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A Charlotte woman ran marathons in 50 states

For 20 years, a group of African American female walkers and runners called the Ebony Eagles have met on Saturdays in Charlotte to hit the streets and run towards their individual goals — together. Group co-founder Debbie Smith's goal was to run a marathon in every state, and this weekend in Hawaii, she accomplished that milestone. She earned her 50-state finisher medal this weekend in Maui, Hawaii.

Smith, a cancer therapist, wife and mother of three says she has run a total of 64 marathons, and this weekend's in Maui was the crown jewel for her.

Debbie Smith: It was the big one, you know, the one that I have been looking forward to for a while, because I said, "once I finish the 50 states, I'm going to retire from running." Unlike some athletes, they keep on going until they start hurting themselves, I'm leaving on a high note. So it was exciting. It was hillier than it was described, and I don't like hills, but the scenery, of course, was beautiful. We saw whales, we saw the water. You're running on the side of the road. The first three hours we were in the dark, so we had headlamps. It started so early because in Hawaii, of course, it gets really warm. So the race, the marathon actually started at 5. And for people older than 55, you could start at 4:40 in the morning.


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Gwendolyn Glenn: What was going through your head knowing that this is the last one?

Smith: Oh, I was excited. And I knew — there were 36 people that traveled with me. So runners in the group, family, friends and friends of friends. I knew that at the end they were all going to be there so that was a little emotional.

Glenn: And they were there at the finish line?

Smith: Yes, they were — with their shirts on.

Glenn: What did the shirts say?

Smith: Debbie did it! 50th state marathon finisher.

Courtesy Debbie Smith
Smith's 50 medals from 50 states, with her '50 State Finisher' medal in the middle

Glenn: Wow, so what got you into running? And why did you — when did you decide, "OK, I'm going to do all 50 states?"

Smith: I have three children. And at the time that I started running, my youngest was two years old. And with the first two, I had natural deliveries and bounced back. The third one was an emergency C-section. Two years later, I still had a pouch. And so I saw a friend at the Y and I said — I was going to be 38 and she was going to be 40 — so I said, "Hey, why don't we run and train for a 5K? And she was like, OK, we'll do it. So she came like the first few days, and then she ghosted me, I never saw her again.

So I got some more friends and they had agreed to train with me for a 5K here in Charlotte. So after we finished that 5K, there was somebody we knew who was training and she was doing the marathon. And we were just going to hand out waters and cheer for our friend coming in. So while we were waiting, we saw all these runners, different ages, different sizes. And so when I saw that, I was like, "I think I want to try that." So after that race, after that 5K, I started running.

I was introduced to a couple of people who had run marathons before and someone suggested that I join a group called the Jeff Galloway Running Group. He's a former Olympian and his training is a walk/run. But they train you the entire distance, you know, the build up. So I joined that group and that was in October of 2003. That group went to the Marine Corps Marathon in D.C., Virginia. And so I did my first marathon. I met someone in that group who was African American, and we were talking about how we didn't see many people of color running. We decided it would be great if we started a running program for women, particularly women of color, but any female could join.

And we started the group, but the only stipulation was that it was free. So that would not be a barrier for anyone. So we started running May of 2004. We started a group called the Ebony Eagles.

Glenn: So you formed this group. And when did you say — decide "I want to do every state." Tell me about that.

Smith: We had decided as a group we would run and train for one race a year. I think the first place we went was Chicago. Well, two ladies in the group, they were like going every weekend, running races. And they were telling me that they were going to try to run a marathon in all 50 states. And there was this club called the 50 State Marathon Club, and you had to run ten marathons in ten different states before you could join the club. And I think I was at seven.

Glenn: OK, so you got your 10 and then you joined the club?

Smith: Mm-hmm.

Glenn: Any marathon was more memorable than another? Any that really stands out for you?

Smith: Yes. Marshall University Marathon is in West Virginia for two reasons. I used to go to West Virginia in the summers to visit my grandparents, and that race is actually one where I qualified for Boston.

Glenn: And what year did you do Boston?

Smith: I did Boston in 2016 and 2018.

Glenn: What's been your best time?

Smith: 3:56. That's a pretty good time. But I don't run that anymore. I was running that to qualify for Boston. To me, when you run fast like that, you are concentrating on your time, I don't enjoy the run. I am a mindful runner. I am looking at nature, the houses, the different people. I really soak in the moment.

Courtesy Debbie Smith
Smith's '50 State Finisher' medal.

Glenn: What do you say to other African-Americans to get more involved in this sport?

Smith: In 2003, there wasn't a lot. Since then, there are a lot more. Black Girls run is a group that really got nationally known in getting Black women moving. The National Black Marathon Association, they have a lot of runners. Black Men Run is a group. We have several groups in Charlotte -- Purple Butterflies, Soul Sisters. So there are other groups now, which is wonderful because what we know is it's all about our health. So I always encourage people, if you don't run, walk. Start slow, take it easy, your race, your pace.

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Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.