By Craig Hill, Tacoma News Tribune
7:30 PM EDT, August 21, 2013
Zach Zimmerman freely admits what he does is a little crazy.
In May, he ran two marathons in 15 days. This summer, he ran four half marathons in four days.
"I felt good enough to run another one on the fifth day too," he said. "But I had to spend the day sitting on a plane (taking a work trip) instead."
Zimmerman is a member of two clubs whose members tick off marathons and half marathons as casually as the rest of us check off items on a grocery list. The minimum requirement to join: Finish two marathons or half marathons in 16 days.
The Marathon Maniacs and Half Fanatics started as local running clubs that now include a combined international membership of more than 12,000 people.
"It's a 'pinch me' kind of thing," said Tony Phillippi, one of the three marathoners who founded the club. "To see that many people excited about and celebrating running is pretty special. Sometimes it gives me goose bumps."
The stories that resonate most with Phillippi are ones such as Zimmerman's.
A 33-year-old state mortgage auditor, Zimmerman wasn't much of a runner until he met his wife, Anne. She persuaded him to start taking short runs with her and then sign up for a half marathon.
Zimmerman was a cyclist who logged many miles, but he also lugged around a significant amount of extra weight. He credits Anne for getting him started and his young daughters for motivating him to get serious about the sport, because running workouts take much less time than long cycling workouts.
He qualified for Half Fanatics in 2010, and in 2012 he decided he was going to run faster, farther and more often. Zimmerman set a goal of running 12 half marathons in 2012. "My wife thought I was crazy," he said. He ran 15.
He also started regularly running the 13.1-mile races in less than two hours, a time many runners set as a goal. And with a proper diet in place, he dropped from 230 pounds to 175. In May, he also qualified for the Marathon Maniacs.
"I feel much healthier now," Zimmerman said.
Marathon Maniacs has more than 7,400 members, and Half Fanatics has more than 4,600. The membership ranges from elite runners capable of winning races to walkers.
"Really, it's about the camaraderie and having fun running," Phillippi said.
Marathon Maniacs started 10 years ago after Phillippi and two friends ran a marathon in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Phillippi, Steven Yee and Chris Warren were comparing their racing accomplishments and goals.
All three ran marathons with the ease most runners finish 5-kilometer races with, and all were well on their way to recording more than 100 marathons.
They hatched the idea for a club for lovers of marathons. You didn't have to be fast to qualify. You didn't even have to run. But you did have to complete multiple marathons.
"There are different levels of maniacal," Phillippi said. So the club identified nine of those as membership levels.
The easiest requires running two marathons in 16 days or three in 90 days. The most challenging gives runners 365 days to finish 52 marathons; or 30 marathons in 30 different states, countries or Canadian provinces; or marathons in 20 different countries. All must be official races. Long training runs don't count.
Members' accomplishments are logged on the club websites in a listing called "The Asylum."
The founders — or Main Maniacs, as they refer to themselves — all rank at the club's highest levels.
Yee, the club president, has run more than 300 marathons and once recorded 57 in a year. Warren has finished more than 200 marathons, and his record is 53 in a year. Phillippi is approaching 200 marathons, but a stress fracture kept him from reaching the club's highest level. He's at the second highest-level, having completed 42 marathons in a year.
The club debuted with a website in 2003 and got its first member, Terry Watanabe, the next day.
"But, really, it was slim pickings at first," Yee said.
At the end of the first year, the club had 64 members. Even after three years, membership was only 294.
Phillippi said running publications were hesitant to write about the Maniacs because it was so widely believed running so much could be dangerous. "People were supposed to run maybe four marathons in a year," Phillippi said. "We've totally disproved that."
In 2007, membership began to soar, with an average of more than 1,000 new members each year. Phillippi credits social media and the bright yellow club singlets members sometimes wear at races.
Phillippi, Warren and Yee launched the Half Fanatics in 2009. Requirements, levels and dues ($10 per year after $35 for the first year) were the same.
The club now averages more than 1,000 new members per year.
"Eventually, it will pass the Maniacs," Phillippi said, "because so many more people run halves."
Yee believes both clubs are intriguing to people and will continue to grow.
"We are in a second or third running boom," Yee said. "Americans want to get fitter, and more people are doing more challenging things like climbing mountains. And some of those people are choosing to run a lot of marathons. And there are so many more (races) to choose from now. You can find a run almost every weekend."
Working up to it
As an overachiever, Sabrina Seher, 34, was intrigued by the Maniacs.
"I've always been go, go, go," said the mother of 5- and 9-year-old girls.
She ran marathons in Portland, Ore., and San Francisco in 2010 to earn her membership in the Maniacs. Seher reached Level Six by running four marathons in four days.
"As a mom, it's something I can do and still have my family," said Seher, who sometimes takes her family running with her. "And it's something for me so I don't lose my identity.
"You hit walls, but you slowly get your body to accept more miles. You build up until a half marathon feels easy, then you keep working until running a marathon feels pretty easy."
But, while both she and Zimmerman are motivated by seeing their times drop and their fitness level rise, they agree that this isn't even the best benefit of membership.
"It's the camaraderie," Seher said. "You don't have to be fast. While there are a lot of people who run fast, most aren't out there for speed as much as they are to have fun and get some exercise. You'll see people taking pictures, walking and talking. It's a running party."
Copyright © 2015 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC