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Seven marathons? In seven days? On seven continents?

 

For months, Bret Parker C’90 was being told by friends that he was out of his mind. People offered to donate to his charity if he agreed not to follow through with his crazy fundraising plan. Even his team of doctors, which included a neurologist, a physical therapist, and an orthopedist, had trouble processing what Parker told them.

How? Why? And is that safe for anyone, let alone someone who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 11 years ago?

The how part is actually fairly straightforward. For the last four years, an organization called Global Running Adventures has organized the World Marathon Challenge, taking participants on an extraordinary “logistical and physical challenge.” It involves running the standard marathon distance of 26.2 miles on all seven continents—Antarctica, Africa, Australia, Asia, Europe, South America, and North America—within 168 hours, or seven days. A chartered plane shuttles the competitors between continents, during which time they eat and sleep as much as they can before the next marathon begins.

A better question, perhaps, is why anyone would want to subject their body to this kind of torture—and pay over $40,000 for the privilege. For Parker, it came down to challenging himself in the most extreme way possible, while raising money for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research—more than $250,000 as of mid-March, with donations from friends, family, and awestruck strangers still rolling in.

“It appealed to me because it helped send a message to people that Parkinson’s doesn’t have to define me and I can still live as large of a life as I want, for as long as I can,” Parker says. “And what more epic way to do that than to run seven marathons on seven continents in seven days?”

Of the 50 competitors in this year’s event, which was held from January 30 to February 6, three went to Penn—a percentage that makes them all proud. Josh Cohen C’90, Parker’s friend and classmate, ran the seven marathons. So did Martin Franklin C’86, whom neither of the others knew until they all flew to Antarctica for the first of their 26.2-mile quests. “Three Penn grads with too much time on their hands,” quips Franklin.

Parker and Cohen were both members of a team put together by David Samson, a longtime friend of Parker’s and the brother of Cohen’s wife, Nancy Samson Cohen C’87. The 16-person philanthropic team set out to complete the ultra-endurance challenge—which they all did—for a good cause, raising over a million dollars for various charities, including Stand Up to Cancer, the ALS Association, and the aforementioned Michael J. Fox Foundation. (Since all of their entry fees were paid by an anonymous benefactor, everything went directly to their fundraising efforts.)

“It was very appealing and very intriguing when [Samson] approached me and I really didn’t hesitate to say yes,” Cohen says. “My non-running friends all thought I was nuts. My running friends thought I was slightly less nuts.”

Cohen—a New Haven attorney who had previously run 18 marathons (now 25, thanks to this event)—performed stunningly well over the course of the week, finishing in fourth place (first among all Americans) with an average time of 3:56.42. The “really special” part for him, though, was running the fifth marathon in Lisbon, Portugal, in lockstep with the very people he had been trying to beat in the previous runs in Novo, Antarctica; Cape Town, South Africa; Perth, Australia; and Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Five of them even crossed the finish line with arms locked, posting the exact same time.

“We shifted from competitive mode to friendship and support mode,” Cohen says.

Support and solidarity became a theme of the grueling week. Because the marathons were organized in a loop, the runners passed each other on the course, always offering encouragement.

“At any given time, somebody needed help,” says Cohen, who dealt with foot blisters and mental exhaustion during the final two marathons in Cartagena (Colombia) and Miami. He was especially mindful of Parker, admitting that everyone “kept an extra eye on Bret in some way or another.”

For the last decade, though, Parker—an attorney and the executive director of the New York City Bar Association—has proved that he could take care of himself. And he’s always been up for a thrill. Before the World Marathon Challenge, he had run seven marathons, completed a triathlon, gone skydiving, and biked across the country. Following his Parkinson’s diagnosis, his motivation shifted to the goals of raising awareness—and money.

“It’s really important for me to help find a cure,” he says. “And since I’m not a scientist or doctor, this is the best way I can lend my help to the cause.”

But even though he’s confident in his athletic abilities and feels fortunate that his symptoms are less severe than those of others afflicted with the disease, he had his share of doubts about completing all seven marathons. Those doubts only grew when he felt his body breaking down during the fifth race. I might not make it, he thought as he had to walk much of the course.

But finish he did, in 9 hours, 16 minutes, and 41 seconds. And when he saw the donations flowing in and the encouraging comments on Facebook, he became more determined than ever. “As horrible as it was,” he says, “it made me realize there was no way I was gonna stop.”

Parker finished the next marathon in 8:33.28 and the final one in 7:41.22, getting a surge of adrenaline back on his home continent while running part of the race with his son.

“I don’t know if it was second wind or my seventh wind,” he says, “but whatever it was, I actually started off running really fast.” He still finished in last place, after the sun went down, but he might as well have been first, as friends and family swarmed him in celebration.

The Miami marathon also proved to be an epic finale for Franklin, who lives in the area and accepted a Hefeweizen beer from a friend with a quarter-mile remaining. “It was a good way to finish,” says Franklin, who ended up completing the race with his fastest time of the week (4:29.17). He had expected to walk most of it on account of a shooting pain in his hip contracted in the previous marathon, he says, but “somehow in Miami it all came back together.”

That seems to be the norm for the 53-year-old British native and dealmaker, who admits that he didn’t train that hard for the competition and even spoke on a conference call during the race in Miami. His dietary regimen included cigarettes and whiskey, partaking of both on each continent with his running partner, Gareth Evans.

All the runners enjoyed visiting places they otherwise might have never seen. Antarctica was “shockingly beautiful,” says Parker. In Dubai they were struck by the sight of young people emerging from restaurants and revving their engines for late night muscle-car rallies, just hours before the morning call to prayer.

In the end, though, the primary mission for all three Penn alumni was to run. And to finish what Cohen calls “one of the most satisfying and one of the most incredible experiences” he’d ever had.

“It was an amazing experience,” adds Franklin, “and one I’d never repeat.”

“My logic in all of this comes from a slogan I came upon during a Chicago marathon—a woman wearing a T-shirt that said, ‘Do epic shit,’” Parker says. “And that became a mantra of mine. For everyone, epic shit is different. Whatever is epic for you, you should go for it. Being a little uncomfortable is not a bad thing.”

— Dave Zeitlin C’03

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