Marianna Zaikova became the first woman in history to run seven marathons, in seven days, on seven different continents. Just let that superhuman feat sink in for a moment …
As one of the twelve competitors in the inaugural World Marathon Challenge in January 2015, Marianna completed 183.4 miles over 168 hours of nothing but running and traveling (and trying to sleep and refuel in between every race).
In need of restored faith in human strength, I knew I had to speak to Marianna. She recounted how at one point in the challenge, the pain was so extreme that it forced her to pause and break down in tears. Awestruck, I asked her how or why she would put herself through such a painful challenge, and Marianna stated, “I never asked myself why. Every physical challenge changes me as a person.”
Perhaps even crazier is the fact that Marianna does not consider herself a professional runner and rather calls running her favorite hobby. The Finnish 30-year-old has had no technical training and simply decided to start running marathons in 2009 right after a five-week cycling trip, which prompted her to seek more challenges. Even now, Marianna doesn’t stick to a training regiment. Her exercise consists of whatever physical activity she feels like doing at the time whether it’s running, cycling, swimming, whatever.
Since her first marathon, Marianna fell in love with running and how it is always an option – anywhere, any time. In fact, she is currently promoting a year-long running challenge to inspire people in Finland to become more active and achieve healthier weight goals. Marianna recently shifted her career away from public relations to sports business and opened a health center near Helsinki, Finland, where she currently lives.
Additionally, Marianna appreciates how running connects her with nature. Her motivation to run marathons stems from her hunger for adventure and her commitment to live life fully. Marianna warns against the mindset of “I’ll be happy when…” and urges those around her to be ferocious go-getters. She pointed out that children are always running around exploring with friends, but as adults, they lose sight of their curious former selves and don’t seek out new experiences as much. Chuckling a bit, Marianna said, “The more adventure there is [in a race], the bigger my appetite is to go there.”
And go there she did. The 2015 World Marathon Challenge consisted of one marathon per day in Union Glacier (Antarctica), Punta Arenas (Chile), Miami (USA), Madrid (Spain), Marrakech (Morocco), Dubai (United Arab Emirates), and Sydney (Australia). Yet, casually making history is not even Marianna’s biggest takeaway. She explained, “It was amazing opportunity to be a part of that race because I’m not a professional runner. So, I showed women around the world that you don’t have to be a pro athlete – you still can do it…I hope many women believe that they really can make it because I did it, too. I really appreciate and am thankful to organizer Richard Donovan for giving me opportunity to have the last spot in the World Marathon Challenge.”
Marianna shared many of the details and struggles of the World Marathon Challenge but none so harrowing as her breaking point. Her mistake was altering her running style during the marathon in Miami because the change led to excruciating heel and leg pain throughout the remaining four marathons. During the sixth leg of the trip in Dubai, Marianna could not take one more step and collapsed crying only a third of the way into the marathon. She looked up to see that every single one of the other competitors had stopped to be at her side and encouraged her to get back up and finish. Marianna realized in that moment that the twelve of them were family, and she found the strength to push onward.
“I don’t think that I have a concrete moment to be proud of, but I am proud that I have never quit any race even when it was mentally hard,” Marianna told me. She claimed that imagining herself crossing the finish line is the most vital preparation before any race, and she also said that the key is to never create fear. Marianna used the word “create” because she believes fear is just a negative state of mind that people choose to buy into.
What Marianna didn’t know was that her story came to me in a moment of need, full of pain and fear of my own. Her final note in our conversation before we said our goodbyes meant more to me than she even realized: “You can always push yourself through the pain. It doesn’t matter if it’s physical or mental – you can handle it.”
After having the privilege of speaking with Marianna, who is down to earth and exudes positive energy, I hope her determination to seek adventure, push past limits, and choose happiness is wildly contagious.