As Courtney Bird ran past miles and miles of cornfields, she wondered what she was doing with her life. She was running a half marathon in Ohio, or maybe Indiana — they were starting to blur together.
"What am I doing with my life?" she asked herself. "I'm on this nondescript road in I-don't-know-where and I'm running for what?"
At the mile-nine slump, she finally called her family to convince her to keep moving. They reminded her of her goal: to prove that you don't have to be fast to set a world record. Bird wanted to be the woman to run the most half marathons in a year.
By her personal count, Bird ran 141 half marathons between Dec. 31, 2016, and Dec. 30, 2017. Though, she isn't sure how many races Guinness World Records will include in its official count. Some of the races were small trail runs that may not be considered official due to the low number of competitors and the casual nature of the event. Still, she is confident that she beat the previous record of 102, which was set by Lauri Fauerbach Adams from Philadelphia in 2011.
A Soddy-Daisy resident, Bird is the founder of Run Chattanooga, a laid-back running club. In 2013, her goal with the club's inception was simply to encourage other runners to get out, without putting too much pressure on speed or time. Running is hard enough, after all.
It was her encouragement of others that led Bird to attempt to break the world record.
Bird's mission to run the most half marathons, however, was more than a physical and mental challenge — it was also a logistical nightmare. She had to travel almost every week. She ran 22 races in just the month of May, including 10 races in nine days in six different states.
"I questioned my sanity more than once, but once I set my mind to something, I am too stubborn to fail," Bird says.
In the end she traveled to 41 states, as far north as Maine and North Dakota and as far west as Utah and Arizona. Adding to the challenge, she drove to all of those places.
Though Bird jokes that she ran past every corn stalk in America, there were also some more exciting destinations. When her husband and five kids were able to join her, they visited sites including Niagara Falls and Cedar Point amusement park as a family.
Her favorite races included the Covenant Health Knoxville Half Marathon, the Little Rock Half Marathon in Arkansas, the Flying Pig Half Marathon in Cincinnati, and the Hatfield McCoy Half Marathon in Williamson, West Virginia. All of these races, Bird says, have large crowds that come out to cheer on the runners, so they felt like a giant party.
But not all the half marathons were raucous. Bird ran in a number of small races just because they worked well logistically. During the Asphalt Jackal Half Marathon in Jackson, Tennessee, for example, she came in third place — out of the three women racing. In fact, she finished last in several races.
"I'm not a fast runner. I'm never going to be a fast runner. I really have no desire to be a fast runner," Bird says. Most of the half marathons took her over three hours, with a personal record of 2:32:17. For comparison, the median time for a woman to complete a half marathon is 2:01:37, according to RunnersWorld.com.
Instead, Bird believes in making her own rules. She brushes off people who say marathons only count if you run. She rolls her eyes at the 50 States Marathon Club, which only counts races that have at least 10 participants.
"What somebody else's accomplishment is doesn't take anything away from what my accomplishment is," she says.
In total, Bird has run 182 half marathons and 24 marathons or ultramarathons since 2013. Ultramarathons are any race longer than a marathon, and the most common are 50k (31.07 miles), 50 miles, 100k (62.14 miles), and 100 miles. Bird is still working toward 100 miles.
She didn't begin running seriously until after the birth of her fourth child in 2013. Despite having never run more than a 5k, she decided to sign up for a marathon with only year to train.
During her first marathon, Bird felt like giving up, when a man turned to her and said, "You're going to do this, you're going to run a marathon today."
Not only did she finish a marathon that day, but she found a calling. She needed to give others this feeling — leading her to start Run Chattanooga.
"There wasn't really anything in town that was just focused on running for fun," says Bird.
After a year, the club organized the Raccoon Mountain Marathon and Half Marathon, featuring aid stations that looked like candy buffets and mile-markers made out of stuffed animals. Bird embraces the weird, and that is reflected in all of the races she helps to organize. She encourages people to wear costumes or to take a dance break mid-race.
Last year, Run Chattanooga expanded outside of Chattanooga, now under the name Awesomesauce Events. In 2018, Awesomesauce will organize races in 12 cities across six states — events that will reflect Bird's philosophy of having fun regardless of speed. There will be no strict time limits, making them great races for beginners and walkers. And as long as racers are still moving and not in any medical danger or under a weather-related threat, Bird will be there serving food, popping blisters, taping ankles, and doing whatever it takes to help people cross the finish line. Rather than awarding medals for people who finish first, Awesomesauce gives perseverance awards for whoever finishes last, because they were out there the longest, Bird says.
By The Numbers
141: Half marathons Bird ran in 1 year
102: Previous world record
41: States Bird visited for her quest
1,847.1: Miles run
1,916.8: Miles from Chattanooga to Las Vegas
2:32:17: Personal best time
2013: Year Bird started running seriously
For her, the best part of organizing races is seeing someone accomplish something they never thought they could do. Bird believes in positive peer pressure, pushing people to go farther and take on new challenges.
"It's just about getting to the finish line and having a good time while you're doing it, rather than trying to get there fast," she says.
After her big year of running, Bird has an even better understanding of what makes a race fun and what doesn't.
"We used to joke that we spoiled our runners. Now I know for a fact we spoil our runners," she says.
Today, Bird is focusing on building Awesomesauce and spending more time with her family. Her new goals are to complete a 100-mile ultramarathon and to run in all 50 states, but her philosophy hasn't changed. She wants to run for fun and encourage others to do the same.
By setting a world record, she's a living example that even the slowest runners can achieve what they never believed possible — and that a little sideline encouragement can help one go the distance.