Running and biking into his future

Al Emma, 73, of Exton, plans to run in marathons in Canada in the fall. He has already run marathons in all 50 states.
Al Emma, 73, of Exton, plans to run in marathons in Canada in the fall. He has already run marathons in all 50 states. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff)
Posted: July 01, 2013

When Al Emma was playing football at Yeadon High School, he regularly cheated during the post-practice laps. To him, running was a bore and a chore. How his coach would be amazed if he knew what Emma has been up to lately!

In the fall, Emma plans to run marathons in Quebec and four Canadian maritime provinces. When he completes those runs, he will have run marathons in all 10 provinces as well as all 50 states. A few weeks ago, he ran a marathon in Alaska, the last of his U.S. marathons.

Emma, 73, who lives in Exton, completed a similar feat by bicycle, cycling 100 miles, or a so-called century, in every state and 10 Canadian provinces between 2002 and 2010.

"It keeps me going," Emma says. "You got to have goals to keep on living and having fun."

Emma is a widower twice. His first wife, Mary Ann, died in 1992 of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. His second wife, Teresa, died in 2007 of bladder cancer. Before he retired in 2011, he was a builder and developer. There were some lean, stressful times financially.

You'd never guess all this from his demeanor today. His disposition is merry, and he smiles often. He can't wait for the new day to dawn, and he's first at his health club at 5 a.m. There, he tries to learn the names of new patrons so he can greet them personally.

Physically, he is not built for long-distance running. He is 5 foot 9, 190 pounds. He has a stretched aortic valve, takes medication for high blood pressure and cholesterol, and gets cortisone shots for spinal stenosis, which was diagnosed last year. Interestingly, he doesn't train between marathons, or at least he doesn't train by running. Instead, he goes to the ACAC gym in West Chester, where he stretches and exercises on a stationary bike and elliptical trainer.

Inspired by a brother-in-law, Emma began running in 1980 and completed his first marathon, in Philadelphia, in 1982. In 1986, he ran five marathons in six weeks in an attempt to break four hours. He finished them all and achieved a best time of 4:15:54 in Atlantic City. He was then 46. Meanwhile, Emma had developed an interest in endurance cycling after participating three times in RAGBRAI, the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, a seven-day event that covers about 470 miles.

Emma resumed running in 2009. At one point, he ran 18 miles on an indoor track at his club, 12.2 laps to a mile. Two weeks later, he tried to run 20 miles on the track. The result: a stress fracture in his hip.

After it healed, in February 2011 in Myrtle Beach, S.C., he began his quest to run a marathon in all 50 states and 10 Canadian provinces.

For all the miles he has covered on foot, Emma proclaims: "I am not a runner." His best time in this endeavor so far is 5:06, which he clocked at the Oz Marathon in Kansas. Since his stenosis diagnosis last year, he hasn't broken 5:30. He finishes most of his marathons in the 5:40s, sometimes over six hours. He has run back-to-back marathons (two marathons on consecutive days) eight times. Says Emma: "I don't want to get hurt. I just want to finish things."

Almost as marvelous as his endurance on foot is his endurance behind the wheel. He has driven his 2005 candy apple red Buick LeSabre to all the U.S. marathons except Hawaii and Alaska, and plans to drive to all the Canadian provincial marathons except Newfoundland. His Buick now has a dented hood, thanks to a run-in with an elk in Montana en route to Alberta.

Emma's feats have earned him the top ranking in the Marathon Maniacs, a club for like-minded masochists. His next goal is to ride his bike across America in 53 days as part of an organized group. He considers himself lucky to have a girlfriend, Carolee Norton, who, in addition to having an equally cheerful, positive outlook, supports his endeavors and travels with him to some of the events.

"Any kind of aerobic exercise is the best thing for your mind," Emma says. "It doesn't have to be too hard. You don't have to push yourself that much for your health.

"I'm happy. I do whatever I want to do. There's no rushing or stress in my life. Ninety-nine percent of the things we worry about, it's a waste of time. My advice is: Be happy, don't hold grudges, and try to treat people fairly."


"Well Being" appears every other week, alternating with Sandy Bauers' "GreenSpace" column. Contact Art Carey at art.carey@gmail.com. Read his recent columns at www.philly.com/wellbeing.

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