Scott Whisler running on a snowy trail.

Training, triumph, and toenails

Extreme endurance a lifestyle for marathon man

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If you're not familiar with the metric system, 168 kilometers is almost 104 miles. That's approximately the same distance from Grand Rapids to Flint.

Scott Whisler ran that far in a single race.

He has also finished a handful of 50-mile races, and has completed marathons in 33 states. And he's finished two Ironman triathlons, each 140.6 miles and several half-Ironmans, "Just to be sure I wouldn't die on the full race," Whisler said. 

Oh, and he has climbed Mt. Hood. And hiked across the Grand Canyon. And hopes to run a marathon in all 50 states. And run one at the base camp of Mt. Everest. 

Whisler said his experience with extreme endurance races started with a casual invitation from a friend to run a marathon in 2002, the "Flying Pig" in Cincinnati, Ohio, which he ended up completing, alone, after his friends dropped out. 

Now, distance is a lifestyle for Whisler, a project manager for Grand Valley’s Facilities Planning department. 

On trail running vs. road running

“Trail running is awesome, it's just a party. There's pizza and beer after the races. A completely different atmosphere than road running. Road running can be super competitive. There's more of a community feel in trail running. It's more laid back.”

"I got into this stuff in the late '90s, before doing marathons was a popular thing to do," Whisler said. He did the Cincinnati race, and five months later took on the Detroit Free Press Marathon, thinking it would be cool to finish the marathon on the 50-yard-line of Ford Field in Detroit. But he didn't train enough. 

"It just about killed me," Whisler said. It was his last marathon for almost six years.

Whisler started running again in 2008 when a friend asked him to train with her for the Bayshore Marathon in Traverse City. They completed it and found out that she had nearly had a fast enough time to qualify for the world-famous Boston Marathon. Whisler said it inspired him to see if he could qualify as well. The next year, 2009, Whisler ran marathons in Tennessee, Washington and Indiana before coming back to Grand Rapids and qualifying for Boston in front of family and friends. 

"I qualified for Boston and ran it in 2010, and then had the idea to start picking off marathons in states across the country," Whisler said. He tries to run several marathons a year, and has a goal to run at least one marathon in each state.

Sometimes that goal means taking on more than one race per trip. More than once, he has run marathons on back-to-back days, like when he ran a race in Arkansas one day and Oklahoma the next in 2017. He did the same thing with two races in Maryland and West Virginia the year before.

"One thing that doing these races has taught me is time management. It helps me at work, too, you learn to be very efficient with your time," Whisler said. "With my job here managing construction projects, we're always on tight time frames and managing multiple projects, you learn how to really focus on the task you’re working on."

Map of the U.S. showing which states Scott has run a race (33 so far) and which states he has not.

Whisler has run 40 races in 33 states, including 2 ironman triathlons and 1 ultra168k.

CHASING CARROTS

Whisler said he keeps adding challenges once he meets a goal. It's how he expanded from marathons to triathlons to ultramarathon races. 

"I like to have that carrot out there, something to reach for, it keeps me going," Whisler said. "So many people just go through life coasting — not that there's anything wrong with that — but it's not satisfying to me to coast. I like to challenge myself and experience the reward and satisfaction of accomplishing something hard."

The challenges of accomplishing those goals can come at a physical cost. Whisler attempted a 100-mile race in New Jersey, and had trained by running more than 80 miles a week. He suffered a stress fracture halfway through the race and was forced to stop at the 50-mile mark. 

During his 168K race in Middleville, he said his feet swelled up and some of his toenails fell off. That race, which he won, took him 26 hours, 36 minutes and 44 seconds to complete. 

"You'd think the first thing you'd want to do after running that long would be to sleep," Whisler said, "but I hurt so badly after that race that I couldn't sleep."

Whisler acknowledged that most people wouldn't consider running to the point of losing toenails as a fun activity. "Once the pain goes away after a big race like that, about a week later, you start saying to yourself, 'Hey, that wasn't so bad, where can I sign up for the next one?'" he said.

There are other sacrifices to be made to maintain such a rigorous training schedule as well. Preparing for the 168K race meant he would often begin his 30-mile training runs at 11 p.m.

"You do that to get your body used to running when you're tired. You're on mountain bike trails in the pitch dark, running over roots and rocks and uneven surfaces with just a headlamp on. Those got pretty challenging," Whisler said. 

Training sessions for his Ironman races are also demanding. Whisler said training for the 112 miles of biking that are part of the Ironman race often means waking up at 4 a.m. on a Saturday, spending the pre-dawn hours on a spin bike in his basement, then getting out onto the road to do another 50 or 60 miles once the sun comes up.

"That way I can be home by 10 a.m. or so and have family time after that," Whisler said. 

Getting buy-in from his family is also critical. Before he signs up for any race, Whisler sits down with his wife and kids and they discuss what sort of training the race will take. His family is active — his wife does half marathons, and his kids run with him on "short" training runs, usually two or three miles. “It shows them I'm out there being healthy, maintaining an active lifestyle,” he said. 

His experiences running races and completing mammoth feats of endurance also teach his kids a lesson in resilience.

"When my kids see me trying to do these races and I don't qualify or do something that was my goal, it's a failure, but you learn from it," Whisler said. "My kids see that, and they learn that sometimes they will struggle with things. They might not make a sports team or something, and what you have to do is go back, work harder, find a different way, and you try again. You don't just quit."

"How bad do you want it?"

One of Whisler's personal mantras is "How bad do you want it?"

He has the slogan displayed in several locations, including his house and office. What he really wants is to accomplish a set of lofty goals: complete a marathon in all 50 states (he's done 33 so far); complete the World Marathon Majors, which means qualifying and completing the biggest six marathons on the planet (done: Boston, New York and Chicago; to do: Tokyo, Berlin and London).

He also really wants to run the Mount Everest Marathon, where he will spend a week hiking to the base camp of Mt. Everest (17,600 feet, higher than all but two mountains in North America) and then run a marathon there. 

Whisler's drive to test his limits has led him to seek out unique adventures, like climbing Mt. Hood and hiking the Grand Canyon (he wanted to run across the Grand Canyon, "I couldn't find anyone else to do it with me," he said).

"The marathons are always there, but I'm trying to find a new challenge, like the Ironmans and the mountain climbing," Whisler said. "I like to push myself to see what I'm capable of doing and what I'm not — and not to sound arrogant, but I haven't found anything I can't do yet. It's a progression. You can fail at things but then you learn from it and you improve on it, and you do better the next time."

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