While we continue to be inspired by anyone who can run, there are some runners whose extreme athletic feats and perseverance through adversity motivate us to lace up our sneakers and hit the pavement. We talked to our writers, editors, favorite running bloggers — and you, on social media! — to find those rare athletes who truly inspire us. These runners and triathletes have accomplished mind-boggling feats, given back in extraordinary ways, and quite simply refuse to give up. Take a lap with the runners who inspire us most (listed in alphabetical order). Get your tissues ready!
1. Nicole Antoinette
Nicole Antoinette is planning on running across the country in 2015 with the goal of raising money for the National Institute for the Psychotherapies, a training institute dedicated to mental health awareness. Her mission: “to change our story. That self-limiting inner story that says our biggest dreams are out of reach, that we’ll give up when everything feels impossible, that we aren’t good enough or worthy enough or strong enough or talented enough…” she writes on her irreverent and empowering blog, A Life Less Bullsh!t.
2. Abby Sweitzer Bales
In 2010, Abby Sweitzer Bales was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, but the long-time runner and personal trainer refused to give up exercise. She had her colon removed in 2012, and is back to running and hosting virtual races to raise money for the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America. Just one year after having her colon removed, she ran the New Jersey Half-Marathon — in 1:40!
3. Jen Correa
When Hurricane Sandy devastated the East Coast, Staten Island resident Jen Correa lost her house and all of her possessions in the wake of the storm, not to mention her running shoes. The marathoner and mom of two had planned on running the New York City Marathon in 2012 before it was canceled. Like many, she ran it this year instead, “putting it all behind me, as a sign of resilience,” she told Runner’s World. She takes inspiration from a cartoon fish; her mantra is “Just keep swimming.”
4. Angela Coulombe
Angela was diagnosed with Lyme disease in 2007. Prior to her diagnosis, she had run a handful of 5K and 10K races. But when the pain began to mount as she struggled with the disease, she decided to start running again, figuring it couldn’t hurt any more than it already did. “Just because I can’t do one thing doesn’t mean I can’t do anything,” she told herself. Since then, she has run marathons to spread awareness for Lyme Disease and raise money for research — even qualifying for Boston in 2012. She will be running the storied 26.2-mile race in 2014.
5. Bob Dolphin and Lenore Dolphin
This 83-year-old couple is proof that age is just a number. As race directors of the Yakima River Canyon Marathon, Bob has completed more than 500 marathons, and Lenore volunteers at most of these events. What keeps him going? “I’m probably one of the few who studies plants and animals as I run past them,” he says. “Because my training was that of an entomologist, I can identify some of the larger insects that I see fly by.”
6. Keelan Glass
We don’t know about you, but we certainly weren’t running half-marathons at the age of six! The pint-sized Keelan Glass finished her first half-marathon this summer, with a time of 2:46:31, making her the youngest half-marathoner in the world, besting the nine-year-old who previously held the record.
7. Michele King Gonzalez
Michele King Gonzalez began running as a student at West Point, but fell in love with the sport during her deployments to Iraq. After enduring what she calls “the most difficult time of my life,” the 3:21 marathoner competed in her first Ironman this summer. Next up: qualifying for the Kona Ironman Championships. “The only person who has to believe in your dreams is you,” she says.
8. Alana Hadley
While most 16-year-olds are focused on high school crushes or hanging out with their friends after school, Alana Hadley qualified for the Olympic Trials in her second marathon. Her time of 2:41:55 made her the second youngest woman to qualify for the Trials since Cathy O’Brien in 1984. The high school junior runs more than 100 miles per week in her peak marathon training — a little more than your average high school cross-country runner.
9. Team Hoyt
Rick Hoyt was born a spastic quadriplegic with cerebral palsy in 1962. His parents were told to institutionalize him, because there was little hope of him having a “normal” life. Though he couldn’t talk, his parents knew he was bright. They worked with a group of engineers at Tufts University to have a special computer built that would help him communicate. In 1977, he told his father that he wanted to participate in a 5-mile race for a lacrosse player paralyzed by an accident. Since then, Rick and Dick Hoyt have participated in more than 1,000 races, including marathons and Ironman triathlons, through specially outfitted boats, bicycles and running chairs. We challenge you to watch this inspirational video and not tear up.
10. Dean Karnazes
The ultramarathon man is seemingly not human, having run 350 continuous miles, and a 200-mile relay race as a team of one. Add to that 50 marathons in 50 days in all 50 states in 2007, raising $100,000 for his charity, Karno Kids, which focuses on improving the health and wellness of children.
11. Brian Kelley
Brian Kelley, better known as Pavement Runner, wanted to do something about all of the emotion he saw around the Boston Marathon bombing. He organized a run in San Francisco on April 22, and announced it on his blog, giving his readers the option to create runs in their own cities, with the hashtag #BostonStrong (+ their own city.) To date, more than 121 cities have organized runs to unite communities affected by the tragic event.
12. Tom Knoll
In 1978, Tom Knoll became one of the original athletes to finish an Ironman — the daunting 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and a 26.2-mile run. He continued to compete in endurance events, running for charity across the United States in 1983. At the finish line of the first Ironman, he challenged himself to raise more than a million dollars for charity, a goal he achieved in 2011. Along the way, he raised funds for charities including the Make-a-Wish Foundation, Challenged Athletes Foundation, Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, among others.
13. Michael LaForgia
This November, double amputee Michael LaForgia ran the New York City Marathon for the third time. In 2005, he contracted bacterial meningitis, falling into a coma for seven days. He was an athlete before becoming ill, and after his amputation, was fitted with both a running leg and a partial foot prosthetic with a running foot. As a member of the National Meningitis Association, he uses his endurance activities as a way to increase awareness of the disease.
14. Larry Macon
This 68-year-old attorney from Texas has run more than 1,025 marathons. He broke the Guinness World Record for most marathons run in a single year when he finished his 157th marathon of 2012 at the Texas Savage Seven Marathon in San Antonio. After the Boston Marathon bombing, he was a mile short of finishing. He couldn’t make it back to his hotel in the bombing aftermath, so he ran that last mile solo on his way back home.
15. Elizabeth Maiuolo
In 2004, Elizabeth Maiuolo had a heart attack at the age of 28. She began running to gain control of her body again, and has since run more than 80 races, including the New York Marathon and the Boston Marathon. The 3:27 marathoner works as a development manager for Autism Speaks, raising money and awareness for autism through races. When she runs races, she says, she thinks of one word, “execute,” which reminds her to stick to her strategy.
16. Dave McGillivray
The Boston Marathon race director has run the famous 26.2-mile course 41 times. But don’t expect to spot him in the pack — since becoming race director in 1988, McGillivray has made it a tradition to run the distance solo at night. And, each year on his birthday, he runs his age in miles. The 59-year-old has completed more than 122 marathons, eight Ironman Triathlons and has raised more than $100 million for charity through running. He first gained national attention in 1978, running cross-country to raise money for the Jimmy Fund, a Boston-based charity that raises money to fight cancer in children and adults. His mantra: “Set goals, not limits!”
17. Amy Palmiero-Winters
In 1997, Amy Palmiero-Winters had her leg amputated below the knees as the result of a motorcycle crash. These days, she holds the marathon world record for the fastest female below-the-knee amputee, and is the first female amputee to finish the Badwater Ultramarathon, a legendary 135-mile race. She is also the founder of the One Step Ahead Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping children with physical disabilities. After the Boston Marathon bombings, she and her foundation provided prosthetics and ongoing to care to children who lost their limbs in the blast.
18. Sarah Reinertsen
Born with proximal femoral focal deficiency, a bone-growth disorder, Sarah Reinertsen became an amputee at the age of seven. She started running when she was 11, and became the first female leg amputee to complete the Ironman World Championship in Kona. She won the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in 2006, and gives back to the community by mentoring and inspiring other athletes through the Challenged Athletes Foundation and Ossur, a manufacturer of prosthetic equipment.
19. Fauja Singh
When Fauja Singh lost his wife, daughter and son in rapid succession, he picked up running to help him deal with his overwhelming grief. By the age of 101, Singh became the oldest marathoner to ever go the distance. When he retired from competitive running earlier this year, he had run nine marathons and many other shorter races.
20. Angela Tortorice
This Dallas woman is the current record-holder for the most marathons run in a calendar year, completing 129 marathons between September 1, 2012 and August 31, 2013. And if that’s not heroic enough, in 2004, when her brother needed a life-saving liver transplant, she entered an Ironman triathlon to raise money for his medical bills. She credits prayer and stubbornness with carrying her through.
Who do you think is the most inspirational runner? Tell us in the comments below.