For most, running long distances like marathons and ultramarathons is often a bucket list type of goal. For one local Fayetteville woman, it spans beyond just a passion for running, she has run over 80 marathons and recently completed her goal of running a marathon in each state. With each race that Marsha Kouba runs, her spouse Dr. Steve Kouba is right there with her doing the half-marathon distance.
Marsha, a nurse, is a svelte, soft-spoken woman who is very humble about her running accolades. She belongs to a small sect of accomplished runners and was the 232nd female to run a marathon in every state, and she has all the swag and stories to show for it.
For the Koubas, not only is running part of their lifestyle, they’ve made it part of their recreation and have made the most of their travel. They have never gone on a vacation where it has not revolved around a run of some sort. “Every state was so different for her and me,” said Steve. “Our family has always been really involved and especially when everyone showed up for Marsha’s 50th state marathon.”
Those who know Marsha know that she is rigid in her training schedule and justifiable so, in order to maintain her fitness level to complete her 50 States marathon goal. “I’m a morning runner; I’ve always been a morning runner, it’s how I get my day started, “ she said. “You have to find what makes you happy, then you just have to do it, and stay disciplined.” Marsha averages 50 to 55 miles each week. She shared that there are very few “perfect” weather running days and that she always enjoys her run, rain or shine, wind or sleet, or minor nagging aches and pains.
What does someone do with 50 plus race t-shirts? Have them made into keepsake quilts for her kids, of course. Running the America Discovery Trail in Colorado Springs was Marsha’s 50th and final state on her storied journey. Upon arriving home, she satisfactorily colored in the final state on the wall chart in her office mapping her progress as she met her goal in September of 2012. “Some of the marathons were trail runs throughout the course, though you tend to get injured among the terrain,” said Marsha as she recalled a particular hairy race story that took place here in the Tar Heel state. During her trail marathon outside of Greensboro, Marsha took a tumble off the footbridge into a giant scape of mud. She said though she was not hurt, she had to be literally hosed off before coming home.
While Marsha is no stranger to the Boston Marathon, and even has a dedicated medal plaque to display her Boston Marathon finisher medals, last year’s tragic race that made national news still ruminates in their minds. Bombs went off at the Boston finish line right where Steve was finishing the half –marathon distance. Not terribly far behind, Marsha was still running the full distance when she found out what had happened. Marsha said it was complete chaos and her daughter, who should have been at that finish line, fortunately was not. Just before the cell phone communication towers were shut down by authorities, the family managed to connect and make a plan to meet back at the hotel.
In case you were wondering, Marsha’s p.r. time for the upcoming Boston marathon this spring is a sub 4:00:00. She qualified and got into Boston this past year with a 3:58:00 during her Iceland Marathon.
Another noteworthy race that will forever stand out in their minds is their race in Delaware in May 2013. It was Steve’s idea to run the race. No bombs and no mayhem, but they never would have never predicted how that particular race would end. At the finish line of Steve’s half-marathon distance run, he went into cardiac arrest.
Marsha somberly recalled that she was still running when her iPhone rang at mile 22 when she answered and heard: “Is this Marsha Kouba? Where are you at?” She knew then that something was terribly wrong, but she did not know that at that moment they were calling to inform her that they were performing CPR on Steve at the finish line following his collapse – right in front of the medical team.
Moving over to the curb in disbelief to process the information, so many things were running through Marsha’s mind simultaneously as she waited to be picked up from a race volunteer, before being loaded up into the ambulance with her long time running partner and love of her life.
As you know, this story ends well. Steve was revived in four minutes and they spent a week in the hospital, and while he still runs, he has scaled back considerably – an ongoing marital conflict, as you might imagine. “As a runner, it’s hard to have something yanked away from you,” expressed Marsha, reflecting back on her own past forced break from the sport. Though the incident for this orthopedic surgeon was purely an electrical glitch, Steve is a picture of great health but no longer ventures out on runs alone. And also at Marsha’s insistence, he might occasionally walk some of those miles during his last few half-marathons.
For that harrowing race, Steve’s finisher medal takes on special meaning. It was delivered to the hospital later by the same man who had started CPR on him at the finish line. Finding humor during this alarming event, Marsha said she was reading email in the hospital and noticed one in the in box, from the Runkeeper app, that Steve had busted his run time. The Runkeeper app on his phone had stayed running all the way to the hospital inside the ambulance, showing their route on the screen display, forever logged into the digital realm. Gotta love technology.
The making of a runner
Marsha has always been a runner, but she really began this journey in 1988 after her son was born 25 years ago. She began running in the early mornings before Steve headed off to work. Her first marathon was the Virginia Beach marathon in 1991.
Keith Gardener, Marsha’s running mentor, taught her the ropes of running starting at the beginning and then through that first milestone marathon. “From that point on, my next focus was to try and qualify for Boston,” Marsha said. “It’s the only one of two races you have to qualify to run in – something most people might not know. The other race is the Olympic trials.”
Upon qualifying for her first Boston Marathon in 1996, Marsha admitted that she was pretty much hooked on the sport of running. Along the way, she kept meeting people setting the state-to-state goals, and that is when the seeds took root for her grandiose plan. Browsing through the marathon guide with complete ratings, Marsha began to plot her path of marathons, one state at a time.
As part of her plan, she vowed not to visit a state twice, selecting the races that appealed most to them beginning with the smaller, Northeast states. Next, they moved onto tackling the Midwest. Hawaii and Alaska were among some of the last races near the end, making it a destination vacation for the entire family.
After completing their 50 States goal, the couple then went back to do some fun races that they had missed along the way. All of Marsha’s race medals are framed in specially designed plaques gracing the walls. “Through it all, it was one of the most amazing adventures filled with wonderful places we saw, and the wonderful people we met along the way,” exclaimed Marsha. “Every state had something special that made its community what it was.”
So what do diehard runners do after meeting such lofty goals? Running a race in each of the seven continents only seems logical. Both Marsha and Steve have already completed marathons in South America, Antarctica, Europe, and of course, North America. The Kouba’s have three continents left to conquer and have a spring trip in the works to Jerusalem, which constitutes the continent of Asia. Australia and Africa will follow over the next two years.
Fondly recalling the finish in Antarctica, all 40 competitors ran right off the trail onto the tarmac to board the plane as inclement weather came blowing in, forcing them back on the five-hour flight into Reagan National Airport. During this race, Steve’s first race back after his incident in Delaware, family members, Jessica and Scott, walked the half-marathon route with him. Marsha said the nature was unparalleled to other races as she described marveled at seeing the puffins and other Arctic wildlife along the route. It’s a once in a lifetime trip and their memories are the real prize here.
Marsha’s advice to avid runners: cross train. For her, it was a hard lesson to learn, but she has been doing yoga, and in previous years, Pilates, two to three times a week. She said the stretching and core strengthening is complementary to her running regiment.
Though Steve credits Marsha’s good fortune in running to her being biomechanically correct, Marsha knows that she has been given a gift, and she embraces that spirit. At the seasoned age of 57, Marsha’s zest for running and fitness is truly inspirational. Life has thrown the Kouba’s a few curve balls, but like in running, Marsha changes up her route every single day and takes it all in stride.
(photo caption) About Steve: has a neutral foot, prefers to wear Brooks, and just tried the brand Hoka
(photo caption) About Marsha: has a neutral foot, while she ran in Mizzuno for years, she loves the Adidas Boost lightweight shoe and those shoes have caused her to break her own rule over the years to rotate her shoes.
(Online Extra- meet a local Ultra-Marathon Runner training for the 100-Mile race in Umstead)
Meet an Ultra-Marathon Runner
Tamara Hardee began running in 2000 after a neighbor suggested running a Veterans Day half marathon. Her brother had just passed in the spring of that year from a brain tumor and she wanted to do something he would never have the opportunity to do, and knew she had the physical ability to do so. “I was hooked after that,” said Hardee. “I ran marathons, half marathons, 10Ks and an occasional 5K regularly until late 2011, when a running pal suggested a 50K out on the All American Trail.”
The FA (Fat Ass) style races have no entry fee, no support and no bling (t-shirt or medal) for participating and finishing. That is when in January 2012 Tamara fell in love with ultra running. Why would anyone love running those distances? Hardee shared that she thrives on picking her pace, she gets to eat during the race, she can walk up the hills and says the fellowship among the runners is unbelievable. “I am not a ‘fast’ runner but I have the ‘gift’ of running for long periods of time, “ said Hardee. “I have run numerous 50Ks, a 100K, and a 50-miler. I attempted my first 100-miler in April 2013 and had to stop at 65 miles due to blisters on the bottom of both of my feet – I had never had blisters there before. I just couldn’t work through the pain. The terrain and hills were not familiar to me to I think that is what caused the blisters. I had only done one training run at the 100-mile race location prior to the race. Lesson learned. I will be attempting this race gain in April 2014 (Umstead 100 in Raleigh) and I am determined to get my belt buckle – the coveted prize for completing a 100-miler.”
In September Hardee completed her first 24-hour race, at Hinson Lake in Rockingham. She completed 76 miles and ran for the entire 24 hours.
When asked why she runs ultra distances…..because she can, she said. “God gave me the ability to do this sport. I give Him all the glory. Phil 4:13 is my mantra during those times in a race or a long training run when I am just not sure I can take another step,” said Hardee. “I may not be fast but I have the endurance. I can go out and run 20 miles without any training. And then not be sore the next day. “
Q: How does one cross mental barriers for longer distances?
A: I have never hit ‘the wall’. The first few miles are always tough. It takes me 4-5 miles to get into the groove. Then I am good. If I start feeling ‘rough’, I dig deep. I will pray. I will do nothing but give ‘Thanksgiving’ to God – naming everything that comes to mind of what I am thankful for. It can be deep thoughts or things as simple as a butterfly that crosses my path or the smell of rain. When I am feeling ‘rough’ and just not feeling the moment, the prayers will lift me right out of that moment of not feeling ‘it’. I give God all of the glory for my ability to run! It is all because of Him!
Q: How do you prevent injuries at longer distances?
A: Back in the early 90s I suffered a complete stress fracture in my lower tibia – my shoes were not the proper size. But I did complete the 26.2 miles of the Myrtle Beach Marathon. It wasn’t until 10 days later that I discovered the reason for my excruciating pain in my leg. A little hard headed, to know I was hurting but since I trained so hard, I was gonna’ finish that race. No other serious injuries.
Q: What are your favorites?
A: My shoe of choice is the Hokas. They look like clown shoes but I am a true believer in their abilities. I am not sore the next day. My legs don’t feel like they have 10 pound weights attached to them while running. I no longer have pretty toenails. That’s okay, the satisfaction gained because of running is worth it. Toenails are for sissies! I learned early on in my running career to have shoes a half size to a full size larger – I completed a marathon with a stress fracture completely through my lower tibia. Glide is my best friend. Or in m y 24-hour race, baby diaper rash cream became my new best friend. Areas that you could not even imagine can become chaffed in 30 plus miles. Blisters – they can show up anywhere on your feet. But I have found the solution for the blisters on my feet – Duct tape. I customize a piece of duct tape and put on the bottom of my foot – voila– no blisters! I carry hand held water bottles. I also have a waist belt that holds a bottle and has a pouch for other stuff.
I am an old timer when it comes to running. I wear my Garmin to clock my per mile time and overall time. I keep track of when I should be doing gels or salt tabs by my Garmin. I don’t train with a heart monitor. And I keep track of my training and miles the old fashioned way, I have a running calendar. After every race I write up a report for my own reflection. Lessons learned, how I felt, what worked, what didn’t.
Camaraderie & Support
Q: What do you enjoy while you run?
A: I don’t listen to music while running. I enjoy the sounds that surround me. And while racing, it is great to talk to your neighbors and make new friends or catch up with old friends along the way. The ultra- community is like no other. Runners in general are extra nice people. But the ultra runners are way above in being helpful, supported, motivators, encouragers, kind and always faithful in that moment of need – verbally, physically, mentally or emotionally. Any person that will come out and ‘run’ with you at midnight or at 4am just to help you make it through that tough moment, is a true friend.
I am involved with the MTC (Mangum Track Club) and Those Crazy Runners (TCR) running groups. It’s not just a running community; it’s a family of runners.
Q: What fuel works best for you in ultra-running to aid in recovery?
A: It takes many miles to find out what works for you. And in each race experience, you learn something new about yourself and what your body needs or doesn’t need. During my first 50 miler I learned all about mustard. It was a hot April day, 87 degrees, on blacktop with not one shade tree on the course. My electrolyte supplements and water were leaving my body as quick as I was intaking due to the sweat I was dispersing. At one of the aid stations, they had packets of mustard for sandwiches. It was suggested by a fellow runner that day to try mustard for electrolytes so I did. It worked!!! No cramps and I actually keep my electrolyte balance better. Which means, I didn’t get dehydrated or cramp up. I like to eat small portions all throughout a race. I can’t do peanut butter products because it gives me indigestion so I try a similar product made out of Soy. I make Soy spread with honey sandwiches and take with me. I use electrolyte tablets instead of Gatorade – too much sugar in full strength sports drinks. Chocolate milk is the best recovery drink after a long run! And a treat. I will drink Coke during the run but in small doses. And coffee is great to have at around midnight in a 100K, 100 miler or 24 hour run or about mile 25 in a 50K or 50-miler. I love chicken noodle soup or hot grits with lots of salt. And a big juicy cheeseburger with lots of mustard. I like pizza too. Pancakes are m y normal prerace meal, the night before. I talk salt tabs about every 30 minutes in the hot weather because I am a heavy, heavy sweater. I use gels/Gu but after about 16-18 miles, the consistency doesn’t agree with me and I just can’t take them any longer. Boiled potatoes with salt are a fave too.
Q: You can’t make a living running, what’s the plan to keep doing what you love?
A: Because of my running, I have gone to school to get my massage therapy license. I take my test for my state license Dec 28. Massage therapy has been a crucial part of my training and staying healthy in running. I also believe in chiro care. I hope to help other runners and athletes in training and recovery with my massage therapy. I love to help other runners achieve their goals. I help others set up training plans or just give advice, if asked.
Q: On a tough day where do you draw strength to finish those races or stay disciplined to wake up on the cold day?
A: I think with age I have learned discipline, patience and my body handles the endurance. When I was younger, speed was more of a goal in running. How fast could I finish a race? Now my concern is to finish the race, enjoying the journey along the miles. I run for the mental benefits probably more than the physical benefits. It is a great time for alone time with God – no interruptions of a cell phone, or computer distractions. Just me, the trail/pavement, the earth surroundings and God. I start out always in prayers of Thanksgiving – That alone can get me through 50 miles.
I do not feel bad or beat myself up for having a DNF (Did not finish). It’s better than a DNS(did not start).