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“I pitched, again, to Jessi, the idea of ‘Let’s go even bigger and do five marathons a week for one calendar year around New York City,’” Varley, 38, of Brooklyn, recalled to TODAY. “She said I was crazy.”
But after some thought the couple plotted a way to accomplish their “bigger” idea. Varley would walk 26.2 miles, a full marathon, five days a week while Jessi walked 26.2 miles three times weekly from June 2020 to June 2021. On their final day of walking marathons, they got married, in part, because walking reinforced their love for each other.
“It allowed us to identify that we wanted to be together as official partners,” Varley said. “It’s like ‘Wow, this is great to be together in this context and I’m realizing I’m struggling with a partner in a good way, in a healthy way and we could do this for the rest of our lives.’”
From vacation walks to daily marathons
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Varley and Highet went on three vacations where they walked. The first one took them from San Diego to Los Angeles, the second was a trek up the length of Vermont and the third was hike from the Pacific Coast to Olympia, Washington. While they trained before their vacations, they learned most of the preparation was emotional.
“So much of it is mental and knowing that you can do that distance,” Highet, 31, of Brooklyn, told TODAY. “It was mostly learning that we could do it and putting one foot in front of the other.”
For the vacation walks and then later the year of marathons, the couple took most of the day to walk. Knowing that they were spending the day with one goal - walking a marathon - kept them motivated, too.
“When you have the whole day to walk a certain distance and that’s all you’re doing that day you really end up just focusing and taking as many breaks as you need and eventually making it happen before the day is over,” Highet explained.
The couple didn’t experience any injuries but they did face some extremely hot days, blizzards and rain. Having the other person with them made it easier to navigate tough conditions.
“To get motivated to do that, for me at least, was just having each other to hold us accountable,” Highet said. “We said we were going to do this, so we were going to keep doing it. And we did. We did agree as well if there was anything that felt too dangerous we would not continue.”
When they first started, the couple noticed they took short breaks every six miles or so.
“Usually by halfway throughout the day or maybe mile 15, I would start feeing very tired and I’d need slightly longer breaks, like maybe 10 minutes instead of five to sit down and stretch and drink some water and have a snack,” Highet said. “By three months or so we didn’t really need to take breaks.”
Varley tracked all their information in a spreadsheet and he noticed how quickly their habits changed.
“At the beginning, we were getting up really early out of survival/necessity because first of all we started in summer. So it was hot,” Varley said. “We’d get up at 4:30 to get the walks in and then also that was when like the full energy or our endurance and our diligence (was).”
But they also weren’t sure how their bodies would react to all that walking and wanted to make sure they had enough time to complete their marathons. Though they quickly adapted.
“The time got faster, the walks became easier, we rested less, but at the same time our drive to get up earlier every day was less needed,” Varley said. “We settled into a more common routine.”
The “official average day was 10 and a half hours,” but they noted that they started a podcast and the time often included them meeting a guest and recording, which could add two hours to their walks. As they continued, they learned they didn’t need to stretch as much and they didn’t feel as exhausted after their marathons.
“At first it definitely felt like, ‘Oh my gosh, are we going to be able to make this happen the whole year, every day? I am so tired at the end of the day,’” Highet said. “We both take with us as a lesson how much your body and your mind and everything can acclimate to what you’re asking yourself to do.”
They kept themselves entertained with themed marathons
They used their marathons to see different parts of New York’s five boroughs and even had some favorite marathons, such as one that included a visit to all the graveyards near Queens, a museum marathon and a Seinfeld marathon.
“My favorite is one of the more odd walks I would say, but it was all the bridges that cross from Manhattan to the Bronx,” Varley said. “It’s about 13 or 14 bridges.”
They often peppered each other with facts about what they experienced on their walks and in this case they learned about how historical New Yorkers felt about the bridges, which many don’t give much thought to today.
“There’s another bridge right next to Yankee Stadium that has a history of people not liking the bridge so they would go and attack with axes,” Highet said. “(I liked) learning very bizarre moments of history about something we, at this point in 2020, just completely take for granted as a way to get across water.”
The final marathon? A wedding walk
The couple got married on the last day of their project and they invited friends to join at different parts of it. They were married in South Brooklyn’s Marine Park and had “mini receptions” along the way. Highet wore a wedding dress, which she made, and Varley wore linen pants and a dress shirt. Guests wondered if they’d have to walk 26.2 miles on the couple’s special day.
“We were met with some quizzical looks. Mostly people were worried about what they were supposed to wear because they wanted to look nice for the wedding, of course, but they also wanted to be comfortable for the walking portion,” Highet said. “Some people were scared that they were going to have to walk a whole marathon.”
Halfway through, they had a stop at a bar with food and drinks and then began walking again at 2 p.m. before meeting their guests at another bar for the reception.
“We walked solo the last three miles up to the wedding and then from there we had a second reception,” Varley said. “Once people realized that we were still allowing them to do their main job at a wedding, which is just to provide unconditional love for the bride and the groom … it all made sense to them.”
Life after marathon walking
At times the couple finds themselves missing the marathon walks, but they also realized it was not something they could sustain for a long period of time. They appreciate what they learned about themselves along the way.
I learned ... his ability to say he’s going to do something and follow through and commit to that.”
said Jessi Highet
“I can really do more than I would think I can when it comes to physical exertion and learning how much of a mental power it is more than even a physical power - and that applies to a lot of different aspects of my life,” Highet said. “I learned, I think I already knew this about Mike, but it definitely was confirmed, his ability to say he’s going to do something and follow through and commit to that.”
Varley said their walks bolstered his wellbeing in ways he might not have expected.
“To be able to have that low level endorphin rush of treating your body with care and being with somebody you care about, it’s just a really gratifying, soothing, enriching experience,” Varley said.