The Man Who Runs 365 Marathons a Year
One day, Michael Shattuck started to run. He liked it, so he ran longer, sometimes for as many as 65 hours each week. He never wanted to stop. What was he running from?
“This is running heaven out here,” says Michael Shattuck. It’s a late-summer morning in Wisconsin’s rural heartland. Emerald green dairy farms roll into wetland marshes, the landscape punctuated with small-town eccentricities, like the statue of a human-size mouse wearing a University of Wisconsin-Madison tank top perched on the roof of a limestone-quarry business. There are plenty of distractions, which is a good thing, because the 42-year-old Shattuck, who was born and raised in Ripon, 90 miles northwest of Milwaukee, plans to run a marathon here every day for the rest of his life.
I first discovered Shattuck while scrolling through Strava in July 2019. At the time, he was averaging around 250 miles per week. His bio on the platform read: “Correr es vivir”—to run is to live—words attributed to Caballo Blanco of Born to Run. What kind of person runs a marathon, or farther, every single day? I wondered. And how is that even possible?
To find out, I tracked down Shattuck via the white pages. He invited me to join him on a run, and we set up a morning meeting for late August at Sunset Park on the shore of Green Lake, a bucolic vacationland for upscale urbanites near Ripon. The plan was for Shattuck to run at least 26.2 miles while I biked alongside him. We’d start at the park, loop through town, refuel at his house, then head back to the park.
When I pull into the Sunset parking lot, Shattuck has already run eight miles from his home and is slowly jogging in circles. He greets me with eager midwestern enthusiasm and a heavy Wisconsin accent that replaces o’s with nasally a’s (“Wiscaaansin”). Wiry and tan, with a shock of golden-blond hair, he’s wearing a cotton T-shirt advertising the 100-mile Tunnel Hill ultramarathon, which he completed in 2017. He has no water bottles or energy bars, preferring, he says, to stash something to drink along his regular routes and fuel up on Gatorade and apples at gas stations.
“How are you feeling this morning?” I ask.
“I’m not falling apart,” he says. “I’ve run 8,400 miles in 2019, and I would really like to get to 10,000 by the end of September.” I do some quick mental math—that would require about 40 miles a day.
It takes some prodding for him to divulge that he does in fact feel a few aches: heel pain, tendonitis in his right calf, and tightness in his hamstrings. We start toward Ripon, clipping along at a leisurely 9:40-per-mile pace through the leafy development of Sunnyside Acres, into marshland hiding wild turkeys, and up a long and grinding climb called Spaulding Hill.
“People are capable of way more than they think they are,” Shattuck says at one point. “Running can do almost everything for you. I’m doing this because I want people to know that they can do more. I want them to want to do more.”
Running lore is littered with seemingly incomprehensible feats of volume. In the 1960s, American Olympian Gerry Lindgren ran 200-mile weeks to train for a meet against the Soviet Union. Anton Krupicka, winner of Colorado’s Leadville 100 in 2006 and 2007, put in similar mileage leading up to his victories. More recently, in 2018, American Pete Kostelnick ran 5,384 miles from Alaska to Florida in just over 97 days. John L. Parker Jr. mythologized the “Trial of Miles” in his 1978 novel Once a Runner.
In the midst of his marathon-a-day goal, Shattuck’s got another benchmark in mind: breaking the current Guinness World Record for the greatest average mileage run daily in a consecutive year, a feat that would fit neatly into that pantheon. (The record is currently held by Indian Tirtha Kumar Phani, who, from June 30, 2006, to June 29, 2007, ran an average of 38.44 miles per day through Calcutta for a total of 14,031.15 miles.) But Shattuck’s motivation stems from much more than an ego-fueled desire to make the record books—or even simple obstinance.
We crest another climb and he announces, “You have to be your own superhero, nobody is going to save you!” And Shattuck, I’ll come to learn, needs saving.
No superhero works in a vacuum—we all need a little inspiration. Shattuck idolizes and tries to model himself after Marcus Luttrell, the former Navy SEAL who was the inspiration behind the Hollywood film Lone Survivor, and David Goggins, another former SEAL, who has completed more than 60 ultra-endurance events and wrote the bestseller Can’t Hurt Me. Goggins is a regular on Luttrell’s Team Never Quit podcast.
To follow the path of Luttrell and Goggins, one has to have a certain tendency toward masochism: “I motivate myself with dark images, like me at the bottom of a sewer. That image makes me very strong,” Goggins says in one podcast interview. “Motivation is not enough. Motivation is crap. You need passion.”
Shattuck certainly has the latter. During our initial phone call, his voice broke as he relayed the hardships Luttrell survived in Afghanistan. “These servicemen and women—what they do, what they go through, they break their bodies and they keep going,” he sobbed. “Like Marcus, I made the decision a long time ago that I’m not going to quit. I am never going to quit.”
Shattuck’s emotional response surprised me, especially since he has never been in the military. But as we run through the countryside, I soon realize that his same intensity bubbles to the surface with most everything he does. He tells me about his “pace pyramids,” a psychological boost he uses on his least motivated days to get through the miles, running nine at a 15-minute pace, eight at a 14-minute pace, and so on until he’s done. (“If I start out slow enough,” he says, “I just don’t quit.”) Then he relays his vegan period, a phase during which he ingested 25 scoops of a green superfood powder per day, a habit he had to stop because he got so wired that, he says, “I felt like I was drinking electricity.”
As the miles tick off on our loop of Ripon, Shattuck’s inspirational quotes give way to a darker past. In high school, he ran cross-country but was also a “party animal” who smoked two packs of cigarettes a day and raged all night, using alcohol, and later cocaine, to extremes. He still managed to go to college and graduate from UW-Stevens Point with a degree in social science. After school he worked in various accounting positions in Madison while continuing to party. He ran during those years but not enough to combat the excess. By 2004, his previously lithe six-foot-one-inch, 150-pound frame had ballooned to 240 pounds.
“I was a pack-a-day marathoner,” he jokes. In 2006, he ran the Chicago Marathon in 3:09:31, just 29 seconds under the cutoff to qualify for Boston, which he completed two years later with his brother, Steve. (Their sister, Alison Dawson, still holds the two-mile record at Ripon High School and earned a Division I track and cross-country scholarship to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.)
When Shattuck finished the last marathon of his 26 Days project on Christmas morning, he couldn’t find a legitimate reason to quit. So, like the Forrest Gump cliché, he kept on running.
Shattuck’s partying life abruptly ended in 2013, he says, after a person close to him went on a drug binge that nearly killed him. With that wake-up call, he doubled down on the natural endorphin highs he got from running, eventually increasing his mileage to 50- and 100-mile ultras. Then, in the summer of 2018, a friend from high school died from alcohol poisoning.
“The guy drank himself to death,” he says. In the aftermath, Shattuck dreamed up the 26 Days of Christmas, an effort to run a marathon every day for 26 days straight, starting on November 30, 2018. Shortly after, in mid-December, Shattuck was fired from his job as a senior financial specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Losing his job hit him hard.
“I crumbled as bad as you could imagine,” he says. “I could not fucking stop crying. I didn’t realize how much of my identity was tied up in that job.”
He stopped sleeping much, getting just one to three hours each night. But he continued to run his marathons, often starting at 3 or 4 A.M. During those early-morning jogs, he fantasized about how he could end his life without his family suspecting suicide. He started to break down in tears at the slightest provocation. The suicidal thoughts became a near constant presence in his mind. He made a plan to head west to the mountains and “accidentally” get lost on a run, disappearing off the face of the earth.
One of the only things that stopped him, he says, was a Team Never Quit podcast with U.S. Marine Dakota Meyer, who received the Medal of Honor for saving the lives of 36 U.S. soldiers and allies in Afghanistan in 2009. A year later, a drunk Meyer pulled his Glock out of his truck’s glove compartment and tried to kill himself. The pistol was unloaded. Meyer subsequently sought help for post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Jesus Christ, man,” Shattuck told me. “If someone like that doesn’t fucking end it, I thought, I can’t end it either.”
But Shattuck was freaked out by the twists and turns of his own mind. “It was clear I needed fucking immediate help.”
That December, he called an after-hours clinic in Madison. The nurse referred him to a doctor who later diagnosed him with bipolar disorder and prescribed an antipsychotic drug.
When Shattuck finished the last marathon of his 26 Days project on Christmas morning, he couldn’t find a legitimate reason to quit. So, like the Forrest Gump cliché, he kept on running. “26.2 miles is My New Baseline,” he wrote on Strava, on December 26, 2018, deciding at that point to run a marathon a day for the rest of his life. He divested his retirement account—about $5,000—into a year’s worth of running shoes, protein powder, and other incidentals. (He also looked for sponsorship but didn’t have any luck.) But the cash did nothing for the pounding he took during the unrelenting miles. His shins swelled so much that his lower legs became bigger than his thighs. In January 2019, he got the flu, which caused vomiting and diarrhea. But he kept running. “One day I went out at 12:49 A.M. at minus-25 temperatures and minus-52 windchill to shuffle around on unplowed sidewalks to make sure I could finish,” he says. That marathon took him eight hours, but he did it.
“Complete excess. That’s me by nature,” he says. Perhaps as a result of the insomnia, Shattuck started having intense hallucinations.
“I’d be on an early-morning run, and I’d see a woman with a round face smoking a cigarette, and it would turn out it would be a bush,” Shattuck says. He had the same vision multiple times, which “scared the shit out of me.” He quit his medication and eventually moved back to Ripon to live with his retired parents.
Bipolar disorder, a condition that causes erratic shifts in mood and activity, affects about 1 percent of Americans. It is often misdiagnosed as depression, largely because the people who suffer from it tend to seek help in their depressive stages, says Claudia Reardon, a psychiatrist and an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Reardon has worked with a handful of bipolar athletes, most notably middle-distance runner Suzy Favor Hamilton.
Favor Hamilton, who is also from Wisconsin, won seven national running titles, set two American records, and was a three-time Olympian. During her career, she was a model girl-next-door athlete who appeared in ads for Nike and was featured on the cover of Outside in 1997. In a bizarre turn, in 2012, a dozen years after her last Olympics, the married 44-year-old was outed by the website the Smoking Gun for living a double life as a $600-per-hour Las Vegas call girl who went by the name Kelly Lundy. In a 2015 interview with 20/20, Favor Hamilton attributed her double life to her bipolar disorder, which for years had been misdiagnosed as depression.
Antidepressants can help some people who are bipolar, Reardon said on 20/20. But for others, it compounds the problem because “they don’t have as much of a ceiling on their mood, and that can push their symptoms too high.”
When I called Reardon, she told me that there has been almost no research on bipolar athletes. “We need a big sample size to have a reasonable set of data points,” she says. In the few athlete studies that are available, results indicate that those with the disorder gravitate toward riskier sports like mountain biking and rock climbing. But, she says, “there’s been preliminary research on activities like running, walking, and swimming—repetitive exercise—that may not only be an outlet for extra energy but could also have a calming, mood-stabilizing effect for some patients.” Reardon says she worked with one bipolar athlete who, to expend extra energy, spent four hours every night “just running, running, running” around the university campus.
A person with bipolar mania, explains Reardon, puts the full force of their energy toward what best fuels their high: “For some, it’s spending tons of money, some it’s drug use. For athletes, it may be extreme increases in the amount of exercise they are doing.”
The big question, says Reardon, is: “Does the excessive exercise lead to calm stabilization and is it an effective form of self-treatment, or does the additional level of activity feed the mania, almost like fuel on the fire?”
When we reach Shattuck’s parents’ house, a comfortable rambler on a leafy, secluded lot in Ripon, he heads to the kitchen to down a half-cup of coffee and make a smoothie with seven bananas, two servings of PlantFusion Complete Protein, cinnamon, and water, while I sit outside in the backyard garden with his mother, Ellen, who is 69 and a former runner herself. Ellen has just returned from a yoga class.
“We buy our bananas at QuikTrip,” she says. “They’re only 38 cents per pound, and we go through 10 to 15 a day.”
She is wearing the same Tunnel Hill ultramarathon T-shirt as her son. (She is his “ultimate crew member,” he often says.) Shattuck repeatedly told me how supportive his family has been, but in the past few months, Ellen’s support has waned. In June, her husband, Bob, Shattuck’s father, had a heart attack and is still recovering. “I think it’s crazy what Mikey’s doing,” Ellen says. “But sometimes people have to do what they have to do.”
She’s tried all sorts of things to temper her son’s enthusiasm. Last winter, during a particularly frigid polar vortex, Ellen texted him photos of people with severe frostbite. He blocked her. “We had a really bad winter. Mikey was impossible. He knew he shouldn’t be out in that weather,” she says. “I wish this would be over. If he decided at the end of this year that this is good enough, I’d be elated.”
Shattuck, who has changed his T-shirt and joined us in the garden with his smoothie, emphatically shakes his head in the negative.
“Do you know how many shoes he goes through?” Ellen asks. “He changes every 700 miles! The calories he puts away? Six thousand per day! He doesn’t have health insurance! And if he doesn’t run, he should be on medication. He should be able to hold a job, run five or six miles a day, throw in a marathon on occasion, and be on medication. That would work.”
“People shouldn’t be afraid of being bipolar,” Shattuck interjects. He starts to cry. “I don’t want to get a job. Why the hell would I want to do something that makes me feel awful and wouldn’t end well? I just want a couple of sponsorships and to live the Never Quit mindset.”
Ellen puts up her hand as if to say, No more. Shattuck dons a sun hat with stars and stripes, gives his mom a hug, and we set off once again.
“I’m sorry to get so emotional,” he says, “but I am so committed to this.” Then, like clouds parting to let a ray of sunshine through, his mood seems to lift, and he says, “The best thing Marcus Lutrell ever said is, ‘Don’t let people’s perception of you become your reality.’”
After meeting Shattuck and watching him run, I was still curious about one of my initial questions: Can a human being run that much indefinitely?
Gerry Lindgren, following the epic mileage of his early career, failed to make the 1968 Olympic team due in part to a debilitating achilles injury. Anton Krupicka similarly suffered a string of physical setbacks that virtually knocked him out of the sport of ultrarunning entirely. And, well, Once a Runner is a piece of fiction.
I reached out to Herman Pontzer, an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University. In June, Pontzer coauthored a paper in the journal Science Advances that analyzed energy expenditure during the world’s most grueling sporting events. He found that athletes’ bodies adjusted to the way they burned calories, in part by reducing the energy they spent on other processes like immune-system response and stress reactivity. That allocated more energy toward physical exertion, as well as lowered the total number of calories they burned each day, which allowed them to go longer.
“Shattuck’s immense undertaking is an exciting exploration of human capability,” Pontzer told me. “Our work suggests that he’ll begin running up against the limits of his metabolic machinery in a few months. As he approaches the metabolic limits of human endurance, he likely won’t be able to maintain such an impressive workload. I certainly hope he proves me wrong.”
Of course, worrying about the metabolic limits of someone with bipolar disorder feels a little like worrying about a flat tire when your engine is on fire.
“Bipolar is scary,” says Shattuck’s sister, Alison. “All odds are against you.” One National Institutes of Health study estimates that between 20 and 60 percent of people with bipolar disorder will attempt suicide at least once in their lives, and 4 to 19 percent will die by suicide.
Maybe for that reason, she supports Shattuck through and through. “This is what he has chosen to do with his life, and it’s unbelievable what he has accomplished in a year. This story could end in so many different ways, and he’s decided to do this and thinks he can make a difference in people’s lives.”
Worrying about the metabolic limits of someone with bipolar disorder feels a little like worrying about a flat tire when your engine is on fire.
When Shattuck began his quest, no one really cared what he was doing. He’d get two or three kudos on Strava, and that was about it. The first few people who took notice were the trolls of LetsRun, a running forum where many members seem to pride themselves on negativity. “My pregnant 86-year-old grandma could outpace him,” wrote one. “Looks like the Strava of a single man,” wrote another (which Shattuck can’t refute).
But as the miles started to add up, Shattuck morphed into a sort of Marcus Luttrell for the Strava set. He now has more than 4,000 followers on the site, regularly gets hundreds of kudos, and seems to be spreading the Never Quit gospel.
“I have been quietly watching your daily marathons from Australia,” reads a typical comment. “Please know that you are inspiring people all over the world to push themselves to grow and be better.”
In mid-November, I checked in with Shattuck to see how he was faring so close to the end of a full year of daily marathons. Wisconsin had just experienced an early-season deep freeze that made him fantasize about quitting. It also quashed his plan to run his final ten marathons of 2019 barefoot on the Ripon College soccer field. He was in a reflective mood.
“This year was really all about trying to change myself,” Shattuck said. “I got mentally tougher for sure. I’m far from perfect still, but it’s not about me anyway.” He’d tempered his plan to run a marathon a day for the rest of his life and instead intends to run a marathon a day for 2,103 days (just under six years) to honor another podcast hero, Captain Charlie Plumb. On his 75th mission in Vietnam, the Navy fighter pilot was shot down, captured, and tortured as a prisoner of war for 2,103 days. But Shattuck’s new goal is flexible. He’s allowing himself to run inside on the treadmill during the worst days of winter and to even skip a day or two if he gets injured.
“I’m not saying that I won’t miss a day,” he said, “but I won’t quit just to quit.”
“What happens if your body can’t handle all that pounding anymore?” I asked.
“Shit, man, I’ll swim or play guitar or do comedy and make people laugh,” he said.
Two months later, Shattuck answered my question of human durability. On January 27, after completing 423 days of daily marathons—though still falling short of the greatest average mileage run daily—Shattuck was sidelined by badly bruised ribs, resulting from a fall on the ice; a skinless toe, due to relentless rubbing and abrasion; a problem with his left heel, lower achilles, and left calf; right groin issues; and a bad cold. By early April, however, he’d started running again and is ramping up for May 19, the day he’ll begin his new Charlie Plumb Challenge.
With this news, Shattuck also texted me a video of himself playing a bluesy riff on his acoustic guitar. The lyrics he crooned were simple and repetitive: “If you can’t run happy, just run. Running’s supposed to be fun. But if you can’t run happy, motherfucker, just run.”