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Ashway: He’s not your ordinary Joe
Denton Ashway

Joe Huber isn’t your average Joe. But he used to be.

Up until the age of 32, he was a three-pack-a-day smoker. Huber was able to kick the smoking habit, but he gained 30 pounds. Pick-up basketball games didn’t provide enough exercise to offset his new eating regimen. Being a senior executive for various nonprofit agencies didn’t help, either.

Then, one day in 1985, he was visiting the Hamptons. His sister-in-law tossed out the idea of going on a three-mile run. She quit after those three miles. But Huber kept running. He logged five miles, and then ran five the next day.

He hasn’t stopped running since. “It was fun,” Huber told Steve Lipman of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 2013. “It was a beautiful day, and I wanted to get in shape. I found out that I loved to run!”

On May 22, Huber, 71, ran the Cleveland Marathon. He finished in 5:10.02, and 11:50 per mile pace. He finished in 807th place overall but was fifth of nine in his age group. Even more amazing, it ran his total number of completed marathons to 138.

Take a moment and try to wrap your mind around that number. From three-packs-a-day to 138 marathons. I’ve heard about substituting one addiction for another, but Huber has taken the concept to an entirely different level.

“Marathoning has made me a more confident person in life because I know I’m doing something that a fraction of people on this earth can — or even want — to do,” Huber told Runner’s World’s Theo Kahler earlier this month. “I think of myself in most ways as an ordinary Joe, but marathoning has really made me feel special.”

Huber once got hired for a new job because of his running. The hiring partner figured anyone dedicated enough to run so many marathons would be dedicated to his work. And the confidence Huber’s gained from running has helped him cope with adversity in other parts of his life. “Life is a series of long runs,” Huber told Lipman.

One of his early running buddies was training for the Boston Marathon, so Huber decided to join him. He jumped into the race without formally entering, known to runners as “banditing,” and even received a medal at the finish line. But the feeling of euphoria he felt after the race hooked him for life. “The sense of achievement I got out of the first one I still get,” he told Kahler.

Despite a generation of advances in running gear, since ’92 Huber has run in a gray t-shirt bearing the slogan, “A Marathoner’s Strongest Muscle Is His Heart.” On the back is listed every marathon he has completed.

And that’s every marathon he’s ever run. From New York to Boston to Los Angeles; in London, Stockholm and Prague. He’s run the New Jersey Marathon 14 times, his most-repeated race.

“I have slow-twitch muscles,” he told Liz Robbins in her New York Times blog in 2010. “You don’t go very fast, but you keep going! I’ve hit the wall. I’ve said, ‘I can’t do eight more miles.’ It’s one of the things of the marathon; every one is its own adventure, its own challenge. And you never know you’re going to complete it until you get to the finish line.”

Huber’s favorite marathon remains New York, which he’s run nine times. “I’m a New Yorker,” he told Robbins. “I grew up in the Bronx. Went to City College. The crowds in New York, there’s nothing like it. I have an ear-to-ear grin from start to finish when I run in New York. There’s so much to see. The best word I can use to describe it is surreal. You almost feel hypnotized, like you’re running on air.”

While the heart may be the marathoner’s strongest muscle, Huber’s let him down last November. He was feeling overly winded after workouts. “It happened suddenly and inexplicably,” he told Kahler. “It took me by total surprise.”

Huber was diagnosed with three heart conditions: sick sinus syndrome, in which the body’s natural pacemaker is unable to produce a consistent heartbeat; chronotropic incompetence, where the heart can’t produce a high enough heartrate during exercise; and cardiomyopathy, which makes it hard for the heart to pump blood throughout the body.

“I was so healthy,” Huber told Kahler. “I’d never had anything worse than a pulled hamstring in my life. [Not running] made me very sad, as it’s such an integral part of who I am.”

Shunning initial recommendations of a defibrillator and pacemaker, Huber sought out a sports cardiologist. His recommendation of medication alone worked and kept Huber running. Right through Cleveland, and now off to the Hamptons, Hartford, Philadelphia, and Palm Beach.

“If I don’t enjoy it, or I can’t do it, I’ll stop,” Huber told Kahler. “But until those two things coincide, I’ll keep marathoning.

“Because I love it!”