When Jennifer Howard-Brown of Austin, Texas, crossed the finish line of the Tokyo Marathon in February, she came to the end of a goal seven years in the making. With that final step, she completed a feat that only a few hundred other people in the world can say they've done: run all six World Marathon Majors.
The six-race series includes Boston (founded in 1897), New York City (1970), Berlin (1974), Chicago (1977), London (1981) and Tokyo (2007). Howard-Brown, who is 44 and has been running marathons since 1998, decided to make the series her mission after running her second New York City Marathon in 2009.
"I know I will never be an elite, but I could do the same type of big goal that an elite does," Howard-Brown says. "I wanted to do something epic and for my sport, this -- qualifying for the Boston Marathon and running the World Majors -- was the pinnacle."
Planning turned out to be almost as hard as the training and racing. Each marathon has such high participation numbers, with New York and Chicago being the largest with 91,189 finishers across both races in 2014, that Howard-Brown figured she could do one of them each year. "My original master plan culminated with running Boston as my grand finale, and then they added Tokyo, so plans changed."
She juggled race planning with budget and training plans, setting out to run two marathons a year, one major and one non-major. The budgeting and travel planning was extra important, as she pays for each trip herself.
Her first international race was London in 2012. Results along the way varied, of course, from a 3:48:10 finish in Berlin in 2013 to 4:44:36 in Tokyo. Injuries, nutrition and time zone changes -- Tokyo's 14-hour time shift was a particular challenge -- all took their tolls. But she remained dedicated to her mission.
Howard-Brown works full-time for a software company. Her husband, Scott Brown, is in the technology industry as well, and their work, volunteering and social life proved challenging to navigate around training. "I do most of my training between 5 a.m. and 7:30 a.m.," Howard-Brown says. "That way, I have already set out and accomplished something for the day and I can go to work" -- even if it means a little less sleep.
She can be found running six to seven days a week with Team Rogue in Austin, coached by Jeff Knight. As a coach at Rogue Running herself, she creates a training plan that Knight weighs in on, though he specifies her workouts to help her get to her goals. She believes anybody with serious running goals needs a coach to drive them and help guide their training.
Howard-Brown and her husband turned race trips into vacations and even recruited friends from their club in Austin to join them a few times. Brown, who is training for Ironman Arizona this year, is close to becoming a World Majors finisher himself; the Boston Marathon is the only race he has left in the series.
"Jennifer decided to take on fears she initially had about the World Majors and it had a big impact on me," Brown says. "I learned to clear out the thoughts in my mind that were barriers -- put there by me -- and now all I have left is to qualify for Boston and I'm wanting to make it happen soon."
Boston proved to be Howard-Brown's favorite marathon. She ran in 2014, the year after the bombings. It was the first year she qualified for the iconic race, and it proved to be the most significant of the series for her. "Throughout the whole race, which is known for its spectators, they just had the most pride," she says of the Bostonians she encountered. "Throughout the whole race I heard thick Boston accents yelling, 'Take back my finish line!' I would hear that and well up."
When she completed the World Majors series this year, "I couldn't believe when it was finally over," she says. "It had been my goal for seven years. I had to ask myself, 'What do I do now?'" Right now, Howard-Brown is training for a possible last-minute Boston qualifier in September, but she will decide with her coach if that race is going to happen in a few weeks. Otherwise, she will hit the streets at the California International Marathon in Sacramento in December. She says she'll continue to choose marathons around the world for new experiences.
"It really forces you to take a pause in life," she says of the challenge, "and go do something big."
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