Five years ago, Bordentown resident Sharon Williams was chatting with her friends when they made a bold plan. They had begun running half-marathons together a while back, but wanted to take it to the next level. Over the next few years, before they reached 50 years of age, they challenged themselves to run 50 half-marathons in all 50 U.S. states. However, unlike most bold propositions made by friends and shortly forgotten thereafter, Williams actually stuck to the goal.
Currently a practicing audiologist in Princeton, Williams had never been an avid runner until she began working.
“I played sports in high school, and when I was in college I ran on and off, but nothing big,” she said. “I didn’t pick up running until I started working, and had to stop for a while when I had kids, but I picked it back up because it’s a great mental break.”
Williams developed her passion for running along with her husband, Vaughan Williams, who works in pharmaceutical marketing in North Jersey. “Back when Sharon and I were dating, in 1999, I was in the Navy and ran the Philadelphia marathon. Apparently that inspired her, so the next year we ran the Marine Corps marathon together,” Vaughan said.
While Sharon enjoyed the marathons, she didn’t feel the distance was right for her. “Full marathons are just too long, with the training and recovery and the running time itself. But it does take me 3-4 miles to get my legs warmed up, so 5Ks are too short since I’m not a sprinter. 10Ks are alright, but I think the half marathon was just more of a challenge for me.”
Vaughan himself wasn’t a fan of running before joining the Navy. “I ran a year of cross country in high school and hated it. But when I joined the Navy, I had to run because physical fitness was a big part of the job. I started to run a lot more, and that led me to marathons. Later, I started running a lot more 5Ks,” he said. Vaughan joined Sharon in all 50 states, but generally ran smaller distances, unless the half marathon was the only option.
“I would call myself a reluctant runner. I’m not somebody who runs miles every day, but I try to get in shape for races. I’m now much more interested in shorter races.”
After the initial reaction, the Williams’ realized that this goal would require a lot of logistical and physical preparation.
To prepare for the races, Sharon began a running regimen that would help her acclimate to the distance.
“I tried to do 2-3 short runs and 1-2 long runs each week, with a day of rest,” she said. “On work days I would run 3-5 miles, and on my off days, I would ramp it up. However, training mostly in New Jersey wasn’t always the best because we don’t have hills, and the temperature and humidity can be quite different across states.”
In order to reach all 50 states in the necessary timeline, the Williams’ also got a crash course in scheduling and budgeting, especially with their two children: Luke, 13 and Sam, 11.
“Some of the hardest parts were planning, because we weren’t always able to take the kids, so I’d have to get my parents or friends to help out,” Sharon said.
“It was a fun exercise seeing how to get to some of these places, and how to manage a schedule,” Vaughan said. “From our experiences, we divided the locations in America into direct flights and connecting flights. Sharon and I both work, and we live pretty modestly, so we try to save up, do one or two a month, find good deals on flights and hotels, and put it all together.”
Because of the goal and timeline, the Williams family and their friends often had to race on back-to-back days. “One time I signed up without looking at the times closely, so I had to do a race in Indiana starting at 7 p.m. on a Saturday, and then another race in Ohio at 7:30 a.m. on Sunday, which was quite crazy,” Sharon said.
Scheduling and organizing around available half marathons became quite difficult, especially by the end.
“It only got really hard with the last four: Alaska, Hawaii, and North and South Dakota,” Vaughan said. “We struggled with the calendar and timing in the Dakotas because there were only a few races, and so it was really cold when we ran in South Dakota and quite rainy and cold in North Dakota.”
However, when they were able to plan accordingly, the Williamses turned these trips into mini-holidays, and enjoyed the chance to explore America.
“We would look up what is specific to the area and try to do that. For example, when we went to Colorado we went to a Rockies game, and when we were in Chicago we went to a Cubs game,” Sharon said.
Vaughan recommended that “everyone” travel to Kansas or the Pacific Northwest just to see the full scope of the country.
“People have different values and priorities, and we saw that,” he said. “Our general routine was to fly in, run the race, and use whatever time we had left to explore the local area and cuisine. We also had a no-chain restaurant policy during these trips, so we always tried to eat local. We ate in small town diners in Louisiana, tried the cheese curds in Wisconsin, and the salmon in the Pacific Northwest.”
While the people and locations they visited were quite unique, the family found a similarity between the runners these states, specifically their positive attitude.
“Runners are runners everywhere,” Vaughan said. “It didn’t matter if you were in Mississippi or Maine, runners are enthusiastic and supportive. We actually ran into a lot of people doing the same thing, so you get to check in and swap stories.”
“If you talk to runners, they’re really friendly,” Sharon said. “You can just walk up and talk to most of them at the starting line and that was pretty cool since that isn’t common in places like New York City.”
During their quest to race in all 50 states, the Williamses participated in races with unique themes, locations,and climates.
In Idaho, they ran down a mountain, where Sharon reached her personal best time for the half-marathon: 2 hours and 13 minutes. In Kansas, they participated in a race with the theme of “Run with the Cows,” while in Michigan, it was “Run with the Aliens.” In Nebraska, the race took them straight through a cornfield, and in Detroit, through a snowstorm.
In Wyoming, Sharon ran her smallest race, with only 25 runners, and in Oklahoma, she placed third, her best finish. In Maine, they ran through Acadia National Park. Finally, for her last race, the Williamses headed to Alaska. The whole family attended, and a friend from work ran alongside, to celebrate Sharon completing her goal.
Through these experiences, Sharon and Vaughan learned a great deal, both about running and new experiences in general.
“I learned to not give up, and to keep going. I also learned to go with the flow and laugh, since there’s so many things that can happen, whether it be getting stranded at the airport or missing the race altogether,” Sharon said.
For Vaughan, his favorite part of the experience was seeing his wife work towards this goal and “enjoy this experience. She’s competitive, and watching her get through these races and keep an eye on the time has been great. She trains really hard, and she got really into it, so getting to spend time with her and watching her set her mind on this goal has been really cool.”
The Williamses are grateful for their friends and family. “We coud not have done this without the support of our families, especially with the kids,” Vaughan said.
Sharon, who turned 50 on July 10, is finally finished with her half-marathon goal, and not too keen on the other goals of the Fifty 50 Half-Marathon club, which include running 100 half-marathons, or running a marathon on each continent. However, she is already looking forward to her next race in Annapolis.
“Don’t let fear hold you back,” Sharon said. You only live once, so make time to do things that challenge yourself, and enjoy it.”