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48 marathons in 47 days -- and still going

By Steve Almasy
CNN
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- There wasn't much left of the Nissan Altima that night, when Sam Thompson almost lost his ability to run, the night he could have died.

He was 17 when he hydroplaned on a rain-soaked road in Mississippi and another car slammed into his, leaving him with a shattered leg and pelvis, and a broken jaw and collarbone.

Doctors told the cross-country runner his left leg might heal shorter than his right and he would never run again. They placed a titanium rod in his left leg, stretching from his left knee to his ankle, to help him walk.

Eight years later, he is running. 26.2 miles. Every day. (Watch one man's marathon mission -- 4:48)

Thompson, a volunteer coordinator for a church in Katrina-ravaged Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, is on a quest to raise awareness for the people he knows along the Gulf Coast who have largely been forgotten a year after Hurricane Katrina slammed the region.

And he's doing the thing he does best, running -- his mission is to complete 50 marathons in 50 days in all 50 states. He says he's nearly done, having now logged 48 marathon-distance runs in 47 consecutive days. (Recently, he decided to add a run and complete two marathons in a single day, he said.)

What drives someone to run so far? He says it is about getting back the attention that came after the storm last August 29.

"The reality is there is just a huge need still down there," said Thompson. "It looks today as it did a year ago. A lot has been cleaned up, but at the same time if someone went down there for the first time they would think the storm hit yesterday."

On his Web site dedicated to his marathon of marathons (50in50in50.comexternal link), Thompson asks for donations for his church's relief effort and other charities. A lot of people aren't getting insurance money, he said, so his group of 100 volunteers helps rebuild homes. People come from all over the country, so part of his run is to remind others who might want to assist that the area is still hurting.

And so he runs to get on camera or in the newspaper and make his pitch for help.

Pushing the human body to its limits

It seems impossible -- running more than 1,300 miles in two months, averaging just less than nine minutes a mile.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN's senior medical correspondent who has run two marathons, said Thompson is pushing his body past what it was built to do.

"He's not going to have enough time for recovery between these runs," Gupta said. "So he's going to be damaging already significantly damaged joints. There's a really good chance that he will suffer irreversible damage."

Gupta also said he is worried about Thompson's kidneys, because of the possibility of chronic dehydration.

Thompson's girlfriend, Kirsten Sellereit, is a registered dietician and has accompanied him throughout the trip. She also is his masseuse, giving him a 20- or 30-minute rubdown after each run. She watches his fluid intake and helps him pick out his food.

She said she tries to get him 1,000 to 1,200 calories while he runs. After he finishes he downs a liter of Endurox, a recovery drink high in carbohydrates.

"He pretty much runs everything he eats by me," Sellereit said. "When we order at a restaurant, he'll ask, 'Can I get this?' And I'll say, 'A-OK or no.' "

She runs with him for parts of the day. Last Friday in Atlanta, where Thompson ran the course of a marathon that will be held in March, she got out of a chase vehicle and ran the last 15 miles with him and the other runners who came out on what turned out to be a rare pleasant August morning in Georgia's capital.

Among the runners was Dean Karnazes, one of the most famous ultramarathoners in the United States. Thompson and Karnazes scooted along, smiling and swapping stories throughout the 26.2-mile journey.

Karnazes is a teammate now of Thompson, who signed with North Face in August after a few weeks of running without a sponsor and paying for all his hotels and meals.

Navigating the morning traffic of Atlanta, occasionally the group stopped for traffic at major intersections. This run, like most of Thompson's 51, was not an official marathon, with blocked-off roads and crowds cheering the runners along.

During his cross-country trip, Thompson has run "only" seven races. He says his other runs have often been undertaken with his family members giving directions from a course map found online. It can lead to a wrong turn or extra distance, as it did Tuesday when Thompson ran 26.3 miles, according to Little Rock Marathon Race Director Geneva Hampton.

Richard Finn, a spokesman for the New York City Marathon, said courses are measured on a regular basis and certified so that runners complete "26.2 miles, not a step more or a step less."

"Many of us believe in the integrity of our sport," Finn said of marathon race officials. "This is obviously a stunt. It's a difficult stunt. We do tip our hat to him."

Thompson said he tracks his distance and time on a GPS watch on his wrist and uploads the information to a computer. He also wears a heart-rate monitor to document his runs.

'The human body is capable of a lot'

Gupta said Thompson will need to get his heart checked after he completes his trek in Bay St. Louis on Saturday. A small problem could be exacerbated by such an endurance test, he said.

Finn agreed that Thompson will feel a lot of pain on Day 51, if not already.

"I do think that if you talk to any runner, there is a certain number of miles that you have in your legs," Finn, a former long-distance runner, said. "You don't have an infinite number of miles in your legs before you will break down in some way."

After finishing the Atlanta course on August 11, Thompson said he felt great.

"We ran easy and had a good time," he said, breathing without trouble.

With his journey near its end, he isn't quite sure what he will do next. His North Face contract calls for him to run some endurance races. He has a running apparel company that he has tried to operate. That may have to go on hold.

He looks forward to seeing what has happened in Bay St. Louis in the time that he has been gone. And he looks forward to finishing something people can't fathom being accomplished.

"Most people have said and continue to say that it is not humanly possible to do 50 marathons in 50 days. It's just fun to show people that hey, it is," he said. "The human body is capable of a lot."


thompson.karnazes3.jpg

Ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes, left, who once ran 350 miles in three days, runs with Sam Thompson.

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