As an assistant professor of physical education in the Auburn University Montgomery (Ala.) physical education department, in addition to his responsibilities of building a cross country program from scratch, head coach Michael Gross doesn't have a lot of free time.
This hasn't stopped him, however, from continuing a journey most people would never conceive of undertaking. After completing the Logan View Raider Run in Hooper, Neb., last month, Gross has now completed marathons in all 48 continental United States, plus Washington DC.
Running has been an essential part of Gross' life since childhood. After competing as a distance runner for his high school track team, he continued to make running an element of his daily routine as an undergrad at Auburn Montgomery, and as a member of the working world. Then, almost 20 years ago, he decided to start training for something that requires significantly more dedication.
"After countless 5K, 10K type races, I was talking with some of my running buddies one day," Gross said. "And we were all like, 'maybe we need to do a marathon.'"
That innocent conversation would eventually lead to a trip to Atlanta on Thanksgiving Day in 1994 for the Atlanta Marathon.
"It was close and we could drive it in two hours," Gross said. " It was Thanksgiving Day, which meant if it started at 7 a.m. over there, that was 6 a.m. our time, so if we finished in four hours we could be back in Montgomery by lunchtime. We figured if we ran a marathon we could eat more that night.
"So, that's where it got started. And that's also where I guess you could say it continued."
Gross struggled with the 27 degree temperature in Atlanta that morning, eventually becoming hypoglycemic and finishing the race in a time of around four hours and 40 minutes. This was well above his goal of a sub-four hour race, and he vowed to not have all of his training wasted by one bad race.
Three months later, he was back in action at the Blue Angel Marathon in Florida. Then came the Vulcan Marathon in Birmingham, Alabama. Slowly, the races began to add up.
"When I ran the Vulcan, I had a good race and felt good," Gross said. "So I came out and thought, okay, let's try another one. So my buddies and I went to Memphis and New York together. By this time, I'm at five and I'm thinking, okay, what else is close enough?"
It was also around this time that Gross began to notice shirts for the 50 States Marathon Club. The club's website advertises that is has just under 3,000 members who have run a combined amount of more than 170,000 marathons. Runners must have competed in at least 10 marathons to join.
The club opened Gross' mind to the possibility, and he has not slowed down since.
"After I made the decision to do this, the whole process has become about the journey," Gross said. "I could sit and tell you something specific and probably multiple specifics about each race. Whether it was the race itself, the way it was run, the scenery, the location, something happened as far as meeting someone at the race, etc."
Highlights for Gross include getting to run on Lambeau Field, home of his favorite NFL team, the Green Bay Packers, during the inaugural Green Bay Marathon. He also recalls several stories of meeting people from Alabama along the way, including a member of his church in Montgomery and a runner from near his hometown of Tallassee, Ala., who was taught in high school by one of Gross' running friends.
As he slowly began to accumulate states, Gross began to look for ways to make his trips more cost-effective. With a trip to Delaware and Maryland, he completed his first of four double marathons, in which he races in two states on back-to-back weekend days.
His first double marathon was a battle, as he fought tightness in one of his knees in both races. The race in Maryland, the Frederick Marathon, was a particular struggle after his knee flared up after only a quarter of a mile.
Gross was not deterred by the weekend, though, and continued to look for other doubles to run. At one point, he even ran doubles on back-to-back weekends, a total of four marathons in only nine days.
"The biggest thing about running is that it's mental," Gross said. "The body will go. Everything we know about the body from a physiological standpoint, if you train it, it will go. It's a machine. As long as you keep feeding it proper nutrients and hydrating it well, it will go as long as you keep telling it to go."
From a training standpoint, Gross certainly puts in the necessary effort to prepare himself for long-distance running. During an average week, he runs 50 miles over six days, taking only Sunday off.
"For the first few years, even though my background is physical education and exercise science, I used to rely on other people as far as taking their training plans and using them," Gross said. "But at some point I thought, well wait a minute, I've run enough marathons. I know what my body can do. I have a degree in exercise science. I should know how to do things."
Gross began to put together his own training routines. At his peak training sessions, he does back-to-back 14-mile runs on Friday and Saturday each week. It was after he started designing his own routines that he was able to put up his personal-best marathon time of three hours and 35 minutes, which enabled him to qualify for the Boston Marathon.
One thing you realize in a conversation with Gross is that he is never complacent. He is always looking ahead to what else can be done. After completing marathons in the 48 continental United States, he already has tentative plans to race in Hawaii in December and Alaska next year. He has a long-term goal of running marathons on all seven continents, including Antarctica.
"It used to be that you could only race in Antarctica every other year," Gross said. "But I think the demand for it has gotten such that the touring company that puts it on now does it every year."
His future goals also expand beyond location. Included in his travels across the United States are a 40- and a 50-mile race, and he also plans to run a 100-mile race next spring.
Gross will occasionally bring up his marathon experience when trying to sell recruits to come to his developing cross country program at AUM.
Coaching his cross country team, while still teaching a full class schedule at Auburn Montgomery, can make it difficult for Gross to maintain his ideal training pace for marathons. He does not run these races for the sole purpose of finishing as quickly as possible, however. When asked about his reasons for competing, he instead quotes Sir Edmund Hillary.
"He was the guy who climbed Mount Everest for the first time," Gross said. "And when they asked why, he said, 'because it's there.' I know I'm not the fastest marathoner. I don't win my age group. For me, a lot of times it's simply about the journey. It's about accomplishing things and never resting and being content.
"I know that running is mostly mental, not physical. So it's like, okay, can I do it? And I tell myself that I can. In that sense, tackling 50 states and doing 50 marathons has been easy, and I've been able to accomplish some pretty neat things."