Don Kern is putting the finishing touches on a book about achieving the Guinness World Record for completing a marathon on each continent in the shortest amount of time. Photo by Michael Buck
Don Kern has run marathons on all seven continents — not just once but four times each, and he is on his way to making that five. As if that is not impressive enough, in 2011, Kern achieved the Guinness World Record for completing a marathon on each continent in the shortest time: 25 days, 18 hours and 10 minutes.
In total, Kern has run more than 238 marathons since 1995 when he entered his first in Chicago. He has run marathons in all 50 states and in numerous cities around the globe, including at the North and South Poles. He counts his total mileage as more than 23,000 miles.
His friends call him Marathon Don, and his love of the sport has gone from a hobby to a career: He is the executive director of Grand Rapids Marathon, which he started 10 years ago, and the Groundhog Marathon, debuting next month.
He said that what might be the most interesting thing about his running achievements is that he never has considered himself much of an athlete. In fact, while attending Chippewa Hills High School, he earned his varsity letter on the debate team.
“I’m not the fastest,” he said. “I’m just an ordinary guy.”
He notes that his personal best is three hours, 55 minutes and 54 seconds, which he achieved in 2004 in Traverse City. When he signs up for a run, he isn’t there to compete with other runners; he’s there to compete with himself and challenge his limits.
Kern’s passion for marathon running began when his daughter, Katie, was on the track team, and he started running with her at the start of the season. Soon, he was competing in his first marathon and lining up a trip to Antarctica to run in another.
“I found out in 1995 they did a marathon in Antarctica and I signed up for the one in 1997. It was a no brainer: Where do I send my money?” He said the trip was life changing in many ways, one of the biggest being the enduring friendships that came out of it.
“I met a lot of people, some I still keep in touch with on a regular basis. One is one of my best friends now.”
Running is also how he met his fiancée, Francine Robinson, also a marathon runner.
Kern notes that “marathon tourism,” as it’s called, is a great way to dip your feet into world travel because it is an opportunity to meet likeminded people and build enduring friendships, and there is a built-in support system from the organization running the trip, which also includes various structured activities. In fact, on one such trip, Kern took up the sport of mountain climbing.
“I started climbing mountains because I got involved with the Mount Kilimanjaro Marathon. In 1998, I went to Africa, we climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, and then the day after that we ran a marathon in Tanzania.”
He is on a mission to climb the highest points in all 50 states and has already reached the top of 41 of them. The trip to Africa was one of the most exciting because Kern climbed the mountain with his son.
“Pretty freakin' awesome,” he said of that experience. “I never had experiences like that with my parents growing up. There just weren't the resources to do such things. It was exciting to have my kids have experiences that I didn't have.”
Kern said when he was growing up, his parents didn’t have the amount of free time a lot of people have today. One of the reasons he thinks participation in marathon running has grown substantially is because people have more free time for hobbies and are looking for ways to challenge themselves in a society where everything is at their fingertips.
“We used to have to make a trip to the library to find something out. Now we pull out our phone and say, ‘How do you spell whatever’ or ‘What’s the definition of this?’ I don’t even have to type, I can ask.”
When Kern is not running marathons or climbing mountains, he is busy planning his two local marathon events or managing the West Michigan Snowshoe Series races. He also has taken on the side businesses of measuring race courses and renting out the equipment he has accumulated to other race organizers.
Grand Rapids Marathon has grown substantially since its first year. In 2011, 4,400 participants filled the streets of downtown for the October run. Kern expects his new Groundhog Marathon to attract 500 runners on Saturday, Feb. 2.
“It’s a fun industry,” he said.
After graduating college, Kern spent a year teaching math and speech at Martin Public Schools. Following that, he landed in the computer technology field.
“My first mentor was Bob Loesch, a high school speech teacher who taught me about public speaking, theater, and was just an all-around good guy,” he said.
“I worked for Bill Coleman, who was an early pioneer in the rent-to-own industry, as he grew from one store to 19 in the 1980s. He put me in charge of the computer systems and was largely responsible for me ending up in the computer field.”
Kern said he considers getting fired his biggest career break.
“Probably when I walked into work on Jan. 4, 1986, and found out that the branch office of Qantel Business Computers, who I worked for all of 1985, had been sold and they fired all of us. That's when I went to work with a small group of guys doing programming support.”
He largely gave up his onsite customer support and programming business during the last few years as Grand Rapids Marathon became a full-time job.
Kern is a board member for nonprofit organization Alternatives in Motion.
“Alternatives in Motion provides wheelchairs to people who can't get them through their insurance companies. On a shoestring budget, we get donations of used powered wheelchairs and then place them with those who need them. Last year we were able to help 125 people with the gift of mobility.”
He is also busy putting the finishing touches on a book about his journey to achieve that Guinness World Record, which has since been usurped by another runner.
“The working title is “And the Adventure Continues” because that is how I always sign my emails, but it’s really about how ordinary people can do amazing things.”
It took him three attempts before he was able to complete his goal. Another runner foiled his first attempt by finishing faster, and the second time bad weather did him in.
Kern is the type of guy who doesn’t give up, no matter what the challenges. He also has a lot of goals.
“I was always motivated, and perhaps you could say goal oriented,” he said. “My biggest goal right now is to see a total solar eclipse on each of the seven continents. But that's just the biggest one. There are a lot of things on my bucket list.”
During his interview with the Business Journal, Kern paused to watch a news report about a couple of boys hanging from a tree in the midst of a river. “They’re going to have a great story to tell,” he said, clearly reveling in life’s many opportunities for adventure and how the best stories sometimes happen when things don’t go as planned.