After Running a Marathon a Week for a Year, Jay Helgerson Is a Weary King of the Road

updated 01/14/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/14/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

A year ago Jay Helgerson dropped out of the University of San Francisco, saying, "I think everyone wants to do something unique."

That did not mean joining a commune or the Peace Corps, and he had no desire to enlist in the Marines—he'd already done that once. Instead, Helgerson, 24, set out to run a marathon (26.2 miles) every weekend for a year. If he completes the Houston marathon as planned January 19, he will have run 52 of them, a total of 1,362 miles, and will become the first athlete in the world credited with that monumental achievement. To make things even more challenging, Helgerson has tried to finish each marathon in less than three hours. So far he has missed on only five occasions, and his best time was 2:46, in Atherton, Calif. (The unofficial world record is 2:08.)

Last January when he began, however, Helgerson's time was 3:09. The next weekend, when he finished 14 minutes slower, he was so disgusted he entered another marathon the next day. He ran it in 2:58 and decided to count that toward his 52. "If I'm crazy enough to run two marathons in one weekend," he figures, "I shouldn't be penalized for the slower one." Jay's dedication peaked on December 22. Since he did not know of a scheduled marathon anywhere in the U.S., Helgerson ran the San Francisco course and had a friend (plus witnesses) time him.

There were other obstacles too—a freak snowstorm in Fort Worth last February (Helgerson borrowed some long underwear) and 94 percent humidity on July 15 in Fort Wayne, Ind. "It was ghastly," Jay remembers. "Unbearable. Two of my marathons over three hours were in Midwest heat."

To reach the cities where the races were held, Jay has had to travel more than 50,000 miles to 25 states by bus, car, plane and train. "I feel," he says, "like a traveling salesman. Some weeks I sleep in four different beds." Along the way many a kindly race director or local family has put him up. He has also spent nights in cheap hotels and at a Wisconsin campground in the back of his green Toyota pickup being devoured by mosquitoes. "I guess I was naive to park by a stream in the summer," he observes.

Helgerson's year on the run has been expensive—$4,000 of his own money plus $2,600 he got from Converse shoes. Race directors now waive registration fees, though not in the beginning, he says, "because they thought I was nuts." (So do some doctors, who advise runners to rest at least a month between marathons.)

Not surprisingly, Helgerson trains very little. "I only run about 30 miles a week in addition to the races," he says. "I walk a lot the day before and the day after a run, but I don't take any vitamins or have a special diet."

Even while studying business and history at USF, Helgerson was running a marathon every other week. "Now I'm having the time of my life," he says. "People all over the country are pulling for me. It's nice to be the first to do something."

The youngest of six children of a convention center decorator in Wichita, the 5'5", 130-pound Helgerson joined the Marines for a three-year hitch in 1973. He ran his first marathon in June 1975 in Palos Verdes, Calif., finishing in 3:45. Three of his four sisters are distance runners; one ran a marathon when she was four months pregnant.

This spring Helgerson plans to marry Jocelyn Bates, 24, a fellow runner he met in Sacramento 15 months ago when they paced each other for 10 miles. She's a graduate student in architecture at Berkeley, where Helgerson expects to enroll this spring, though he hasn't picked a major.

"I will channel all this energy into books," he promises. He'll also be rid of one near-permanent distraction. When someone asked him recently what he thought about while running, he answered, "A lot of the time I think about where I'll be next week."

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