Interview with Traviss Willcox - world record marathon runner

January 2, 2012

Golf Today's webmaster Traviss Willcox has broken the world record for the most official marathons run in a calendar year, after completing his 114th marathon of 2011 in Pensacola, Florida.

Not that Traviss is a stranger to records - he has been slowly and quietly breaking them for several months, and now holds no fewer than seven! But this was the big one that he really wanted. And after 51 weeks of often painful effort, he was forced to work very hard for the final accolade, running eight marathons in the final eight days of 2011, with his sole rival for the record, American lawyer Larry Macon, also in the field.

We spoke with Traviss shortly before he returned to the UK, after completing his world record breaking marathon no. 114 - his twelth marathon in fifteen days. He was just about to go out, for good measure, to do one more...

Congratulations on your achievements in 2011. How do you feel?
You want the printable answer? Tired, very, very weary. I am very creaky, stiff and sore. My legs need a break, to say the least.

How long do you think will you give them?
Well, my flight back to the UK doesn't leave till this afternoon (New Year's Day - Ed), so I have time to fit in another, the final day of the Savage Seven event in Pensacola. Then, as soon as I'm back in the UK on the 2nd, there just happens to be another one not too far from Heathrow, where lots of friends will be running. And it would be rude not to join in - that'll make it ten marathons in ten days in three events on two continents! But then I'll have a week off until the 100 Marathon Club AGM, and then I have a weekend off. I had at one stage thought to give myself the whole of January off, to give myself a proper rest, but having spoken to several people over the last year who've done a lot of marathons, that seems to be a bad idea, as they've struggled on their return. So a week off, and a general easing off of the marathon schedule for 2012.

You certainly seem to have saved the toughest till last - the 'Savage Seven' in Florida?
Well originally it was the Savage Seven, a friend had put me on to it and knew I'd have to be there as that would likely be the only way to get an "end of season" burst in. Then an extra couple of events were added in front of it to make it the "Nasty Nine". Whilst I've done five in five before, that was a bit of a step up, but I know several people who've done the Brathay 10 in 10 days, so if they could, perhaps I could too. Having done four the week before I knew it would be a big ask, but all I had to was keep moving. Turned out to be a great event, the first two were around Pensacola which was nice, then the Savage Seven moved to a 400m track at the University of West Florida. Great bunch of people there, and whilst going round a track 105 times might not be everyone's idea of fun, there was a great spirit to the event and everyone was so friendly and supportive, it was a wonderful, if very tough, experience.

You'd kept the record attempt fairly close to your chest?
Yes, I suppose for several reasons. Firstly I just didn't want to make a fuss, my year wasn't about records, it was about pushing myself as hard as I could. I would hate to have said I'm going to go and do this and this, and then failed. Secondly, I suppose I didn't want to jinx anything, and lastly I didn't want to overshadow anyone else's efforts there. Anyone who lines up for these sorts of events is in for a hard week - or more! - which deserves great respect. One or two people had an inkling, but really it wasn't until the last day or two that some people began to realise. As all these events are proper official events, all the information is around if anyone wants to delve in a bit, and several people had!

So take us back to the beginning, have you always been a runner?
No, no, no! Three years ago I couldn't run 100 yards without the aid of oxygen, limping and a bit of a sit down. In 2007, having just turned 40 the year before, like many others no doubt, you think to yourself, rather overweight, rather unfit. Best do something about it, but I used weights to help lose weight and get fitter. Running was far from my thoughts.

So how did running enter them?
In early 2009, Rachel, my long suffering girlfriend - who had also lost weight and gotten fitter - started doing a couple of 5k races and announced that she wanted to do the London Marathon. But who could she train with? Hint, hint! By then I was a bit bored with the weights and was getting to the stage of outgrowing my home gym, so being the chivalrous sort I said I would.

Did the running come naturally to you?
Not for a second, I was a hulking, puffing, sweating wreck within about 100 yards! But I found - and still find for that matter - that whilst I felt awful pretty quickly, it never really got too much worse than that and I soon went from being able to run to the end of the road to running a mile or two. I then entered my first race, Pants in Park, 2009.

How did that go?
I'd never run so far in my life, it was 5k. I wasn't last but it was an awful struggle, but I finished and rewarded myself with a huge Burger King meal. And that was that, I'd done an event, finished, got my medal and thought that was the end of my running career.

So from 5k to marathons? How did that happen?
Well it went fairly quickly really, having done a 5k the thought then struck Rachel and I, could we do a 10k? Then a 10 miler? Then a half-marathon. We joined a running club, the Maidstone Harriers, who we discovered were just a great bunch of people. It's not a serious running club, although there are many very talented and quick, it's slightly more social than some and that helped no end. At each stage it was like a "I cannot possibly go any further than I have" but somehow managed it... we'd found an organisation called the LDWA and found an event nearby of marathon distance. As these are primarily walking events - but you can run if you wish - we thought we'd have a go at that, basically running the downhills and walking the flats and uphills. Then something fateful happened...


Most marathon events completed in a year: 114 (World Record)
Most marathon events completed in a 365 day period: 115 (World Record)
Fastest to first 100 marathon completions: 688 days (World Record)
Fastest to first 100 different marathon events: 720 days (World Record)
Fastest completion of 100 marathon events - 284 Days (World Record)
Fastest completion of 50 marathon events - 114 Days (World Record)
Most UK&I marathon events in a calendar year - 82 (British Record)

Which was?
We met these mad old men - I won't name them! - who were wearing blue and yellow shirts with "100 Marathon Club" on them. We sort of went along together for a while, trying to stay on track and having a bit of a chat. It had never crossed my mind for the briefest second that someone could do 100 marathons. You might do the London Marathon perhaps, but no more than that surely. 100? Ridiculous. Incidentally they left us behind, and I thought, if they can do that, surely I can? And the seed was sown.

So now we're at the end of 2009?
Yes, then fate took a hand. I entered my first proper road marathon, but by now my mind was way beyond marathon distances and I was into the land of ultra running, in my head at least! I was thinking of running Comrades in South Africa, that's 56 miles, and to do that I had to get a qualifying time. So I thought I'd just knock that out, then do a few ultras and I'd be set for Comrades the following year.

What happened?
About 50 yards in, I felt "something" ping in my left knee. By about 8 miles I was falling back rapidly, by 14 I was hobbling and having to walk. By 17 it was screaming when I ran so was just shuffling and by mile 25 I could barely move. But at the back of a marathon there is a great sense of camaraderie, no one is having a good day back there, and you kept getting jollied along by other runners, and you jollied them along and passers by would give you some encouragement and so on. If I had been sensible I would have quit, I finished dead last with motorcycle outriders for company 2 minutes under the time limit. I took 15 minutes to creep about 400m from the finish line to the car, my knee really was screaming.

Sounds like the end of the ultra dream?
Yes, took me a couple of months to get over the injury, I did no training, lost some fitness. My next marathon, I decided I could run it because I could run about 200m around a car park, not the ideal preparation! In the Spring Rachel and I had already entered some marathons which we both rather hobbled through, I'd virtually given up training by then as had by now injured my other knee, so was basically just doing a marathon a month or so on a wing and a prayer!

So how did you go from that, to 100+ marathons the next year?
By June 2010 I was at least reasonably injury free, I'd more or less given up on the ultra idea, but the 100 Marathon Club idea came back more to the forefront. Entered a few more events, then a few more and kind of discovered that I could do one a week more or less without feeling too crippled. Suddenly I had done 20-25 and wasn't too badly beat up and the 100 marathon idea started to really take hold. I wasn't going very fast, but was managing to get around, one of the beauties of the 100 Marathon Club is that you just have to do the miles, doesn't matter how quickly you do them! Useful when you're the speed of a tardy sloth, with a limp!

Nevetheless, that's about one a week, or 52 a year. Incredibly impressive as that is, how did it more than double to 114?
I remember the evening well. I was fishing around for plans for 2011. The 100 Marathon Club has a records page and I noticed that the quickest time to complete 100 marathons was - I think - 1,176 days and I thought, I could break that if I tried. Then if that's the British record, I wonder what the world record was? I found a few people who had done it in around 1000 days but then I found 849 days. And at that I thought, I can't beat that. But the other thought was: "How will you know if you never try?" You've got an opportunity right now, and if you leave it a year, then it's gone forever. So resolved to give it a go. Maybe not specifically, but just to try as hard as I could to do as many as I could, until I fell over with injury.

So you had no specific plans to do 100+ straightaway?
No, far from it. My initial goal was to do 50, and then the thought struck me, well, if I can do 50 in a year, could I maybe do 67, to reach my 100 marathons? Then by March it was could I do 74, to break the British record for most in a calendar year? By April it was 87, beating the British record for most in a 365 day period, and for a while the target hovered around the 90 mark. It really wasn't until June/July when a couple of events sprung up in Ireland that 100 in the year really became a target. And beyond that didn't happen until October.

How do you manage to fit in 100+ marathons in a year?
Basically that's two most weekends and I think every Bank Holiday - simple as that. One or two are on weekdays but 95% are weekends and holidays.

Now these were all proper 'official' marathon events?
Absolutely. The 100 Marathon Club have a set of rules as to what can be counted a marathon. No running round the park by myself and calling that a marathon as some people count them. Have to have permits, minimum numbers of people, results published, open to everyone and so on.

The logistics of all this must be pretty terrifying. How did you find them all?
Well some were ultras and all involved lots of early morning drives, late night drives, all over the place. That's really the hardest part of the challenge, people often ask me, how on earth do I do it? But half the battle is simply getting to these events. Saturday might be Devon, Sunday Wiltshire. Being in Kent that's three long drives, at odd hours, two of them whilst very stiff and sore! Some of the drives were just horrible, I'd just tend to seize up and they weren't much fun. This is where having an understanding girlfriend helps. Rachel, who did 20 marathons herself in 2011, probably drove me to 20-25 events, that sort of thing just saves a lot of wearing down, dozing in a car is rather more restful than driving! Then a couple of times there have been Monday events in Ireland, so I'd tack that on the end. The Royal Wedding weekend for me was a marathon on the Friday in Berkshire, a 40 mile ultra on Saturday in Oxfordshire, a marathon in Dorset on Sunday, then fly to Belfast, got there at midnight, marathon in the morning and back home again that evening. Running around the local park by myself would have been so much simpler!

Every weekend?
I had a two week break in August, when we had a holiday in New Zealand and Tahiti. At that stage I still wasn't thinking records really, and my legs needed a break. I had a lot of creaks, and a couple of weeks off helped that.

You speak of creaks, did you have any injuries?
I suspect a doctor would be horrified at the state I was in sometimes. I've twice been asked if I was OK at the start line! Had problems with both ankles, assorted knee things, some fairly nasty quad pains, calf pains, hamstrings. Won't even mention my feet, blisters or chafing! Worse thing though was shin pain in July. I'd done a hilly triple ultra and had a lot of shin pain after that, I did one marathon the following weekend and then literally couldn't walk on Sunday morning. That's the one event I missed. My criteria for doing a marathon wasn't "could I run to the finish", it was "could I walk to the start", and that day I couldn't. Took me a few weeks to get over it, was very painful and still have problems from time to time, but have discovered that if I tape up my shins I can keep the pain at bay for a while, long enough to finish, put it that way!

Did you finish every event you entered?
No, I had one DNF. The first one back after the holiday in fact. About 10 miles in Rachel fell over and cracked her head and was bleeding fairly nastily, we called an ambulance and I went with her, of course. She had been in the wars rather, in June she got trampled on by a horse, which had kept her off running for several months. I do feel a little sorry for her, she's done so many marathons but gets rather overshadowed, but her target is 100 marathons too, though over a far more sensible time frame!

Out of all you've done, do you have a favourite, or worst event?
There have been a few, not a fan of mud or pouring rain and been a handful that combined both of those! Put it this way, there will be some events that won't be on my 2012 schedule! Favourite is harder to define as different ones are memorable for different reasons, most with Rachel are nice as we go more or less at the same speed and nice to have company. Cologne was nice, as was Kent Coastal as did that with lots of the Maidstone Harriers. The one I've just finished is usually my favourite till the next one!

Tell us about your 100th marathon?
Many people when they get to 100 marathons like to have a bit of a party, announce months in advance what one it will be and so on so that others can be there from "the circuit" but I had refrained from this, firstly as I didn't know which one would be my 100th as I kept on adding events in whenever I could and secondly didn't want to make much of a fuss about it. I only really announced it to the world a week or ten days ahead really so only people who were already committed to it would be there. Though very touched that one of my friends I'd met on the circuit, David Bayley, dropped his plans and entered at the last moment. It was at the Robin Hood Marathon in Nottingham, and I did one the day before, of course! Was oddly aware of every twinge the week before, and the Saturday one was just paranoid about not falling over or doing something stupid to maim myself! But gotten around OK and adding up the time, was 688 days from 1 to 100. Hello world! By then though that wasn't the target. 100 in the year was, but I wasn't telling people that, so didn't want to make much of a fuss.

You've mentioned a few times about not making a fuss, why is that? Many people would be shouting what they've done from the rooftops!
One thing you quickly learn is that no matter how far you go, how quickly you go, how many events you do, someone is going further, quicker and doing more. So I'd rather say after I've done something rather than go around saying I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that. Then falling over and looking a bit on an idiot! I've come across a few people like that, that think they're doing something special, hey, look at me sort of thing... but they just appear to be attention seeking to me! I prefer to do things quietly and not make much of a fuss, I'm sure really anyone could do what I do, just got to be a bit daft and a bit stubborn I think, mainly!

What's this circuit you've mentioned?
Well there are a few hardcore runners about, members of the 100 Marathon Club, those aspiring to join that sort of thing. People doing 20, 30, 40 marathons a year sort of area, one or two doing 50 plus. You just meet an awful lot of nice people, generally everyone is supportive, encouraging and knows what you're going through as we all go through the same experiences. Have made a lot of great friends. There are maybe only a hundred people doing this sort of thing in the country, but you soon get to know the faces. The nice thing though is that there is little ego involved, nobody cares if they did better than you, or worse than you, they're just glad you showed up and put the miles in.

People must have suspected your target though?
Yes, by April or May some of the regulars had noticed that I always appeared to be everywhere, and they could add up and put two and two together. I was generally vague and stuck to the line of just trying to do as many as I could in the year, which then went to 100 in the year eventually when that became obvious. Records though I only really ever mentioned later in the year to a few trusted friends. Didn't really want word getting out. But in many ways that didn't really matter anyway, the goal was really just to do as many as I could. The records were just milestones along the way, they weren't the reason, the real reason was pushing till I broke. Or not, as the case may be! I always assumed at some stage I would just get injured, be out for a month or two and then that would be that - I'd tried, and that's as far as I got.

When did the world record really start to enter your thoughts?
SixMileBridge in Ireland, 5 in 5 days, I was last every day, I was in a lot of pain, but the Irish guys were so friendly and supportive, I started to think that if I could do that, then maybe, just maybe... But it really wasn't until October that plans firmed up, I had a very tough end of August and September, 15 in about 30 days or so, survived that and then decided to go all in for everything. The UK season starts winding down about October so knew I'd have to travel if I was to get close to the world record and decided to go all in for everything I could. I was fortunate that several small events sprung up that fitted in well with my schedule and friends found me a couple of obscure events I wouldn't have otherwise found. Finally the Christmas to New Year marathons were confirmed in Florida and my credit card took a hit!

How much has this whole exercise cost you? Any idea?
I don't even want to think about it! I shudder to think of the miles driven or flown, I had some air miles I blew on flights to the US, so that helped. I think it's best I don't know!

What are you most proud of?
Might sound odd, but not any of the events I completed. It was the 3am or 4am alarm calls, especially in February, March or April, long before anyone knew or anyone cared what I was up to. It was dark, cold and you could hear the rain lashing down and you knew you were in for a day of misery and pain. It would have been so easy just to have turned the alarm off and rolled back over to sleep...

Did you ever have any doubts?
Every single time I lined up! The problem is that 26.2 miles is just so far! There have been times I've gotten 500 yards and thought I cannot possibly do this. By three miles, it's beyond my comprehension how I'm going to manage another 23 of them sometimes. But you just put one foot in front of another, and eventually the end arrives.

It doesn't sound like much fun sometimes?
It might sound odd, but I really don't like running much! It's sweaty, it's hard work and it's often painful. I have been so utterly miserable sometimes it's just impossible to describe. But - and of course it's a big but - I enjoy having done it and I must have the memory of a goldfish, as its soon forgotten about!

Presumably you have a special diet for running?
That distant wailing you can hear? That's the lamentations of nuitritionalists the world over at what I stuff into myself. McDonald's, Burger King, Dominos, Cheesecake and protein mainly. The huge benefit of this year is that I've eaten what I want, when I want. I shall have to start dieting in January or I shall balloon up! Some people run for love, others for worthy causes - I run for pizza and cheesecake!

Then you didn't do this as part of some charity challenge?
I don't think I'd have had a friend in the world if I'd asked for sponsorship for every marathon! No, it was all just a personal challenge, just pushing myself as hard as I possibly could.

What was your quickest time?
Each time was a real surprise, but I actually broke my PB (Personal Best - Ed) five times during the year. The quickest was 4 hours 41 at the Andover Marathon in December, the 103rd of the year. I must have been getting the hang of it by then!

Knowing what you know now, would you have undertaken this challenge at the beginning of the year?
Not a chance! It would have just been too daunting I think. In many ways it just happened and I kind of just got sucked into this weird chase to do as many as I possibly could. In retrospect I had quite a mild first couple of months to the year, which probably broke my body in for the tougher months at the end of the year. I suspect if I'd just gone totally all out on day one it may have been too much.

Your exploits are bound to spur others to try and break your records. Any advice for them?
You've got to be mentally very tough I think, more than physically fit. Anyone can do this sort of thing, I've next to no athletic ability, I don't go very quickly, I'm just stubborn. Perhaps my only redeeming quality is to say to myself, "this is what I will do today", and I said that 114 times in 2011. Records are there to be broken and I will gladly shake the hand of anyone who beats these numbers!

It must be good to bring world records "home" in Olympic Year?
It's funny you mention that, but it only really occured to me in the last week or two that I would possibly be bringing them home with me after the final event of the year. The last few events, the legs are dead beyond belief, pretty much everything below the waist hurts. It occured to me that perhaps I wasn't doing this for myself anymore, but for my friends and family, my local running club. I specifically wore my Maidstone Harriers shirt on the final day, and ultimately for England.

Finally, what did you feel as you crossed the finish line on 31st December?
Oddly very little, but I already knew that would be the case. It's not about the destination, it's about the journey. All the great people you ran with, all the friends you met along the way, they weren't all there physically with me, but were in spirit. Had some pizza, protein and encouraged the runners who were behind me, and afterwards went to Whataburger!

Editor's note: Everyone at Golf Today is immensely proud of Traviss' achievements. Our webmaster really is every bit as quiet and unassuming as he appears in this interview. But we are not surprised that he succeeded, without fanfare or complaint.

Traviss has a work - and personal - ethic that doesn't allow him to rest until he's happy. Despite regular offers to help out with his workload during the intense schedule of travels that he understook in order to break the records, he would always decline, saying that it would "service as usual", if perhaps at somewhat unusual hours.

To have juggled a full-time job with a daunting sporting and personal challenge, and always with the same endearing sense of humour, is a remarkable proof of courage and dedication. To have reached - indeed surpassed - every objective with complete success is nothing short of phenomenal.

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