50 by 50

Julie Musselman (Courtesy Photo)

Pat, pat, pat. 

They were married in 1996. He passed away from illness in 2000. He had been sick for a while. After the stress of those final days, she says, she couldn’t believe how worn out she looked. “I saw myself in the mirror and said, ‘You’ve got to start taking care of yourself.'” 

Alone with her thoughts 

The Elk River native had always been a runner, but it was a low-key effort, maybe an hour at a time. After Bill’s death, however, her friends suggested she run a marathon to focus her energy on a positive goal. The Twin Cities Marathon was already full, so she signed up for the Portland Marathon. She put 20-month-old son Max in a baby jogger and started training. 

“I had always run with headphones, listening to music,” she says. “But in races headphones aren’t allowed, so I trained without them. Without the music, you’re left alone with your thoughts. I kept saying ‘Please, just fill me up’ to God. I felt so empty.” 

Her initial aim was to keep moving forward, literally and metaphorically. Yet running became her therapy. “Running long distances, you start daydreaming. It checks you out but it also checks you in,” she says. Gradually, running helped her work through her loneliness, depression and self-doubt. As she built her endurance, she developed a sense of inner strength and mental toughness. Running delivers a beneficial dose of endorphins, she points out — that runner’s high. It also keeps focus on maintaining day-to-day health for training. “You can’t stay up and be sad watching TV if you’re getting up to run the next day.” 

She did shockingly well in that first marathon, with a time that qualified her to run the Boston Marathon, which is the runners’ gold standard. After she ran that one, she did another. With each new marathon, her time improved.

Moving forward

While running is a solo sport, it’s also a source of camaraderie. Running groups meet to train and encourage one another. In the process, these athletes bond over the intense experience of distance running. Musselman joined a group at the Northwest Athletic Club, where she met her new husband, Scott Labat. Later, after she gave birth to their daughter, Claire, she took a break from running, but not for long. 

By 2010 she had completed nine marathons in six states, which might seem like enough. But along the way she met a woman who was on a quest to run 50 marathons by age 50, an enticing new goal for Musselman. To that she added the criteria that they be officially certified races, one in each state, and that she would complete them with times that would qualify for Boston. Based on age, for her that would mean under four hours. 

Often with kids and spouse in tow, she has made a family vacation out of the pursuit. On a few occasions, she ran a marathon on Saturday in one state and another on Sunday in a different state, such as Hartford, Conn. and Newport, R.I. She achieved her goal before turning 50 in May, despite running a race in Casper, Wyo., that she later found out wasn’t certified — requiring a grueling “do-over” in Jackson Hole at 6,000 feet. 

She recently discovered that two other women from Minnesota, Deb Thomford (of Rochester) and Cindy Lewandowski (Sartell), have also completed 50 by 50 in sub four-hour times. “The funny thing is, we’ve never met. That shows just how solo this sport can be.” 

Solo or team

Not surprisingly, Musselmen is a booster for running – and her daughter signed up for sixth-grade track. “It’s such a simple thing,” she says. “You just go out your door. In winter, it may take me all day to get myself out there, but even in the worst of Minnesota weather I’ve never regretted a run.” 

For Musselman, distance running has taken the form of “girls getaway” too, as she and a team of friends run, for example, the 198-mile Hood to Coast relay in Oregon. “We leave our roles as moms, doctors, and other professionals, and tap into something we left years ago.” And they win. “As a team, we’re pretty badass.” 

Ultimately, she says, “Only one person’s going to win the race. The point is to be in it. Whenever I pass people running, I acknowledge them and tell them, ‘You’re moving in the right direction,’ no matter what their pace.” 

She knows from experience. “You just have to keep going, that’s all.”