EVERY WEEK, somewhere in America, at least one marathon -- probably more -- is staged along the country's highways and byways. Jay Francis Helgerson, a 25-year-old exmarine for Wichita, Kan., has tried his best to run them all.
On Jan. 19, just before 11 a.m., Helgerson crossed the finish line in the Houston Tenmedia.
While a clocking of 2 hours 55 minutes for the 26-mile, 385-yard course, Helgerson was nowhere near the winning time of 2:13. But his presence drew most of the attention.
Helgerson had just become the first human on record to compete in, and complete, one marathon a week for a year, and the appreciative Houston audience was giving him his due.
Houston race directors graciously assigned him No. 52 for the race, signifying the 52nd and final week of his trek. Helgerson raised five fingers on one hand and two on the other as he passed the finish into the chute and where his fiance and one of his four sisters waited.
Someone handed him a bottle of champagne. Helgerson took a few swallows before emptying the contents over his bedraggled body.
"I almost felt like Bill Rodgers winning the New York City Marathon because of all the attention," Helgerson said. "This was a good place to finish. I could have ended this string in any of a number of little cities and gotten no attention at all."
Little or big, every town with a marathon played an important role in Helgerson's private Olympics.
There was the Cowtown Marathon, Feb. 18 in Fort Worth in below-freezing temperatures amid ice and sleet and Helgerson was there. A week later there was an ultramarathon, 50 miles from Marysville, Calif., to Sacramento, and Helgerson was there.
He also was on hand for the Boston Marathon on April 16. He ran in the Paavo Nurmi Marathon -- named after the great Finnish runner who won 12 Olympic medals in the 1920s -- on Aug. 11 in Hurley, Wis., and in the Sri Chinmoy Marathon, named after a running guru from India, on June 3 in Atherton, Calif.
In fact, Helgerson has been running amok over much of the U.S. since the Paul Masson Marathon Jan. 28, 1979, in Cupertino, Calif.
He has traveled more than 50,000 miles within 25 states to do to his body for each of 52 weeks something many people -- runners and nonrunners alike -- consider torturous even on a once-a-year basis.
On his birthday, Feb. 3, 1979, Helgerson felt he ran so poorly in the Bakersfield, Calif., Marathon (3:23) that he decided not to count it in his planned string of 52. So the next day he drove to Davis, near Sacramento, and finished the Avenue of the Olives Marathon in a more satisfactory 2:58.
"I wouldn't do that again," Helgerson said some 45 marathons later. "I don't have the energy and I'm not as fresh."
Why do any of this in the first place?
"It's simply a personal goal, something I just wanted to see if I could do," said the 5-foot-6, 135-pounder. "I'm just Joe Average who's doing something a little above average. I'm more like the average runners who's sort of made good."
Helgerson's decision to attempt this seemingly inhuman task came in December 1978 when, out of sheer boredom, he decided to forsake the second semester of his sophomore year at the University of San Francisco. He still lives in the Bay area.
By then he already had run in almost 40 marathons, including two ultramarathons, in 3 1/2 years. In his first marathon, during his marine assignment in Barstow, Calif., Helgerson covered the distance in 3:40 in a race in Palos Verdes, Calif., in June 1975.
"I swore I'd never run another marathon after that," said Helgerson, whose previous record distance was 10 miles. But by January, 1977, he was at it again, this time entered as a civilian in the Mission Bay Maraton in San Diego.
"This bug just bit me," he confessed. "So I continued to run after that. I wanted to see if I could improve on my times."
The Houston Marathon was his 92nd all-time effort and last of his official one-year streak, not counting the infamous birthday run. Just five of his 52 marathons have been over three hours and he finished with a string of 22 sub-three hour races.
"I feel I'm fulfilling a dream of some kind," Helgerson said. "In this day and age of professional athletes who make millions of dollars, how many would play just for the expenses? Here I am giving up the bulk of the money I saved during 2 1/2 years in the Marine Corps to do this."
Helgerson estimates his marathon travels this past year cost him approximately $8,200, about half covered by his savings. Of the remainder, $2,600 was provided By Converse shoes -- donated after the company was told that he wears the Converse World Class II shoes during his races. About $1,600 in expenses came from generous meet directors; who often contributed as much as half of the plane, train or bus fare from Savannah, Ga., to Ashland, Ore.
"When I started I didn't take into account how I would eat between Monday and Friday each week," Helgerson said. "You just can't hold a job when you're doing this. I underestimated how I would get buy."
He nearly left himself short on the fourth week following the race in Fort Worth, run a day after an ice and sleet strom left temperatures at 5 degrees below zero.
"It was a two-day bus ride back to San Francisco, and on a Sunday layover in El Paso I had just $1.85 left in my pocket," Helgerson said. "I walked into a cafe and the waitress watched me count out my money, saving enough for a newspaper, a phone call and a diet soda. I wanted a bowl of chili, but I didn't have enough left, so I ordered a burrito.
"Well, the waitress saw me eyeing the chili, so she brought me a half-eaten bowl of it from another booth.
"I was desperate, but I wasn't that desperate."
In Atherton, Helgerson encountered the guru Sri Chinmoy, who often is accomplished by groupies who jump from nearby bushes shouting, "Go, Guru, Go." Before the Sri Chinmoy Marathon, the guru encouraged all contestants into prerace meditation, Helgerson said.
"I talked to him after the race and told him what I was trying to accomplish," Helgerson added. "I didn't really get any response. He just nodded in approval like he understood English." Helgerson finished the Sri Chinmoy event in 2:45, the fastest on his string.
Sill, everything has not always gone smoothly for our hero, who ran out of gas on his way to Lompoc, Calif., four or five hours away, on a Saturday evening. He finally persuaded a gas attendant to reopen his station for a few gallons.
"Each week is a logistical nightmare. You try to schedule races in the same area but it can't always be done," said Helgerson, who plotted his travel plans from an edition of Runner's World magazine and wrote meet directors for lodging information. When housing for runners wasn't available, he stayed in cheap hotels, motels, airports, bus terminals, the YMCA, even his car.
Helgerson's busiest runaround was in midsummer when, after flying from San Francisco to Wichita to get his Toyota pickup, he traveled 9,000 miles in six weeks to reach marathons in Fort Wayne, Ind.; Cheyenne, Wyo.; Okoboji,; Iowa; Omaha, Neb.; Hurley, Wis.; and Crawfordsville, Ind.
The humidity in Fort Wayne was 92 percent and the high altitude in Cheyenne made breathing more difficult.
When he finished the Omaha race just before 9 a.m., the temperature was well on its way toward 100 degrees. By the time Helgerson got to Hurley for the Paavo Nurmi race, he was exhausted.
There he recorded his first three hour-plus marathon after 13 straight under that mark. The ensuing drive to Crawfordsville was no help, and the next week he turned in a 3:15, slowest for the year.
Helgerson rebounded with a change of scenery. In the Mayor's Cup Marathon, perhaps the most difficult on his tour because of the steep hills of San Francisco, Helgerson finished in less than three hours. He did so for 21 races afterward, including Ashland, Ore., where a bug flew into his eye eight miles into the race.
"The course monitors got it out after about five minutes, and by then I had fallen off my three-hour pace," Helgerson recalled. "I finished in 2:56, but I had to run like hell to get back under three hours."
His ability to keep his average time just under three hours has enhanced Helgerson's feat.
"I like to compare this to Pete Rose and his streak of a hit in 44 straight games," says Helgerson."I've got to coax my body each week to go the distance, even to get to each race. If I miss one there goes the whole string."
Or, a marathon might not present itself when needed most. Helgerson could not find one scheduled the weekend before Christmas, No. 48 of the series. "There was only one other and that was in Israel, something called the Sea of Galilee Marathon, I think," he said.
In desperation, Helgerson teamed up with members of the Pamakid Running Club and put together an impromptu San Francisco Christmas Marathon, run on the official San Francisco Marathon course.
Helgerson has remained healthy except for a lingering cold that slowed him in the Boston, Kansas University, Hogeye (Fayetteville) and Denver marathons; the bug in his eye and various callouses and blisters on his feet. He has held his training regimen to an average of about 55 miles a week: 26 during each marathon and about 28 to 32 miles spread over four days in between with a day of rest before and after each race.
But could he be really hurting himself?
Dr. Sam Fox, a professor of medicine and director of the cardiology exercise program at Georgetown University Hospital and himself a runner and bike commuter, had mixed feelings about Helgerson's feat.
"I applaud his mental stamina to hang in there. Running a marathon a week is localized insanity," Dr. Fox said.
"My orthopedic colleagues would be very much concerned for this fellow, unless he is endowed with better than standard musculature around his joints. That is where the breakdown would be the greatest, and it would apply to his tendons also."
Other than cartilage damage, Dr. Fox says he would be concerned about Helgerson's recovery rate.
Helgerson ought to know if he's felt any serious side effects from all this, but he insists, "I feel fine. I don't think this is harming me at all. Sure, I'm sore a couple days a week, but I have the resiliency to bounce back -- I soak a lot. There haven't been any physical changes. I'm still as heavy.
"I'm definitely tired after every race, but I don't really know if I'm hitting the wall in each one -- so much of that is mental. I manage to load up on carbohydrates a lot and I think that helps.
"I might be able to break three hours consistently, but it still hurts a lot for me. I've wanted to get each race under three hours so bad that I've been hanging in there where others might slow down or quit. I've never dropped out of a race before."
Helgerson already has been the subject of several television broadcasts and recently has been featured in nationally prominent magazines.
There may be further endorsements from Converse, but there is nothing in writing yet.
"I'll have a little money left when I'm done," he said after the Houston race. "It would be great if I could get an endorsement out of it, so I could just break even.
"It's nice to get the recognition, too, but I'm still the same person. It's just that people get interested when they see you start to pull something like this off."
Like a true masochist, Helgerson has already extended his marathon adventures beyond his string of 52. He ran two in the last two weekends, bringing his lifetime total to 94. He plans to make it 101 before his marriage April 12. "I'll shoot for 1,000 before I die," he said in all honesty. "I think in a way it would really be fun."