Zach Zimmerman freely admits what he does is a little crazy.
In May, he ran two marathons in 15 days. Earlier this month, he ran four half marathons in four days.
“I felt good enough to run another one on the fifth day, too,” the Tacoma resident 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. “We have 12,000 members, but you think about all the people those members have inspired and it’s not unrealistic to think they’ve touched the lives of more than 100,000 people.”
Marathon Maniacs started 10 years ago after Phillippi and two friends ran a marathon in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Phillippi, Steven Yee of Bonney Lake and Chris Warren of Sammamish 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, so 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 was potentially 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.
At May’s Tacoma City Marathon, the club celebrated its 10th anniversary with runners visiting from around the world.
At the running expo before the race, it was clear the Main Maniacs have reached celebrity status in running circles. People approached Phillippi and posed for pictures and referred to him as No. 3 (Each member gets a number based on the order in which they are admitted to the clubs).
“I was running in Austin (Texas) once with my (club) shirt on and somebody noticed it,” Zimmerman said. “When they heard I was from Tacoma, they were really excited because they knew that’s where the Maniacs were from.”
HONORING HALF EFFORTS
Phillippi, Warren and Yee launched the Half Fanatics in 2009. Membership requirements, levels and dues ($10 per year after $35 for the first year) were the same.
“It just seemed like if we didn’t do it, somebody else would,” Phillippi said.
The club got 483 members in the first year and 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.”
A SLOW BUILDUP
Sabrina Seher, a 34-year-old Gig Harbor resident, was intrigued by the Maniacs because it seemed like a fun outlet for her overachieving personality.
“I’ve always been go, go, go,” said the mother of 5- and 9-year-old girls.
She ran marathons in Portland and San Francisco in 2010 to earn her membership in the Maniacs and hasn’t stopped running since.
Seher reached Level Six by running four marathons in four days, and now she helps coach running at the Tacoma Fleet Feet, located below the office space shared by Marathon Maniacs and the Tacoma City Marathon Association.
“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.”
Seher, who runs as many as 70 miles per week, says the trick to getting to the point you can run more than 200 miles in four days without injury is taking it slow.
“You hit walls, but you slowly get your body to accept more miles,” she said. “You build up until a half marathon feels easy, then you keep working until running a marathon feels pretty easy.”
On July 14, she set a personal record by finishing North Bend’s Light at the End of the Tunnel Marathon in 3 hours, 45 minutes.
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. It’s not like the people who do Boston (Marathon). 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.”
Craig Hill: 253-597-8497 firstname.lastname@example.org/fitness