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Marathoner Dana Fenske turns lofty idea into long-term dream

Some people’s bucket lists include seeing all 50 states. Some want to run a marathon. Bemidji's Dana Fenske is trying to do both at the same time.

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Bemidji's Dana Fenske holds up medals from some of the 22 marathons she’s completed. Fenske plans to run a marathon in all 50 states. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- Some people’s bucket lists include seeing all 50 states. Some want to run a marathon.

Dana Fenske is trying to do both at the same time.

“I couldn’t run half a mile without walking when I started,” Fenske said. “I hated running. I wanted to get into shape, so I started doing a little bit.”

A little bit of running has now turned into 576.4 miles of marathons, plus a whole lot more training miles around Bemidji.

“I went from not running at all to (this),” Fenske said. “At first, I was like, ‘I’ll train for a 5K.’ And that was easy. Then I was like, ‘I’ll do a 10.’ Then someone said I should do a half. Once I got that far, it was like I might as well try for a full.

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“It was kind of my husband’s idea to do all 50 states after I’d done a few. And it’s a good excuse to travel.”

Now 22 states into her goal of all 50, Fenske is nearly halfway to her summit. The Bemidji resident has run in marathons as close as the hometown Blue Ox Marathon and as far off as Nevada and Rhode Island.

Her first was the 2017 Fargo Marathon, crossing off North Dakota before any other state. Then came Minnesota with the Blue Ox that fall, and No. 3 was a Washington, D.C., marathon that led her into Virginia.

In all, the states with a checkmark next to them are: Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin.

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Dana Fenske runs through Diamond Point Park on July 20, 2021, in Bemidji. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

Understandably, the feeling of finishing is a whole lot better than the feeling from the middle of the race.

“You just think, ‘Thank God that’s over,’” Fenske laughed. “Literally, at mile 16 of every race I’ve done, I’m like, ‘Why do I do this to myself? I’m never doing it again.’ But then you finish. And within a couple hours you feel better and you’re looking on your phone for the next race.”

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Fenske said her goal for 50 marathons in 50 states started “pretty much right away,” around the time of her third marathon. She’s since navigated challenges like injuries, travel expenses and schedules at the mercy of COVID-19, but she still checked off a state as recently as June.

Vermont was No. 22 on the list, while next week’s Beaver Chase Urban Trail Race in Indiana will be No. 23.

Fenske has run with her husband, children and a whole lot of strangers. That’s one of the best parts of the experience.

“I’ve met some really cool people,” Fenske said. “One of the best parts about running the marathons is the people you meet. Everybody has the same kind of mindset, and everybody knows what you’re feeling like. Everyone is really nice and can relate.”

While she still has a few dozen marathons ahead of her, Fenske is determined to press on toward the finish line. To borrow an old cliche, it’s not a sprint.

“I want to finish, for sure,” she said. “And then after that? I don’t know if I’ll keep going or if I’ll find something else I like to do better. But, right now, I really want to finish.”

Micah Friez is the former sports editor at the Bemidji Pioneer. A native of East Grand Forks, Minn., he worked at the Pioneer from 2015-23 and is a 2018 graduate of Bemidji State University with a degree in Creative and Professional Writing.
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