stretching, getting ready to work out and so my gaze was about calf-height and I saw two calves, each adorned with its own tattoo. On one was the name Erin in a shamrock and on the other was Emma in a heart made of puzzle pieces. I wondered who they were and then Sue turned and I saw the Boston Marathon logo and the Boston Strong logo. This woman has a story that needs to be told was my first thought, so I went from staring at her calves to introducing myself and asking her about her tattoos. Two weeks later we met at Starbucks and I heard the whole story.
Sue is humble and kind and determined. As she started out her story she was quick to begin by telling me how grateful she is that she has the support of her family and the means to do the things she has accomplished. She started and ended our conversation by saying the words, I didn't get there on my own. She's 49 and she says that if you had told her 9 years ago that she would be telling someone the story of how she was just about to achieve the goal of running 100 half-marathons, she would have told you that you were insane.
Most of us face milestone birthdays with some trepidation - as we turn 25, 30, 40, 50 - those markers give us time to reflect on what we have done and on where we are going. For Sue, hitting the 40-year mark had her feeling like she had lost herself a bit. "Listen, being a Mom is the most important thing I will ever do, but I was feeling like I needed something for me." She had always been an athlete. She played every sport she could, most of them at a highly competitive level, making it all the way to the Junior Olympic Softball team. Turning to athletics seemed to be the way back to herself. She joined a gym but quickly tired of the treadmill and longed to be outside. She started out walking which quickly turned to running and although she never thought of herself as a runner she found herself signed up for a 5K. Sue has always been goal oriented and she loved the 5K races, "you know where the finish line is." Soon she was running a 5K every weekend. Again, she paused to tell me how supportive her husband was as she continued to sign up each weekend for another 5K. "It was ME time." And she no longer felt lost.
Sue has two girls, Emma and Erin, they are currently 14 and 13. In 2009 when Sue was 40 and starting to run, they were 5 and 4. Emma is on the autism spectrum and Sue has been an incredible and tireless advocate for Emma. Running became Sue's therapy, her time to work things out in her head. She said running gave her the feeling that she was taking back a piece of her life. I love being a Mom but I am also a human being and this was for me. After a year of 5K races she ran some 10K races and while still not considering herself a runner, she loved the training and the finish lines.
Close your eyes and picture a runner. That's not what Sue looks like. She's shorter in stature that you would imagine. She's not chiseled out of sinewy muscles. And, she will tell you, she has used this to her advantage. "Sometimes, the greatest thing would be that someone would think that I couldn't do something because I was a girl or because I was short. And then I would go out and do it." She lights up and tells me the story of when she was playing in a softball tournament - she was the only woman and they underestimated her, putting her at catcher when she likely should have been at first base. During the final game of the tournament with the top spot on the line for her team, a 200 pound man rounded third and headed for home. His run would win the game for the other team. She knew she had to make the catch and tag him out. She also knew that the man barreling toward her was likely making the short-girl assumption she had faced her whole life. He was probably thinking that she would either moved aside when he reached the plate or drop the ball if he ran into her. She did neither. Using all of her past softball experience she held the ball tight to her chest, squared up the runner, braced for impact and just held on to the ball at the plate. He ran right into her and was tagged out. A bigger win for Sue than winning the game, she says; "you can't look at the package and determine what's inside - just cause I am little, don't think I can't do it."
She felt some of this same skepticism from people when she decided to sign up for her first half marathon two years after running her first 5K. She signed up for The Chilly Half in November of 2011. She trained differently, there were days that were hard but she wanted to show her kids how to set goals. She wanted to share with them what it feels like to achieve them, especially when people are underestimating you. One time while running a local race in Walpole Mass, she was behind a guy with flame tattoos on his calves. She loved them and spent the rest of the race thinking about what she would put on her own tattoos. Again, if you had told her 9 years ago that she would have even one tattoo she would have told you that you were nuts, she now has multiple. She started by putting her girl's names on the back of each of her calves. She wanted people to see them while she was running. She runs for "me" time but she also runs to show her girls what can be done when you put your heart into it.
She completed three more half-marathons over the next 6 months and then while on a girls weekend in New York she stepped out to grab a coffee and found herself in line at a Starbucks behind a gentleman wearing a NYC Marathon jacket. They got to talking and he said encouraged her to run a marathon. She said, "I only do 1/2s" and he chided, "You can do it - it's just more miles." By the time she got back to the hotel room she had decided to run the Boston Marathon. Her friend replied - What. Is. In. That. Coffee?!
Like everything else she had done once she set her mind to it she wasn't going to do it half-way. She knew she wasn't going to be fast but she knew she could finish. She looked at the charities offering numbers in exchange for fundraising and decided to run for the Michael Carter Lisnow Respite Center in Hopkington. She committed to raising $3500 in exchange for the bib and approach the training with a "one and done" attitude - I am just going to do this one marathon. Just like the one half, the one tattoo. She raised $9000 for the center which offers respite care to families who have children with disabilities. As she puts it, she did everything she was supposed to do. She trained. She raised the money. She has the memory of running along the historic route but she didn't get to finish. It was 2013. She was stopped at Mass Ave and told something had happened. Her family had watched her run by in Ashland, then in Wellesley and again at mile 20 in Newton, they were parking in Boston to watch her cross the finish line when they felt the explosion. Sue started to walk back down the route with 5000 other people, runners and spectators, who were all walking away from what we now know was the 2013 marathon bombing. She happened to look up at the Mass Ave bridge at just the right moment and there was her family. They all walked back to mile 24 in silence. The next day she woke up with the determination to run in 2014. She was angry that someone would take away something that she had worked so hard to achieve and so deeply saddened for everyone in the city of Boston that it fueled her and she worked hard for 2014. She remembers that MEB Keflezighi crossed the finish line before she had started out from Hopkinton since she was running for charity again but that didn't take anything away. The crowd along the route bouyed every step and she completed the goal she had made 2 years earlier in that Starbucks in NY. She added the Boston Marathon and the Boston Strong logos to her calves.
One and done? Not quite. Once she had finished the marathon she went looking for the next challenge. While searching for races on her computer, up popped the 50 State 1/2 Marathon challenge. She was now 45 and she thought - I think I can do that by the time I am fifty. Again she pauses to tell me how grateful she is that she has the family support and the means to accomplish such a feat. She ran Connecticut in June of 2014 and then one race month for the remainder of the year - San Francisco, Baltimore, Philly. In 2015 she was sometimes doing back to back weekends - Jackson, Missippi on Saturday and Mobile, Alabama on Sunday. Other runners began to recognize the woman with the calf tattoos of her daughters' names. She loved that part of it, meeting other people but she would always come straight back home after the race. She was known for the tattoos of her daughters and everyone also knew that she was flying back home right after the race, she wasn't hanging around to celebrate. She calls them drive-bys, she was there to run and come home. In May of 2015 she had an epiphany while running. While her daughters and husband were supportive, she didn't want to miss out on much more, she didn't want to be in Nashville instead of Norwood when one of her daughters really needed her so she decided to accelerate her goal. Rather that 50 states by the time she turned 50 she decided she could get it done in 2 years and finish in 2016. She shared this plan with her girls and they agreed as long as the last state could be Hawaii.
In June of 2016 they made the family trip to Kona and she ran her 50th half marathon in her 50th state, well before she was 50. Running through the scorching hot lava fields was tough, she didn't put up her best time but she did think about all of the people that helped her reach her goal. The most present thought she had while she was running in Kona was "I didn't get there by myself, I was part of a team." With Adventure of a Lifetime by Coldplay in her headphones she crossed the finish line. Not a drive-by this time, she celebrated with her family.
Each time Sue finishes a goal. She creates a new one. It keeps her running. Her friends suggested that she might be addicted to running. She likes to think it is what is keeping her healthy. She is almost at the end of her most recent goal - 100 half marathons. This weekend Sue ran her 97th half-marathon in Newport, Rhode Island. On May 27th of this year, Sue will complete the 100th half marathon. And then what? Her next goal? A marathon in each of the Canadian provinces. She's got Ottawa in the books.
Sue never considered herself a runner but I spotted her license plate in the parking lot as we left Starbucks - I think she has come to accept the idea that she is not only a runner - she's an avid runner. She runs with one headphone in and often it's Pink that's playing as she goes, Sue considers it her anthem:
So look I came here to run it
Just 'cause nobody's done it
Y'all don't think I can run it
But look, I've been here, I've done it
Watch I do it with ease
You just gotta believe
Come on, come on with me
I am so grateful to Sue for letting me share her story. Here's what I got from Sue. No one gets anywhere alone. You never know what's in the package so don't underestimate anyone. It's good to set goals and then watch yourself crush them. When someone assumes you can't do something you can square off against them, hold on to the ball and brace for impact. And lastly, when something gets in your way, even when you have done all you can do, wake up the next day and start again. You just gotta believe.