Rick Rayman can't stop. He has gone running every day, rain or shine, sleet or snow, since Dec. 10, 1978. Most days, he goes for 30 minutes or five kilometres, whatever comes first. But he has also run a staggering number of marathons: 231 and counting. You read that correctly. And no, you're not the only one who thinks that the 64-year-old dentist in Toronto is something of a madman.
"A lot of people can't comprehend it," Dr. Rayman says. But to him, it's simple. "I just love meeting people, I love the running culture and it's still a rush finishing a marathon."
For runners, the marathon is frequently thought of as Mount Everest. It's the goal that most, if not all, want to summit. Some will do it once and never again. Others will do one a year, perhaps two.
However, for a small group of runners, the thrill of doing the 42-kilometre distance entices them to run multiple marathons each and every year. And while they are proof that it can be done, experts warn that doing too many of the races can have harmful long-term effects on the body.
"The vast majority cannot do it," says Chris Woollam, a sports-medicine physician and medical director of the Mississauga Marathon and the Toronto Marathon. "I've got too many 50-year-olds with arthritis in their knees and hips, some guys needing hip replacements in their 50s, knee replacements in their 50s and 60s."
Still, even Dr. Woollam concedes that, with good mechanics, it is possible for some runners to avoid the sort of injuries likely to befall most runners who do what others view as an unbelievable number of marathons.
But look at the number of marathons the majority of elite runners enter each year and you'll find proof in favour of moderation, says Bob Vigars, track and field coach at the University of Western Ontario. "If you look at the world-class runners, very few of those guys do any more than three in a year," he says. "And these guys, and women, are running machines in that they are just so efficient."
Last year, Dr. Rayman ran 18 marathons. The year before that, he completed 17. He has already run 10 this year and expects to do another 10 before the year is over.
Unlike elite runners, however, Dr. Rayman and most of those who do multiple marathons each year aren't out to break any records. They are simply drawn to the events themselves, with their excitement and camaraderie and the satisfaction of crossing the finish line.
Daniel Fricker, a 75-year-old retired educational consultant who lives outside Sherbrooke, Que., has run 89 marathons since he began competing in the events 28 years ago. "I get a sense of satisfaction each time I do it," he says. "And having run a marathon, everything else seems like small cheese."
While Mr. Fricker has suffered minor injuries to both his knees in recent years, he says he has never suffered a "major" injury.
Bill Haust has chronic hamstring problems, but they are not severe enough to stop him from running. Earlier this year, the 57-year-old from Toronto completed his 100th marathon since he took up the events in 1996. There has been only one marathon he could not complete.
"There was one Boston where I had a stress fracture in my shin and I couldn't even walk the day before," he recalls. He loaded up on Aspirin, but had an adverse reaction and was unable to continue past about the 18-mile mark. "I knew enough to stop," he says. "I ended up in the hospital."
Mr. Haust likes to play down the fact that he has run 100 marathons, especially since he has met other runners who have run twice as many. "People think I'm crazy, but it's all relative," he says.
While those who have run dozens, if not hundreds, of marathons may seem crazy, they are far from it, says Kate Hays, founder of The Performing Edge, a Toronto-based consulting practice that specializes in sport and performance psychology.
"Continuous physical activity is very clearly both an active antidepressant and is also pleasurable in and of itself, so long as a person is matching their degree of skill or training to what they're actually doing," she says.
Kevin Smith, president of Marathon Dynamics, a Toronto-based company that offers coaching services to runners, says that when it comes to the vast majority of runners, it is best not to run more than one marathon a season."
The body, the mind, the psyche, the soul can only take so much," he says.
Anyone who does run several marathons a year can't expect to find their times improving, Mr. Smith adds. "There's a necessary sacrifice of performance."
For his part, Dr. Rayman says his mind and his soul are doing just fine. And so is his body, having never suffered any injury significant enough to send him to the sidelines. And he doesn't spend time thinking about what running so many marathons might do to his body years down the road.
"I don't worry too much about the future. I love living for today and doing what I can do while I can do it," he says.