Q&A: Traveling Marathoner Goes for World Record

Feb 22, 2010
Outside Magazine

IMG_1012 In 2005, when Kelly Hansen's ex-boyfriend told her she couldn't run a marathon, she committed to finishing Boston's grueling route as a scab despite little training and a lot of pain. This weekend, the 25-year-old heads to Antarctica to complete a more recent (and less vindictive) goal: run a marathon on every continent and become the youngest woman to do so.

Since 2008, Hansen has run marathons in Guayaquil, Ecuador; Auckland, New Zealand; Khon Kaen, Thailand; Stockholm, Sweden; and Lewa, Kenya. Up next? King George Island, Antarctica.

I caught up with Hansen -- a fellow Boston University alum -- during her final week of preparation to ask about traveling the world, rubbing elbows with elite runners, and how to train for a marathon in sub-freezing temps.

-- Jennifer L. Schwartz

OUTSIDE: So an ex threatened your ego and you ran Boston. But were you already a long distance runner?
HANSEN: No, I'd picked it up out of the blue. I played soccer, lacrosse, rugby and skied, but I'd never run more than five miles. It turns out I have a lot of endurance, but I'm slow as hell.

What's your fastest time?
Four hours and nine minutes, which is pretty poky.

Running the Boston Marathon as your first 26.2-miler must have been pretty inspiring.
Actually, I quit running for three years after that because it was so painful and frustrating. But I picked it up again in the summer of 2008 with the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in San Diego. With all the group training runs, I got sucked in.

How did you decide to run a marathon on every continent?
I was in a rut and was inspired by travel. So I took two weeks to make a loose plan and used marathons as a way to make sure I kept moving and experienced each place with the locals. I didn't want to be a tourist, and I saw this as a great way to get connected with the places I was visiting. I was away for ten months.

What was your strangest marathon moment?IMG_4058
In Kenya, the route was through a wildlife safari. Helicopters overhead were supposed to scare away predatory animals. At one point, monkeys ran across my path [see photo, right], and I wondered if something else, something bigger, was chasing them.

How did you integrate yourself with the local cultures and other runners?

When I arrived for the Thailand marathon, I was told I was too fat to run, which was both funny and infuriating.

In the house where I was staying there were mattresses all over the floor, and the Kenyan and Ethiopian runners and coaches thought I was there for the 5K. But I ran some training runs with them and learned what it means to be a professional runner.

The marathon started at 4:30 am and half of it was in the dark, under the stars. It turned out I took fourth place in my age category. I got a trophy and 150 bucks. My new friends were pretty happy for me, even though they were confused about how I could keep running for so long since they finish in, like, two hours.

What sneakers do you wear?
I love, love, love the Nike Vomero. I've gone through multiple pairs, but I actually only had one pair for the entire time I was traveling. They lasted ten months, five marathons, and multiple mountain treks. They now smell like death and I plan on getting them bronzed when I have the courage to remove them from the plastic bag where they're quarantined. 

How did you qualify for Antarctica?
You only need to qualify financially and nab a spot -- both of which were no small feat. I got off the wait list on Christmas Eve after missing it last March, and immediately started scrounging for the seven grand I'd need to get there.

I drained my bank account, put another $1,500 on a credit card, and received amazing support from family, friends and strangers.

What will the weather be like?
According to my research, it can be between zero and 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Former courses have been on dirt paths and over a glacier. But there's been a big dispute over this race happening, so I really have no idea what to expect. There will be about 100 people running, and we'll all be on one ship, departing from Tierra del Fuego.

How have you tweaked your training to prepare for the environment?
I bike to and from work every day in Boston, where it's really windy and really cold. I breathe a lot harder on my bike and I think that's been good training for my lungs.

This is probably the first time I'm taking my training seriously. I've done the proper training: three shorts runs a week and one long one, up to 18 miles. I still need the treadmill sometimes when I can't get myself to run outside (I know, I know) and the TV and iPod are really helpful.

I usually like to train by myself because I tend to have a lot of emotions when running long distances. I don't belong to any running clubs, but I've been dying to try hashing in Boston.

IMG_0950CARBO-LOADING: Kenyan and Ethiopian runners introduce Kelly Hansen (blonde, center) to their version of a pre-race meal before the Thailand marathon. Ugali is made from maize flour and tastes like "stiff mashed potatoes." No fork required.

Any injuries?

My knees were destroyed when I got back from traveling, so I did a lot of cross training and took two months off from running. Now everything feels great.

What's this about breaking a world record?
I recently found out that a guy younger than me has already run marathons on every continent, so I petitioned Guinness World Records to make me the youngest female to ever do it. We'll see.

After Antarctica, what are your marathon goals?
I'd love to actually qualify for the Boston Marathon.

Any tips for people looking to do what you've done?
Do it! Honestly, the biggest hurdle is committing to it. So many people say they'd love to travel and run abroad, but there's always work or money or fill in the blank. It's cliche, but in 5, 10, 30 years, you'll regret you never tried.

There's a great website, marathonguide.com, that has a list of domestic and international races along with links and reviews. I used it to plan all of my races. Don't be afraid to contact race organizers, especially if it's in a county where you don't speak the language. I received a lot of help along the way because I reached out.

Take advantage of your situation: Talk to the local runners, check out the area, experience the cuisine. You went abroad for a reason.

To learn more about Kelly's marathon conquest, read about her solo 'round-the-world running experience, and help support her trip to Antarctica, check out her blog.

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