Meet Julie Weiss, the Marathon Goddess, who ran 52 marathons in 52 weeks to honor the memory of her father and raise over a quarter of a million dollars in the fight against pancreatic cancer. Running in countries and continents around the world, Julie dedicates each race (and soon to be each training run) to individuals and families that are battling pancreatic cancer. As the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the United States and with a five-year survival rate of just 6%, Julie literally ran to take action. We sat down with her to find out how she got into running, making this epic feat a possibility and what she’s got up her sleeves next.
Why did you first start running?
It all started when I went on a family trip to Hawaii. I was on antidepressants, a single mom and overweight. I wanted to use that trip to get healthy and run on the beach. It was rejuvenating, healing and made me feel happy. When I returned home to Santa Monica, I got off the super-charged antidepressants — that I personally did not need — and continued to run, losing about 35 pounds in the process. My father, who was my biggest fan, was so proud. I ended up signing up for my first triathlon and found my groove. Running takes away all those barriers and limitations. Clothes, cars, material things — they just don’t matter anymore. It’s all about you and your body, feeling connected and alive.
What’s the hardest part?
It’s not easy to motivate yourself but if you lace up your shoes and get out the door, you’ll be fine. When you start running, go out easy and slow. Many first time runners go out too fast and burn themselves out. They think it’s too hard and that running’s not for them. Make it a priority to have fun. Whether that’s running with a dog, listening to your favorite music or meeting a friend at 6 a.m., it’ll be far easier to get up and do it if you’re having fun.
If you’re just starting, run for 30 minutes, three times a week. Keep it to a low intensity with your heart rate down. Use the talk test, making sure you can chat with a friend at all times and feels as though you could go on forever. Stay hydrated. Joining a running club to motivate you, push you and inspire you. The energy from a group of runners is so inspiring, and it makes it so much more enjoyable. A great place to find one is your local running store. If you’re running for a charity, ask them for suggestions or ask the organizers of a local race. You can also email me at email@example.com—I’d be happy to make some recommendations if I can!
You ran 52 marathons in 52 weeks. How and why did you do that?!
I ran my first marathon in 2008 in LA, and when I found out about the Boston Marathon, it became my goal to qualify. If I did, my dad, who was my biggest fan, would come with me to watch me compete. I ran a marathon and didn’t make it. I’d run another and still didn’t make it. I was still new to running and thought the more marathons you ran, the better you’d do. And my dad was so proud regardless; he didn’t care whether I qualified. He would always get up and tell everyone I had just ran a marathon, no matter how long it took me to finish.
When I finished my 17th marathon a year and a half later, I still hadn’t qualified. I thought it was really getting ridiculous. I called David Levine, who wrote The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Marathon Training. He coached me and helped me to take 30 minutes off my best time. And when I signed up for the Long Beach Marathon, I thought I was going to make it. Instead, I missed it by two minutes. The next day, my mom called me to say my dad had been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. There was nothing the doctors could do. I was devastated. I hardly knew what it was, the only thing I knew about pancreatic cancer is that you don’t survive. I persevered though, thinking he was going to beat it and that I would help him to beat it. We booked our flights to Boston, and he told me to keep training. We were gonna go, and he was going to see me qualify.
Just 35 days after his diagnosis, my father passed away. And only 10 days later, I qualified for Boston. I know I didn’t qualify alone. He was the wind at my back, and we did it together. And when I had the chance to run Boston, I knew I had to do something for the disease and my father. I learned it was the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the United States. It has a 6% survival rate after five years, and it receives the lowest funding. I thought it was ridiculous and unacceptable and that I’d have to do something crazy for people to take notice of it. I got the idea to run 52 marathons in 52 weeks on social media. I knew that because I had run 12 marathons in 12 months, my body could recover pretty quickly and that I could probably do it. And so we were off and “running,” and I decided to run 52 marathons in 52 weeks.
Once I started dedicating my races to people, it went viral. I’d get hundreds of emails a day from people telling me about the diagnosis of loved one or maybe even themselves. We’ve raised a lot of hope and over a quarter of a million dollars. It’s a good thing, and I know my dad is proud.
How did you pick the 52 marathons that you ran?
I picked all the downhill ones first! I’m just kidding. When I had the crazy half-baked idea, I went to marathonguide.com to pick my schedule for the entire year and picked them all in three hours. Most were in California, where I live, to cut down on the travel costs, but I had a few destination races I couldn’t miss like New York, Rome and Hawaii. Sometimes, there wasn’t really a convenient race. For example, one weekend the only one available was the Leadville Marathon in Colorado. I had never run at altitude before, but we made it work.
Which was your favorite and why?
I can’t pick just one favorite! The Rome Marathon was my first of the year and one that I highly recommend running if you can. With the Colosseum and the Vatican as the backdrop, it’s like you’re running through a museum. Marine Corps is also so inspirational, and it’s coming up soon! You’re running through the National Mall and Marines are cheering you on, yelling at you to run faster. And though I’m a little biased, I love the LA Marathon. And finally, Hawaii. I believe it was Bart Yasso (Chief running officer of Runners World) that said, It doesn’t matter how badly your marathon goes, when you finish, you’re in Hawaii. How bad could that be?
How does running for a cause impact your training or affect your intensity?
I dedicate each marathon that I run to a person, whether they’re still fighting, running alongside me as a survivor or passed away. It gives me the energy that I need to compete week after week. Thinking about these people and the battle that they’re going through or the battle they overcame—what I was doing was nothing compared to what they did. It helped me to get through the hard and bad times. I wasn’t just running marathons—I had full-time job. I’d leave straight from my office Friday evening, hop on a plane, run a marathon on Sunday and get back on a plane to be at work Monday morning. It wasn’t easy, but those people kept me going. I’ve met a family of people along the way. You wouldn’t necessarily want to be a part of this family of tragedy and heartbreak, but you make beautiful relationships that will last forever.
The training itself is difficult. Marathons are fun because you’re getting a medal, and all your friends are around to cheer you on. When you’re training, you’re all alone. I’m trying to qualify for Boston, again, at the LA Marathon next March and that requires a lot of training. Since I receive emails every day from individuals whose loved ones are getting diagnosed, I’ll dedicate my training runs on their behalf, posting a picture and a prayer to social media, to lift them up and raise hope. That’s what it’s all about — keeping the hope alive. When people receive diagnoses of all sorts of illnesses and cancers, they really need to stay positive, hopeful, and know that miracles happen every day. I try to be as much of a light in this dark world of cancer. as I can.
Why did you choose to support the Lazarex Cancer Foundation?
We need a cure now, and research is instrumental to finding that cure. There’s a gap between what’s available in the clinical trials trials and what the average person can access. These people are exhausted, out of money, tired and, often, alone.
Lazarex Cancer Foundation steps in and gives these patients the money and resources to access FDA clinical trials, extending or possibly saving their lives. And they pay for all of the administrative costs, which not a lot of charities do. I’m so proud to be Team for Life ambassador. It’s an amazing marathon program that gives runners access to events that are already sold out. They also let you set up a fundraising page for any race that you want to run. From Disney races like Star Wars and Avengers, to Big Sur and even the New York Marathon, which I’m running in 37 days. It was really a perfect fit and spoke to my heart.
What should people know about pancreatic cancer?
There’s no early detection at the moment. There are some leads in clinical trials, but it’s not enough. And it’s so difficult to detect that it’s typically diagnosed at Stage 3 or 4. Some people complain about their back or side hurting, but who doesn’t? Everyone’s back hurts. Rapid weight loss is also a big sign. Jaundice, which is the yellowing of the skin or eyes, can also be a sign that something’s wrong. But early detection creates a way better chance of survival. That’s why I had to do something to get people aware. It’s almost a death sentence.
For some people, like my family, it’s genetic. My father’s father had it. But in all cases, diet is a huge part. Listen to your mother; eat your fruits and veggies. I’m not perfect either, but I try to limit my processed sugars and flours, especially when I’m training for a race.
What’s next? 52 IRONMANs?
I like the idea of 52 IRONMANs, but that might be too crazy even for me. One a month might work, but I also want to get really fast. We’re all winners; if you’ve made it to the starting line on race day, you showed up and you did the work. But I’m ready to start winning. Whether that’s qualifying for Boston again, or maybe winning in my age group. Maybe one day I can win a smaller marathon, or get down to 3-hour marathon. I’m gonna give it my all because that’s what I do. It would be great to bring awareness to our cause, by winning a race or age group and living up to my full potential.