The Performer: Ultra-marathon runner Martin Parnell

On competition, the global language of sport, and taking life one marathon at a time.

In 2002, at the age of 47, Martin Parnell of Cochrane, Alta., took up running after his younger brothers challenged him to a marathon. He took to it “like a duck to water,” he says. Since then, he has completed Ironman triathlons and ultra-running and cycling events around the world, including the Lost Soul Ultra 100 km race in Lethbridge, “the toughest race on the Prairies.” This year, Parnell, now 54 and semi-retired from his career as a mining engineer, has taken on the challenge of his life: to run 250 marathons in a single calendar year to raise $250,000 for Right to Play, a global charity for disadvantaged youth that teaches leadership skills and confidence-building through sport. Marathon Quest 250, his self-funded project, has been embraced by schools across Alberta who are tracking Parnell’s progress on a virtual map. Canadian Business editor Steve Maich caught up with him the morning of race number 76.

Distance run to date: 3,334 km

Distance still to go: 7,216 km

Calories consumed: 5,000 daily

Coldest running conditions: -30°C

Annual cost to fund one child via Right to Play: $50

Fundraising goal: $250,000

Money raised to date: $23,000

So how does a guy go from not being a runner to running 250 marathons straight?
Well, there were a couple parallel paths that were happening. I got into the marathons and I was enjoying the marathons. But also, five years ago I did a bike trip across Africa, the Tour d’Afrique. We travelled from Cairo in Egypt to Capetown over four months. It was a great opportunity to see the country and meet the people — which is what I did, and as I was travelling through, I’d play soccer with a bunch of kids in Sudan, and all they’d have is a bunch of rags tightly wound into a ball. And in Zambia, I played table tennis with some kids, just on the side of the road. Now, they don’t have a lot of stuff like we have, but they’ve just got a real enthusiasm for sport, and I sort of took that to heart.

And then I guess what pulled it all together is a year ago, a friend of mine introduced me to Right to Play, the children’s charity, and they’re very much geared to sport and physical activity in programs that develop leadership skills, team-building, self-esteem, and I thought, “Wow, there’s a fit here for me, for sure.”

Do you believe there’s value in competitiveness?
I think it establishes a goal. There are many levels of competitiveness, as we know. Within the family context, I think it can develop bonds and so on. Having said that, there’s also an internal competitiveness I think is within me. One of the reasons I like doing the ultras is there’s a 50% chance I’ll fail. I’m sort of competing against myself, and I might do, for example, the Lost Souls in Lethbridge, a 100-miler, basically two days and a night, and I’ll know that of the 120 starters only 70 will finish, and I want to be in that 70. Even if I’m last — and I have been last — at least I want to finish. But having said that, I think if [Marathon Quest 250] was just for me, I probably wouldn’t do it, but because I’m doing it for a children’s charity, well, that really ups the ante, from my perspective.

What is a day like for you when you’re running?
Basically I’m up at six, have a big breakfast. I go with the whole cereal, you know, granola with the chia seed, with full yogurt. I have to have all this because I’m losing weight. With what I’m doing, I burn 5,000 calories a day, so I really have to pack the calories in whenever I can. Then I prepare my hydration pack, I get all my gear ready. My favourite channel is the Weather Channel because I’m always looking at it to see what today’s going to bring. In the winter, obviously, I was into -30 stuff. That was a long six hours out on the road. Around 7:30, I’ll be sort of ready to go and have a coffee, and then I usually hit the road, you know, sort of quarter to 8.

What else are you eating to maintain your weight?
I mix it up. Chicken is a big staple, salmon, lots of salmon, all with veggies and potatoes and rice and so on. I’m a meat-eater. I do like a steak, omelettes, lots of protein. I don’t do the powders — I never really have. There’s lots of nuts, mixed nuts, Brazil nuts — excellent source to me in terms of the fats that I need — lots of cereal and grains and bread.

How are you involving schools in this project?
I’m planning to run at 50 schools during the year. The schools are the highlight. I go and I talk to the kids in assembly, explain what I’m doing, then I head out around 9 o’clock [and start running] at the school and the kids will join me during the day — at recess, lunch-time — they’ll come out and they’ll run with me. So I run a 400-metre track — or around the soccer field — for six hours at a school every week. The kids are fantastic.

What’s the message you want to deliver to the kids?
Well, actually a couple of things. One is, I touch on my trip to Africa, and I talk about the kids in Africa who, you know, I say are very similar to them except they don’t have the Game Boys and all the stuff that we have, but they do have a spirit for sport, and I talk about using sport and physical activity in terms of the life skills. But the best conversations are when I’m actually running. I run for five minutes and I walk for five. The reason I do that is that I got injured back on marathon number 28. I had, basically, a shin problem. We thought it was a stress fracture — fortunately it wasn’t, it was a repetitive muscle strain — and I was out for 2½ weeks, so I changed my running to five-and-five, which is great when I’m running with the kids because we can chat, and I’ve had them give me 25¢ and 50¢ just to help those other kids.

You must be going through a lot of shoes.
When I started this, I’d been reading about barefoot running and this whole minimalist approach to running, and it sounded pretty good, and so I felt maybe I can take a pair of shoes and run them for 250 and blow the whole running shoe business out of the water. However, I think part of the issue for me when I got injured was my shoes were thrashed, and I now get a new pair after every 10 marathons. And I like a shoe with support. I haven’t got a shoe sponsor. I basically beg, borrow and steal to get a pair, but I use a pair every 10 marathons and then I park them. So I’ll end up going through between 20 and 25 pairs for this endeavour.

Do you ever wake up and think, “What did I get myself into here?”
Yeah, it sort of overwhelms me sometimes when somebody mentions, “You’ve done 76 and you’ve still got another 180 to go.” I’m thinking, “Oh, my god!” I can’t think of it that way. I mean, I’ve done almost a third now. But I really, as I say, I just can’t even go there. I’ve just gotta look at today. Like, I just came back from Vancouver. I did the Vancouver Marathon, and two weeks ago I did the Boston Marathon, and now I’ve just gotta look at today. [Otherwise], it’s too big. I mean, it’s just too monstrous.

Have you’ve given any thought to how it’ll feel to complete your 250th?
You know, this is a journey. I sort of visualize that day, you know — Dec. 31, when it’s done, and it’s going to be huge. It’ll be a relief, I’ll be honest. It’s a lot of focus, a lot of determination, sticking to the plan, you know, but I feel it would be a huge accomplishment.