50 Marathons Before Age 50

Spokane runner Heather LeFriec Ready to Run Surf City

 The seventh-grade assignment asked students to identify their favorite room at home. Heather LeFriec admits she was not the most confident student. By her own admission she was chubby and shy.  When it came time for Heather to answer in front of classmates, she froze.

“I couldn’t spit it out,” recalls LeFriec.
Playing class clown, a boy blurted out, “I bet it’s the kitchen.”
“I remember a couple kids snickering,” says LeFriec. “I was mortified. I wanted to crawl under a rock.”

Nearly 35 years later, the boy, now a man, no doubt would be embarrassed by his rude remark. And he would be stunned at the path LeFriec (pronounced La Frece) has taken. She is 49 years old and in her 25th year as a high school physical education teacher.

Come this Sunday, February 6, LeFriec, who lives in Spokane, Wash., will step to the starting line in Huntington Beach for the 26th running of the Surf City Marathon and Half Marathon. She’ll take the 26.2-mile route and when she crosses the finish line it’ll be her 50th marathon, all before turning 50 in March.

“If you would have told me when I was 12 years old that I was going to be a marathon runner, I would have laughed in your face,” says LeFriec. “I didn’t look like that. I was always an underdog.”

Her sport of choice in her early teens was tennis. In a sport that requires patience, where more points are lost than won, LeFriec was not always calm and composed. It didn’t help matters that her twin sister, Heidi, was the better player. But Heather was dogged.

In her senior year at Oak Harbor High, tennis was moved from fall to the spring. Heather wanted to stay active, play another sport, something that might help her lose weight. She wasn’t skilled at soccer and volleyball, so they were out.

“But I always like running,” she says.

And thus, the accidental runner was born. LeFriec learned she could go long and go hard, with an emphasis on hard.

“I liked the pain,” she says. “I don’t know what it was. I would go out in a race and I would just go as hard as I could ’til the very end. I had no idea what I was doing. I took off and (one time) I think I blacked out.

“I remember coming down this finishing chute and I couldn’t see, I pushed myself so far. Some might call it a fire in your belly. I am so competitive when it comes to running that I’ll gut it out until I collapse.”

LeFriec qualified for the Washington state cross country championships her senior year in high school and finished 12th. She ran one year at an Idaho community college, then was offered a scholarship at Gonzaga where she set a school record in the 10,000 meters on the track (36:40), a record that stood for more than a decade.

She ran her first marathon at 22 and has barely slowed down since, although COVID cancellations made reaching 50 marathons a challenge and a foot injury the past two years required more time to cover 26.2 miles.

She has run the Boston and New York City marathons twice each and Chicago four times. Her PR is 2:56:52, set at the Portland Marathon in 2002. More than 40 of her 26.2-milers were fast enough to qualify for Boston.

She used to think she was impervious to injury but a small tear beneath her plantar plate suffered last May changed that.

“I understand it’s not always about being the fastest,” LeFriec says. “It’s about appreciating what you can still do and just moving.”

The you-can’t-stop-me attitude persists. When a doctor told her to stop running, she objected.

Says LeFriec: “I told the doctor, ‘I can’t stop ’til I get to 50.’ I’ve got to complete this goal.”

She chose the Surf City Marathon for No. 50 for a simple reason. The temperature recently has dipped into the 20s in Spokane.

“We want to get out of here and run along the ocean,” she says.

In 2008, Spokane hosted the USA cross country national championships. There was a group of 14 women who were dedicated distance runners. LeFriec led the effort to create a women’s running club named the Spokane Swifts.

Swifts was not chosen as a description of fleet runners, but was named after the long-winged bird. While the original Swifts were competitive and fast, now the club, with about 100 members, is open to runners of all abilities

Or as LeFriec puts it, “All faces, all paces.”

While LeFriec isn’t the club’s coach, fellow member Sarah Ranson calls her “the face and voice of the Swifts.” The group meets twice a week.  At workouts LeFriec will have the women stand in a circle and might ask a runner what event she’s training for, what race she just ran or might ask someone what was something fun they did over the weekend.

“She just has this way of making people feel important,” says Ranson. “These women, they don’t need a running coach. They need a life coach. Heather, she’s awesome at that. She makes them feel validated.”

Says LeFriec, “I love to see relationships develop.”

It’s interesting to ask athletes what it is about their sport that draws them to it. Considering that at one time LeFriec lacked confidence, that as a teenager she was uncomfortable with her body image, her answer is not surprising.

“Oh gosh,” she begins, “I feel so empowered. As soon as I’m done running, I feel I can conquer the world.”

At 49 going on 50, both in age and marathons, LeFriec’s affinity for putting on a pair of shorts, lacing up her shoes and pounding the pavement or hitting a trail has not diminished. Just the opposite.

Asked if she likes running as much now as when she started, LeFriec did not hesitate.

“I think maybe more,” she says. “Because I think it’s my therapy. It keeps me centered. It feeds my soul.”

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