It took the fictional character Phileas Fogg 80 days to travel around the world. Dr. Jessica Jones managed to crush that pace by running seven marathons in seven days on seven continents.
The accomplishment was part of the World Marathon Challenge. This had competitors cover the traditional 26.2-mile distance in Antarctica, Africa, Australia/Oceania, Asia, Europe, South America and North America within 168 hours.
“I started thinking about it five years ago,” said Jones, a supervisory microbiologist at the Food and Drug Administration laboratory on Dauphin Island. “A guy I worked with had a niece who was the first American woman to do it in 2015. That got stuck in my head. Then two years ago I said, ‘I am going to do it.’”
The 42-year-old Jones grew up in Indiana, but came south to run track and cross-country at Troy University. She eventually arrived in Mobile to attend the University of South Alabama (USA), where she earned both a master’s degree and her doctorate.
It was in November 2013 when she competed in her first marathon. She had run in shorter 5K and 10K races by that time, but was inspired following the Boston Marathon bombing to go the longer distance.
“It was in Pensacola,” Jones said. “I did OK with a time of 3 hours and 45 minutes. Not bad for a starting marathon.”
Jones said she was hooked on the challenge at that point.
“Crossing the finish line was an incredible feeling,” she said. “It was a culmination of so many things.”
Now with the world challenge, she has completed 46 marathons.
“I am trying to run a marathon in all 50 states,” she said. “I have done 24 states, so I am almost halfway.”
Preparing for the challenge was a major undertaking. In 2018, she hired a coach to help her prepare. Not just any instructor, but ultra-marathon legend Mike Wardian of Arlington, Virginia.
“He is a two-time winner of the World Marathon Challenge,” Jones said. “He is also the male record-holder. I chose wisely.”
She was running 70 miles a week to prepare. Jones, who stands 5-foot-3 and weighs 109 pounds, became a familiar sight along the roads, earning the nickname “Island Bridge Runner.”
On Dauphin Island, where Bienville Boulevard stretches just over seven miles, Jones, her husband, Ron, and their three dogs went for long runs every day. This was scheduled around her work at the Gulf Coast Seafood Laboratory.
In her final tuneup, Jones entered the Mobile Marathon in January. Part of the course ran through the USA campus, where she completed her Ph.D. in microbiology in 2009. She eventually made her way back downtown and won the women’s division with a time of 3 hours, 10 minutes and 31 seconds.
The World Marathon Challenge was set to begin February 6 within the Antarctic Circle. However, officials were forced to alter the plans.
“We moved around because of weather,” Jones said. “We ended up running in Cape Town, South Africa, first. I was the second female with a time of 3:19, so I was off to a good start.”
A flight south to Novo, Antarctica, soon followed.
“Antarctica was so ridiculous,” Jones said. “The race director said the weather forecast was mild. [The temperature] was in the teens with the wind 40 to 50 mph.
“The wind chill was below zero. It was the toughest weather conditions ever. I am used to heat living here, but that was the toughest conditions I’ve ever run in. My time of 4:24 was the slowest I’ve ever run.”
The third leg, though, was an improvement. The competitors landed next in Perth, Australia.
“This was my favorite place I went to,” Jones said. “It was nice weather and the people were fantastic. It was the best experience of seven marathons, and I had a time of 3:17.”
For the Asian continent, the race made it to Dubai.
“It was pretty good, but it was the first race where my body felt the accumulation of races,” Jones said. “I was the second female with a time between 3:19 and 3:20, which was still within my goal range.”
The European stop was in Madrid, Spain.
“It was pretty neat,” said Jones, who finished in 3:23. “The weather was nice and cool, say the mid-40s.
“We ran on a Formula One track at night. The Perth, Dubai and Cape Town races were also at night because of the heat and schedule. We couldn’t stay too long after the race and had to move to the next place.”
The first daytime race was in Fortaleza, Brazil.
“It was hot, humid and sunny,” said Jones, who turned in a time of 3:38. “It was like being here in late July or August. I kind of liked it, getting closer to home.”
The final race took place in Miami.
“We started before sunup on South Beach,” Jones said. “We saw the sun rise over the Atlantic. It was the last race, so I was excited. I finished the final leg in 3:32.”
Of the 36 runners who started the quest, all but one finished. A male runner was injured in Brazil and was unable to continue.
“There was a whole range of emotions,” Jones said. “The accomplishment of doing it with a decent time. The experience of all the people I met, who were all out there for different reasons but all with a common goal. I will be friends with some for many years to come.”
For Jones’ efforts, she finished second overall. The only person with a better collective time was another woman: Kristina Madsen of Denmark, who won the Antarctica marathon outright and went on to claim top honors.
“I was the second woman overall,” Jones said. “Kristina won. I knew of her. She ran last year and was the second female.
“Winning would have been great, but second overall is pretty incredible. Some really good men were there, too. I got beat by men in individual races, but my consistency and preparations paid off.”
Jones admits she would not mind entering the World Marathon Challenge again, but under different financial conditions.
“I had no sponsors,” she said. “I would do it again if I didn’t have to pay. It was probably close to $45,000. That covered the entry fee, but I had to reach Cape Town and get a hotel. Everything was covered to Miami, but then I needed a room there and to travel back home.”
Many athletes would take a break from such an adventure. Not so for Jones.
“I am running the Boston Marathon in April,” she said. “And I am signed up for my first 100-mile race, in North Alabama, called the Pinhoti.”
Until then, she will just be the woman everyone sees running across the Dauphin Island Bridge.
“It was really weird getting home,” Jones said. “So many people from the local area followed the races on Facebook. I have so many friend requests now on Facebook. When I got back to the island, they would stop me when running and offer congratulations. It was really a bit different.”
During the races, Jones kept her fans updated through social media. Videos and photos are available on her Instagram page, @islandbridgerunner.
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