Running All Over the Place

Fifty marathons in 50 countries by age 50? Almost.

Author: Joanne Norell

Looking back, the 2019 Bucharest Half Marathon became a metaphor.

It was hot on race day in the Romanian capital, with high temperatures compounded by the humidity, and Monique White ’92 had a headache and nausea. It was enough to make her consider taking the dreaded DNF: Did Not Finish.

But White had a goal.

A long water break and a shady stretch of racecourse helped, and she changed her run-walk strategy to shorten the running intervals, sticking with her mantra: by any means necessary.

White, a running and travel blogger based in the Netherlands, crossed the finish line in 3 hours, 13 minutes, 33 seconds. The Bucharest Half was the 41st race in her quest to run 50 marathons or half-marathons in 50 countries before she turned 50 — a pursuit she dubbed #MoniqueRuns50 — but it became memorable for what happened once it was over.

While White collected her finisher’s medal and post-race goodies, a runner who had finished around the same time approached her.

“Thank you,” he said. “Your rhythm kept me on pace because I was having a hard time.”

It’s not what White expected to hear, but it was exactly what she needed. “Sometimes it seems like it’s terrible for you,” she says, “but getting through it and being consistent with whatever your goal is might be an inspiration for somebody else.”

Norell Monique White 3

White began her 50-marathon quest in 2015. She’d taken up running after watching the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, captivated by the strength of sprinters like American gold medalists Gail Devers and Gwen Torrence. Her two-mile jogs weren’t fast, but they were consistent. She continued running after moving to the Netherlands in 2000, and it became her way to see the country.

The overseas move meant opportunities for international travel, which she began to document on Instagram and her blog, An Unstoppable Journey. As she visited new places, she ran them, too, and she began planning destination races. She ran her first marathon on October 17, 2010, in Amsterdam. Over the next five years she added nearly 20 races in as many countries to her list.

Then in 2015, while she was going through a divorce and looking for an outlet, #MoniqueRuns50 took shape.

“Fifty was on the horizon, and I was kind of looking for something meaningful for myself to do. The [idea of] running 50 states was kind of popular, and that wasn’t feasible for me,” White says, “so I decided to make it a goal to run 50 countries.”

The parameters were simple: White would run half- or full marathons roughly every six weeks. Where she ran depended on location and timing. European destinations made for easy weekend trips. Farther flung locales required a bit more planning. In 2016, a summer trip to Colombia lined up with the Bogotá Half Marathon, while the 2017 Brisbane Marathon Festival took her to Australia. Other bucket-list races in Lebanon and Myanmar had to be put on hold due to civil unrest.

White was used to going with the flow. But the lesson she learned in Bucharest became even more instructive as the calendar flipped to 2020.

She was on pace to reach her 50-race goal by her 50th birthday in August 2020 and had just notched No. 43 in Chile before the coronavirus pandemic led to worldwide lockdowns and travel restrictions. She managed to catch a flight home to The Hague, but her carefully laid plans fell apart.

“[There was] nothing from March until September,” she says. “Things in Europe got a little better last fall,” so she was able to run in Salzburg, Austria, and Sofia, Bulgaria, in October, “and then the second wave came and everything shut back down.”

As in-person races were canceled, White’s big goal became impossible to reach. So she extended her deadline one year — 50 races before she was done being 50 — and signed up for virtual marathons she would run around her neighborhood. Apart from one virtual race she ran while visiting Paris, this backup plan wasn’t exactly what she’d pictured, but it would at least get her across the finish line.

Staying positive was a struggle. As the virus’ delta variant emerged in July 2021, White still had two races to go, and it appeared that even virtual runs would be scratched. She thought about giving up, but returned to her mantra and completed her final two races on her own. For consolation, she plans to make up for the countries she’s missed once in-person racing resumes.

What helped get her there? Her own Instagram post from Bucharest.

“That’s helped me to feel better and keep pushing, to finish even though it’s not what I hoped it to be,” she says.

“Just like it says in the Bible: The race isn’t given to the swift, but to the one who endures. . . . Getting through the tough parts, getting over the hurdles, often encourages somebody else.”

And sometimes even yourself.

Joanne Norell is alumni editor of this magazine.