Through a drizzly Marrakech, Morocco, at midnight, ten individuals push through their second marathon within 20 hours. In the quiet darkness, no one is out to witness their accomplishment, and after they finish they move on to board the next flight.
Thousands of feet in the air, they let their muscles rest briefly, refueling with the hydration, nutrition and sleep their bodies crave and mentally prepare for the next race.
They are the members of the exclusive Intercontinental Marathon Club, reserved for those who have run seven marathons on seven continents within seven days. According to the club guidelines, they must “exemplify the spirit of adventure marathon running.”
UNC alumnus Tim Durbin is one of the first members to join.
As the only American to complete the first World Marathon Challenge in January 2015, Durbin hopped from plane to plane for a week and ran seven full marathons with nine other participants in Union Glacier, Punta Arenas, Miami, Madrid, Marrakech, Dubai and Sydney.
With the Challenge now approaching its third year, Durbin advises future participants, “Don’t stress. It’s only a week.”
The statement doesn’t come with the tone of arrogance one might expect from a national record-setter, but rather with a humble recognition that this highly unique experience is neither Durbin’s full story, nor simply about him.
For Durbin, 33, his long-term goal is much more time-intensive than that week alone. He has his mind set on an even greater feat — running and walking the distance of the equator within 10 years. He originally set the goal in 2013, to complete before turning 40 years old. But less than four years later, he has already passed the 15,000-mile mark and is now more than 60 percent of the way toward completing the total 24,901 miles.
Despite his rare accomplishments, Durbin does not label himself as an athlete in the stereotypical sense. He is an Illinois-raised Tar Heel, former consultant, turned San Francisco-based finance executive, who happens to have a passion for running and travel.
After all, he is a self-proclaimed “world traveler and average runner.”
While an undergraduate at UNC, Durbin couldn’t get into the golf class to fulfill his physical education requirement, so he signed up for Intermediate Jogging.
“I mean I ran track and stuff like that in high school, I was just never really any good,” he said. “I just did distance for fun, and then played around with it a little in college and right after college but didn’t do any distance running or anything like that.”
He had played sports growing up and considered himself to be an active person, but his self-driven competitiveness had not yet taken root in a specific sport.
But whether by foot or by plane, he knew he had a passion for exploring, and an insatiable curiosity that has taken him across the globe.
Through his globally-oriented MBA program at UC Berkeley and his work as a consultant, Durbin developed a wanderlust, steering him to every U.S. state and at least 35 countries.
“Getting bitten by the travel bug really motivated me to get back into running and combine those two passions – one to stay healthy and two to travel and learn about different people and different cultures,” he said.
Meanwhile, his great uncle, Bill Litwiller, who was running marathons in his 70s at the time, inspired Durbin to pick up the pace.
“[He] is now 82 years old, and he’s still running 5 and 10Ks,” Durbin said. “It’s crazy. Eighty-two years old and running more than most people do in their 20s and 30s.”
In business school, Durbin started doing half-marathons with his great uncle and then completed his first marathon in Austin, Texas, with one of his closest friends from UNC.
He hadn’t trained for the marathon and admitted he was probably sorer after that than after the World Marathon. But even without training, finishing that marathon marked a beginning.
He continued running and walked everywhere he could, covering miles that would lead to a goal he may never have believed possible for himself at the time, if not for his talent of both concocting and achieving his wildest aspirations.
Enveloped in an inexhaustible white, Durbin breathed in the cold air and kept running, unsure of how much farther was left.
He was participating in the Antarctic Ice Marathon.
Durbin first heard about the marathon from his great uncle, who had wanted to enter the race himself.
“He always talked about this marathon in Antarctica, and one day I literally just Googled, ‘ice marathon,’ and that was what came up,” he said.
It was the only continent he had never been to, and his travel bug urged him not to be a typical tourist.
“I wanted to check off a seventh continent, but didn’t want to sit on a boat and look at penguins,” he said. “I wanted to do something unique.”
After deliberating on the value and recognizing the rarity of the experience, he took the plunge.
While Durbin didn’t train specifically for the Antarctic environment, he says other participants trained in industrial freezers and refrigerators when they were able to get access. Some would put treadmills in grocery stores’ milk rooms or distribution centers where it was kept cold enough.
He did, however, purchase gear specifically designed for the arctic climate, including dry-fit clothing, a wind-proof outer shell, and ski goggles, polarized to protect him from snow blindness.
But no matter the preparation, Durbin could not have anticipated what he was about to experience.
Three hundred miles from the coastline and 600 miles from the South Pole, the marathon course is situated in a valley, packed with snow to pad the icy surface.
Above 3,000 feet of ice, he ran on the arctic desert in constant sunlight — midnight looked the same as morning. Without shadows or contrasting colors, his depth perception was warped, making distant mountains appear as though they were just 5 miles away. And unlike a run in a city or on a trail, there were no landmarks for him to judge his distance from the goal.
For 26.2 miles on the endless sheet of white, Durbin didn’t listen to music or distract himself. He simply took in the beauty surrounding him.
“It’s a place that’s so beautiful, so clean, so pristine,” he said. “There’s just nothing else like it in the world.”
The Ice Marathon has about 50 participants each year because that is the maximum capacity for the plane that lands on an ice runway that is long and solid enough to support the plane’s weight.
The marathon organizer, Richard Donovan, also coordinates the World Marathon Challenge, as well as a North Pole Marathon and a Volcano Marathon in Chile.
An Irish runner and former economist, Donovan was one of the first to complete a marathon in both the North and South Poles and is the world-record holder for running seven marathons on seven continents in less than five days. In 2015, he ran across the U.S., then across Europe in 2016. The next challenge he has assigned himself is to run nearly 1,000 miles across Antarctica.
“He’s a uniquely smart and talented individual because he uses his passion for economics and numbers and makes it work in the running world,” Durbin said. “But he’s not an egotistical person at all. He’s great to just hang out with and hear his stories.”
Durbin says he was drawn to the “ultra shuffle” style of running, as Donovan once described it to him, meaning they continue to push on despite fatigue. It is not about how fast you get there, but rather that you keep moving, allowing runners to surpass distances they may not have thought physically possible.
For Durbin, his ultra shuffle mentality extends beyond the hours of a long distance marathon. It’s a lifestyle.
Date Number Three
At his parents’ house in Illinois around Christmastime in 2012, about a month after having completed the Ice Marathon, Durbin wasn’t satisfied sitting around drinking hot cocoa. He had realized how much he had enjoyed continuously running and asked himself what he could do to continue his momentum.
He first settled on a goal to run 1,000 miles and walk 1,000 miles within a year, but he quickly outgrew that challenge.
“I was out hiking with my girlfriend, and now wife, and was like, ‘Well I’m going to blow this out of the water. I need something to keep me going to keep me motivated to stay in shape,’” he said. “So I was like, ‘Let’s see how far it is around the equator.’”
His unique avidity did not come as a surprise to his wife, Tracy Turpen.
Durbin immediately piqued Turpen’s interest when she received his profile through eHarmony. Receiving about seven profiles a day from the online dating site, everything changed when she saw the photo of Durbin at the Ice Marathon in his profile and realized “this wasn’t your Average Joe.” She knew she had to meet him.
“He wanted our first date to be a run, but I delayed that to date number three,” Turpen recalls, laughing.
Date number three set into motion a life of countless swims, runs, hikes and bike rides together. Before meeting Durbin, Turpen had been participating in Iron Man races, a triathlon consisting of a consecutive 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and marathon run. She completed her fifth one in 2016. Although training for these individual sports, Turpen and Durbin are a team, even if simply offering words of encouragement to fuel that extra mile.
For the two of them, being active isn’t simply having a designated time to exercise, though they always make the time. They also walk anywhere and everywhere they can, whether it’s to work, the grocery store, or meeting with friends. They never take cabs, and if they do drive, it’s to visit Turpen’s parents an hour away.
“It’s kind of a joke,” she said. “Everyone takes Uber to a restaurant or to someone’s house, but they know that Tim and I will arrive in our tennis shoes and have to switch into heels when I get there.”
Counting both running and walking distances, the miles add up quickly.
But in their extremely active lifestyle, they manage to care for their health with a balanced approach, without being obsessive but staying mindful of what they need.
Turpen says she has never seen a written training plan for Durbin and that, instead, he just listens to his body and adapts his training to how he feels each day.
“He’ll always put in miles, but maybe one day he’s just not feeling it and only wants to run four miles,” she said. “And the next day I’ll be like ‘Where have you been?’ and it turns out he ran all the way across the Golden Gate Bridge and back.”
But despite their arguably superhuman accomplishments and remarkable experiences, the two are deeply down-to-earth. They could be your friends you meet at the bar, although they may be there for a post-marathon celebratory beer.
Continuously logging his progress, Durbin measures his success not just in proximity toward completing his goal but also in the amount of time he spends moving, the amount of calories he burns, and how many pints of Guinness that equates to.
And while ordinary, well-intended change makers swarm the gym on January 1, often for their New Years’ resolutions to quickly fizzle out, Durbin’s goal surpasses all in both sheer ambition and relentless execution.
On Jan. 1, 2013, he opened a new Excel sheet and since then has diligently and honestly logged more than 15,000 miles.
Some days are as many as a marathon, and some are just a few miles. But since November 2014, Durbin has completed at least one mile every day, and he has no intention of breaking that streak.
Around the World in Seven Days
Rapidly accruing miles, he still concerned himself with where and how he earned his progress. He decided one Ice Marathon wasn’t enough.
Durbin had struck gold in finding an opportunity that grew in ambition as much as he did, with Donovan launching the World Marathon as an awe-inspiring new goal to tackle.
Over the course of seven days, Durbin would run 183 miles, interspersed with 59 hours of flying.
Explaining his participation on his blog, Durbin wrote, “There isn’t a logical reason, other than to challenge myself both mentally and physically, to prove that an average person like me, can do something most people believe is impossible.”
Beyond his desire to test himself physically and mentally, his hunger for travel had tempted him again.
The series of adventure marathons draws a small crowd of runners from countries all around the globe, including Ireland, England, Australia, Switzerland, Belgium, China, India, Japan and South Korea.
“It’s for sure an international mix of folks, which is good, because I’ll always have a place to stay wherever I am in the world,” he said with a laugh.
For Durbin, running isn’t about getting there first. It’s about exploration. It’s a chance not simply to leave his footprint around the world but rather to learn from new environments, cultures, and people. It’s a chance to connect.
“I look at running off-the-beaten-path races as ways to see places,” he said. “A marathon is a unique way to see a new place, as well as often times with a smaller group of people, we’ll make friends from all around the world for life.”
Durbin has not only stayed in touch with many of the participants, but several have also visited and stayed with Durbin and Turpen in San Francisco over the past few years.
He had sought out to convince one of his friends, Australian Doug Wilson, who he met at the Ice Marathon to join him in the World Marathon, and he agreed.
Recognizing the rare value in the experience, and with support from his family, Durbin registered for the $43,000 race, inclusive of the entry fee, all international business class flights, specialist jet flights to Antarctica, medical support, emergency medical insurance in Antarctica, and hotel accommodation in Sydney.
With a significant physical and financial commitment and marketed to a global audience, the race attracted nine men and one woman from around the world for the full event, and one man and one woman to run half marathons at all locations.
While the running aspect physically brings this community together, it is the unique experiences and destinations of these events, in combination with the athletic challenge, that attract an eclectic group of individuals with a common love of travel and meeting people.
“The people you meet are not your normal group of runners that you would be meeting Sunday morning here in the city,” Turpen said. “They’re from all over the world, and they all have their own stories.”
Although these marathons have created a close community of international runners, Durbin had to train to prepare for not only the physical challenges but also the solitude in running that many miles, seven days in a row at his own pace.
Turpen had joined him in some of his runs while she trained for an Iron Man, but after she completed that, Durbin had to rely more heavily on his own ambition.
“When you’re doing some longer runs, you have to find the motivation to go do it yourself sometimes, so I lost a training partner for a bit in that aspect,” he said.
Building physical and mental stamina, he would run and walk 10 to 20 miles each day, sometimes taking one rest day per week.
“So [I was] basically just conditioning my legs to be able to kind of recover, because a lot of it comes down to the mental stamina as well when you’re tired and you don’t want to push on,” he said. “So it’s keeping yourself used to that, understanding what it feels like, and knowing that you can still push through it.”
The seven courses were all relatively flat and close to sea level, so he didn’t need to factor varying conditions into his training. And in terms of climate, he felt prepared for the quick changes in location. Antarctica was the only one of the seven stops with severe weather, with an average windchill temperature of 0 degrees Fahrenheit, and he already knew what to expect from his past marathon.
However, in the middle of a muggy night in Morocco, running his second marathon within 20 hours and his third within 40 hours, no one was out for encouragement or even distraction. It was simply each of the runners on their own, yet simultaneously joined in an unusual goal to avoid jet lag and dehydration and push through the rest of the marathon.
Before the World Marathon, Durbin had even practiced the adjustment of running after flying, including running immediately after taking a red eye to see how the transition felt.
“That felt OK,” he said. “I’m used to planes, especially from my previous work as a consultant, so that made it a little bit easier in terms of adjusting to sleeping on planes and those things.”
Despite the challenges in Morocco, he said Sydney had the most difficult climate to run in because of the heat and humidity, but running yet again in the middle of the night lessened that potential obstacle.
“Had it been during the day and 90 degrees, that would’ve been bad,” he said. “But I think we started at midnight and finished just before 5 a.m., so we got it out of the way before the heat of the day.”
After having completed seven marathons on seven continents, it wasn’t the “off-the-beaten-path” places that stood out to Durbin. Instead, he most fondly remembers the characters he met along the way, including British participant Ted Jackson, whose talents span from running to opera singing,
“We ran in Dubai and there was this wedding on the beach, and [Jackson] stopped and sang opera to the couple and photobombed a wedding photo,” Durbin said. “And then he was also running for an MS charity, and the charity’s colors were pink, so flying from Dubai to Sydney, he wore a tailored pink suit, and cut the pants into shorts. So he was wearing that through the Dubai airport to the Malaysia airport, so you can imagine strolling through two conservative countries’ airports in bright pink. And then he put it on for the last mile or two to finish the race as well.”
Just as Jackson and several other participants used the attention-grabbing opportunity to redirect the spotlight toward a charity, Durbin ran the World Marathon for a goal greater than his own.
Leading up to the World Marathon, he raised about $8,000 for the V Foundation, a non-profit that funds cancer research, in honor of two of his grandparents he lost to cancer, his mother who successfully beat breast cancer, and the all too many other families he knows have been affected by the disease. When Jim Valvano, the former NC State basketball coach, accepted the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the first ESPY’s and announced the start of the Foundation in 1993, it struck a chord with Durbin. He watched Valvano battle cancer in the same way he led his team to an NCAA Championship title — with wholehearted determination every second until the buzzer sounded.
“How do you go from where you are to where you want to be?” Valvano asked in his speech. “I think you have to have an enthusiasm for life. You have to have a dream, a goal, and you have to be willing to work for it.”
Durbin remained deeply connected to the speech, pushing him to run thousands of miles with the power of a few simple words that became the foundation’s motto.
“I think the words, ‘Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up,’ are perfect to keep me going in this effort,” he said. “No matter how tired I got, I could draw strength [from] those words and knowing that there are people out there going through things far much worse than pushing through the next mile in a marathon.”
Though Durbin’s closest supporters couldn’t physically be with him on his journey to inspire him not to give up, his friends and family still cheered him on along the way through personal letters. Turpen coordinated it all, gluing in different messages from his family and having his local friends sign a big card, making sure he had one to open on every flight.
He said each message was the extra encouragement he needed to get through each marathon, knowing he wasn’t running just to satisfy his own goal, and that even without the friends he made on his journey, he wasn’t alone in his efforts.
Turpen, who had been waiting in Australia during the week, was not just there to congratulate Durbin at the seventh and ultimate finish line. Already adjusted to the time zone in Sydney, she still joined him in the middle of the night to run a third of the last marathon together.
By dawn they had all crossed the final finish line. Physically drained and sleep deprived, they didn’t crash. Instead they stayed up in their hotel lobby for hours, hung out and drank beers, riding the adrenaline high together.
Even after some had to say their goodbyes, Durbin and Turpen stayed in Australia for several days with Wilson’s family. And, of course, he took them on his favorite running trails, still getting in a few miles each day.
Durbin just wanted to keep moving.
In August 2015 he hit the 10,000-mile mark, recognizing he was well ahead of schedule on his goal of running the distance of the equator.
Just months later, he set out for another of Donovan’s adventures, running in the Volcano Marathon in Chile in November 2015. At an altitude of 14,682 feet, it is the world’s highest desert marathon.
In the Atacama Desert, with little to no recorded rain, Durbin ran in what seemed to be an otherworldly environment, visually incomparable to anywhere he had seen before and far more physically demanding than running on a standard asphalt street.
“It’s almost like those images you see of Mars,” he said. “The race is right in a desert, rocky, with little vegetation. It’s intense from all aspects but stunningly beautiful.”
He carefully navigated to avoid twisting an ankle on the rocks or sliding down an incline and occasionally even around llamas that joined them in running across the course.
The race was located right beside an active volcano that had a minor eruption just a month before, but that didn’t scare off the 25 participants, including Irish runner Sinead Kane, who is legally blind.
“Running 26.2 miles at that elevation is a challenge for anyone, and imagine trying to do a trail marathon where you can’t see and are just going off of another person’s feel next to you,” Durbin said. “So meeting those kinds of unique individuals is what’s really rewarding about doing these races.”
Aside from the one day spent running, Durbin said the first four or five days of the trips are spent exploring and sight-seeing, and they conclude the trip with a celebration dinner.
Just as Durbin has participated in several of the international marathons, he said many of the other runners also return, and a global community of runners develops around these events. Even after returning home, they continue to swap stories and support each other’s journeys.
For that, Durbin is certain that running has an extraordinary power of bringing people together.
To The Moon
Now close to two years since he participated in the World Marathon, Durbin has averaged completing 10 to 12 miles a day to approach the distance of the equator, which he estimates he’ll complete in about two and a half years.
On December 3, he’ll compete in the North Face Endurance Challenge, a 50-mile ultra-marathon just outside San Francisco, finally close enough for Turpen to get to cheer him on in person again.
Despite his progress, he continues to compete with himself every day to see just how quickly he can beat his own goal, while recognizing how mentally taxing it can be to aim for a hefty daily average.
“I didn’t pay attention to it [this year] as much as I did last year, but now I’m getting back in the groove of things and definitely starting to play those games with myself again,” he said.
Even after competing in all of these races, he continues to blur out the external competition and focus on his own momentum, yet with enough humility to learn and grow from others he meets along the way.
While Durbin values the camaraderie among runners in these races, the upcoming World Marathon in January may have a more openly competitive tone. Durbin said participants will include top American athletes, including Ryan Hall, one of the fastest American long-distance runners and U.S. record holder in the half-marathon.
Though new records may be set, Durbin’s indomitable internal drive and adventurous spirit led him to earn his status as the first American to participate in the Challenge.
“I won’t be the fastest, but I’ll still always be the first,” he jests.
Durbin had already paved the way for more American participation in the 2016 World Marathon, as Americans Dan Cartica and Becca Pizzi respectively won the men’s and women’s titles. The U.S. group also included Patrick Fallon of Texas, who had never run a marathon prior to the Challenge.
Although interest in the World Marathon has grown, participation has been limited by constraints of booking enough seats on commercial flights in the specific time needed. Durbin says that for the 2017 World Marathon, however, there will be at least 50 participants on a chartered plane, but this is not to say that all of his friends and followers are ready to jump on board, at least to the same extent.
When Durbin shares his goal and progress with others, most people tell him that he’s crazy. Some simply don’t believe him.
“I don’t look like a person that should go run seven marathons or want to do this, but anybody can do this if they put their mind to it,” he said.
Others following his journey are warming up to the challenge, including his sister and father, who participated in a triathlon this past summer.
“I think he’s motivational [to everyone] seeing all of his races and mileage posts [on social media], encouraging his friends and family to start doing it,” Turpen said. “And they’re like, ‘Well, if Tim did 26 miles today, I can do three.’”
Durbin uses a similarly reductive mindset, but on a larger scale. He wanted to have an overarching concrete goal to satisfy his passions for running and travel in a way that was mentally palatable to accomplish over the years.
“For me it was just kind of having a number as a long-term goal that I can easily break down and do,” he said. “Well, not easily do, but it would push me to do it. It’s been really good from the fact that it’s kind of established a great pattern and hopefully in the long run it’ll pay off in terms of longevity. And I get to see a lot of cool stuff and a lot of interesting characters along the way when you’re out running around and walking around and just meeting and observing different people.”
Even after he crosses his self-envisioned finish line in completing the distance of the equator, Durbin says he’s far from finished.
“I like the constant challenge to know that this is out there, and I want to get to that,” he said. “I don’t know what will happen in the next two and a half years when I’m getting close to finishing. Then I’ll have to figure out something new to motivate myself.”
For Turpen, the future is as much a mystery as Durbin suggests.
“I have a feeling he’s going to…” she trails off, pausing to dream up what incredible goal could top his current one. “…I don’t know…calculate the distance to the moon or something else.”
She laughs at how outrageous it sounds, amused at the limitless potential he has when he puts his mind to a goal, no matter how daunting it may seem to the average person he claims to be.
Durbin enters another number into his spreadsheet, feeling satisfied whether it’s another shuffle forward or a breathtaking leap.
He genuinely does not know what tomorrow looks like, whom he will meet, or how it will change his route, but it’s sure to be farther than where he is today.