Mary Kaplan, 81, Sunrise Beach, Texas
When we say runner Mary Kaplan sets goals as big as Texas, we mean it literally. Now 81, the retired Air Force nurse has not only run a race in all 50 states, she has also achieved the goal to run a 5K in every Texas county. All 254 of them. Not bad for someone who accidentally found her sport at the age of 43.
When Mary began running in 1983, it wasn’t by choice. Being in the service, she had to take a fitness exam every year. “They told me walking would no longer be considered an aerobic activity, so I would have to run a mile and a half instead of walking three miles,” she recalls. “I couldn’t run a block and thought it would kill me, but I went out and did it.” Instead of hating running, she immediately fell in love with it and began participating in organized runs throughout the country, kicking into high gear after she retired in 1996. She has competed in all but one National Senior Games since 1999.
Between 2010 and 2016, Mary meticulously crossed off county after county until she had run in every one. She even helped organize 5Ks in locations that had never hosted a race. Mary then founded the Tx 254 Running Club, whose members pledge to run in every Texas county. “I had set the goal for myself, and as I told people about it they also thought it would be fun,” she explains. “It’s also a nice way to give to charity and see interesting and new places.”
To date, two others have completed the challenge, and a few are actively pursuing the goal. Others want unusual experiences, so the group likes to run in uniquely named Texas towns. “We’ve run in Bangs, Black Ankle, Weeping Mary, Very Best, Tarzan, Rainbow and Uncertain. There are just so many of them around the state,” she says.
Mary is proud that she has finished first in age group in 1,346 of the 1,554 races she has run to date, and that her 90-year-old husband Hal has photographed her in every one. She has earned more than medals, too. “President Bush hosted a charity race near his ranch in Crawford, and I’ve got three bobbleheads of George Bush from the races up there,” she says with a chuckle.
The one event where Mary ran into serious competition was National Senior Games, where she competes in Track and Field and Road Race. It took until 2019 for her to win a medal at the national level, and she did it in style, garnering two silver and two bronze medals in Albuquerque. “I always knew there were a bunch of folks of my age in The Games, so I just kept going knowing that one of these times I’d get it.”
Her running career almost ended in 2014, when she needed a shunt placed in her brain to manage hydrocephalus. “I was falling down a lot and thought it was a problem with my left leg,” she says, “But after the shunt I’ve been perfect. In fact, my times have been improving. One course I ran in 2017 was three minutes faster when I ran it last week!”
The incident reminds her it’s not all about winning. “I just go to have fun and whatever happens, happens. Once I got started with running, I saw the benefits of keeping in shape,” she observes. “When and I saw a lot of my friends let themselves go to pot after they retired, I decided I wouldn’t do that.”