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Dunn Pushes Himself to the Limit

from the San Francisco Chronicle

The way Jerry Dunn sees things, finding ways of overcoming life’s various obstacles is a pretty nifty method to prove and improve oneself.

“Don’t limit your challenges,” his often-cited mantra goes, “challenge your limits.”

And Dunn doesn’t believe in half measures: Right now he is the midst of a campaign to complete 200 certified marathon course runs — 12 official races and 188 “training runs” — in this calendar year. When he crosses the finish line in next Sunday’s Chronicle Marathon, he will have reached the 109 mark. Marathon run No. 100 occurred on Friday, when he ran the 26.2-mile San Francisco course for the first time this year, and he planned to run the course once a day until the race itself.

“There are a number of reasons why I’m doing this,” Dunn, a 54- year-old resident of Spearfish, S.D., said the other day. “But basically, it’s just a challenge. I’ve been pushing limits for a long time. . . . We are all capable of something to test our limits. I chose marathons to be my venue.”

Dunn, who ran his first marathon in Philadelphia in 1982, chose the double-century figure for 2000 as a way of upping the ante of his –or anybody else’s, for that matter — previous single-year best of 104, set in 1993. That earlier watershed mark came about as Dunn was trying to work his way through a minor crisis.

“That was the year I turned 47, the same age as my father when he died of a heart attack,” Dunn said. “When I got past that scary moment . . . I decided to run 104 marathons.”

It wasn’t the first time Dunn has used long-distance running to help him battle personal demons.

“I’m a recovering alcoholic; I’ve been sober for 17 years,” he said. “Running has pretty much saved me from that lifestyle. I’ve been accused of being an addicted runner, but I’ve substituted an addiction that is more healthy than alcohol or drugs.”

One would think that running 5,240 miles in little more than 11 months — Dunn hopes to hit marathon No. 200 on December 10 in Honolulu — would put enormous stress on Dunn’s 6-foot, 153-pound middle-age body, but he says save for some inconsequential aches and pains, he has been relatively injury- free throughout his running career, which dates to 1976.

Photos by VINCE MAGGIORA / The Chronicle
Photos by VINCE MAGGIORA / The Chronicle

“I’ve had a lot of turned ankles and had some shin problems when I crossed the country in ’91 (a solo run from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. that consumed 104 days),” Dunn said. “But I’ve had no chronic pain. Whenever something minor has happened, I’ve tended to it (medically) as best as I could. Sometimes I’ll run right through them.

“I’ve been blessed with a gift that I am able to do this. Not everyone could.”
Although the strain of all this pavement pounding has been fairly negligible on his body, it hasn’t been as smooth sailing with his personal life. Dunn says his wife of five years, Elaine Doll-Dunn (whom he met at the ’93 Mount Rushmore Marathon and married at the ’95 Disney World Marathon), has some doubts about his quest and it has affected their marriage somewhat.

“This definitely put a strain on our relationship, and it has taken an effort to maintain that relationship,” he said. “But although Elaine is not whole-heartedly behind this, she is still my biggest fan. I’m fortunate she doesn’t put more pressure on me. . . . She understands all this.”

The reason for Doll-Dunn’s empathy is that she, too, is a marathoner, and will join her husband for Sunday’s race, her 12th marathon of the year, as she did last year.

“This will be our 32nd marathon together,” he said. “We vowed (at their wedding) that if we started a marathon together, we would finish it together. We stick together because we promised we would.”

Although Dunn is on a record pace for numbers of marathon courses run, course-record times are hardly a factor; he usually finishes races and prerace runs both in a tad under five hours. “I’m not a competitive runner,” he said. “My best time ever was 3 hours, 23 minutes in Chicago in 1983, and I’ll never see that again.”

Though Dunn never finishes in the money, he is making a living from all this footwork: He is sponsored by several sports nutrition firms and says he’ll “make about $25,000-$30,000 this year, a little bit past the break-even point.”

“It’s a way to make a living,” said Dunn, who also picks up some change as a massage therapist. “I’m not only running, running, running, I’m running a business (he has incorporated himself). . . . Some marathoners like Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers are living on the reputation of being fast; I’m living on the reputation of being durable, tenacious.”

And the possibilities, he believes, are limitless.

“This may be way out of the ordinary,” he said of his quest, “but I’m actually doing something I have a passion for. . . . And my goal (after this year) is to continue to make marathon running my life.

“This is an adventure for me; my life is focused on it.”