Marathon holiday fun in Florida

"Mama Jean" Evansmore has finished all the Savage Seven as well as the NYC Marathon. Jean Evansmore

Back in 2010, Jean Evansmore saw a notice on the 50 States Marathon Club website about a new event called the Savage Seven. It would feature seven marathons over seven days on the same 26.2-mile course in Ocala, Fla.

To Evansmore, it sounded like the perfect vacation. After running her first marathon at the age of 64, Evansmore, then 70, had become a passionate runner. Within three years, she'd run a marathon in all 50 states and had decided she'd do as many as she could for as long as she could.

"I don't have 25 years like you guys do," she says, laughing. "I have to get this done! I'm not guaranteed to be around for another 25 years. I can't spread it out."

While not fast -- she calls herself a "walk-runner" -- Evansmore enjoys the marathon experience, including meeting people, feeling healthy and collecting what she calls "thingamajigs," the medals and age-group awards that come with completing races. So, while others might dream of a December getaway to Florida for a relaxing week at a posh resort, Evansmore was smitten by the Savage Seven.

"It just sounded interesting to me," says Evansmore, who lives in Mount Hope, W.Va., and goes by the running name "Mama Jean."

"OK, you can do all those [marathons] and get them all done."

Evansmore was one of five runners that first year who completed all seven races. In 2011, she finished all seven again. In 2012, she made it 21-for-21. Now, as the Savage Seven gets set for its fourth edition beginning the day after Christmas, Evansmore is the only runner to have completed all 21 marathons, and she plans to do all seven again this year when races are held from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1.

She says that after she finished all seven her first year, some of her male running partners admitted they had doubted her.

"'Mama Jean, we were talking about you,'" she recalls one saying. " 'We didn't think you could do this.' And I laughed. I said, 'Oh, I guess you didn't know me, huh?'"

The event's founder

The Savage Seven takes its name from founder Chuck Savage, a longtime marathoner (he has completed 324) and founder of the annual Ocala Marathon. Savage, an architect, says it always seemed that nothing much got done in the business world between Christmas and New Year's, and it might be a good time to set up an event in which marathoners could gather at the end of the year to easily add a marathon (or several) to their count for the calendar year.

Savage himself wanted to complete a few marathons at the end of 2010. Just 13 people gathered for the first marathon on Dec. 26, 2010, and the seven races that year drew a total of 18 runners. Only five runners completed all seven, and Savage completed five.

The marathons were held on the quarter-mile track at Trinity Catholic High School, beginning at 5 or 6 in the morning. The course wasn't ideal, but it wasn't bad, either, says Savage.

"Everybody who didn't know this thought, 'Well, they'll go crazy running around that track,'" he says. "They had to run around the track over 100 times in order to get 26 miles in. But it's not like that. I did some of the races myself, and I can tell you what it's like. You're with friends. ... You usually get with somebody you know and you talk to them the whole time and the race goes by very fast. It doesn't seem like you're out there that long."

Galen Garrison of St. Petersburg, Fla., won Race No. 1 in 5:07:02 and Johnny Spriggs of Broken Arrow, Okla., had the lowest cumulative time among the five who finished all seven races, at 43:54:50.

In 2011, the event moved to Pensacola on the track at the University of West Florida. This time, 51 runners participated in at least one race and 21 completed all seven, with Robert Bishton posting a best cumulative time of 30:01:54. There were 52 runners in 2012 when the event was held in Winter Springs, Fla., with 10 runners finishing all seven. Rich Holmes of Durham, N.C. posted a seven-race best of 33:24:32.

Each year, the finisher of any one race earns a medal. Finishers of all seven have received a plaque. This year's course will be a 5-mile route through the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway just east of Ocala, and Savage expects more than 50 runners.

The question is, what's so attractive about going around and around a 26.2-mile course for seven consecutive days? "There's more and more people trying to do more and more marathons," says Savage, 75, who has two friends who've completed more than 1,000 marathons.

"This is a very inexpensive and fast way to get a lot of them done."

It may be a small event, but word about it has spread. Runners from across the U.S. have participated, and it's attracted some foreign runners as well. The first year, for instance, Larry Macon came from San Antonio, and Yolanda Holder from Corona, Calif., to complete their 106th race of the year, tying for the No. 1 spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. Macon ran six races and Holder ran one. It ranks as a highlight to Savage.

"[Holder] had done 105 marathons, and so she wanted to tie Larry," Savage says. "So she came all this way to run one marathon with him so they both ran 106 in that year. That was really nice."

Macon returned the next year to run six races to break that record, finishing 2011 with 113 marathons. In 2012, Macon ran 153 marathons (but didn't participate in the Savage Seven in Florida).

An event with multiple marathons over several days isn't unique to the Savage Seven. Chuck Savage notes that longtime marathoner Denny Fryman held a small, multiple-day event in Ohio many years ago, for instance, and there's a larger event in San Antonio that began last year called the I Ran Marathons 21 Run Salute in which 32 marathons and ultra races are held over 28 days.

The most marathons Savage has run on consecutive days is the five he did in the first year of the Savage Seven. He found it wasn't nearly as taxing as he thought it might be.

"I wasn't getting more tired every day," he says. "I was getting more sore. I got a little more sore every day. But I really wasn't tired. You're always tired at the end [of a race], but not always exhausted."

He says nonrunners simply can't fathom the whole concept of the Savage Seven.

"I sincerely believe that if you don't have injuries, that just about anybody can run a marathon, but of course most people don't, so they simply can't relate," he says. "They can't imagine running one."

Boring? No chance

To "Mama Jean" Evansmore, the Savage Seven is a great opportunity every year to "get a break from whatever's going on." Whatever worries and concerns she has in West Virginia get left behind when she heads to Florida.

She's run more than 120 marathons, and in each she can think about nothing but what's ahead, the next marker, the next aid station, the next landmark to reach so she can walk for a few steps before picking up the pace again. So with seven races in seven days, she's as happy as can be.

"It's time to take my break, go down and do some races and get my medals," she says. And she quickly dismisses the idea that seven days of running the same course is boring.

"My perspective on things is kind of different from lots of others people's," she says. "What's the big deal? You get up every morning, many people eat the same thing, they do the same thing. That's repetitive.

"No, something's going to be different. I'm going to be thinking different thoughts and I might see something that I've never seen before."

The idea of getting up, running, soaking in a hot tub and getting a good night's sleep -- times seven -- sounds pretty sweet to "Mama Jean," who says she just feels blessed to be able to put one foot in front of the other.

"I focus on my blessings," she says. "I'm able to go to Florida."

Chuck Savage, meanwhile, believes the course they have this year is the best they've ever had. He's eager to see old faces and new, and plans a get-together on Christmas night, before the first race the next morning. He might also have one on New Year's Day after race No. 7, but that's not firm.

"Here's the problem," he says. "Most people are pretty tired. After three or four days, they don't really feel much like partying."