No toenails, no problem: Virginia Lee running strong after 30 marathons

Old friends are surprised to hear Virginia Lee has run one marathon, never mind 30.

Virginia Lee has run 30 marathons – so far – including the most recent Toronto Waterfront Marathon, which looped through the Beach. PHOTO: Krista Corbeil
Virginia Lee has run 30 marathons – so far – including the most recent Toronto Waterfront Marathon, which looped through the Beach.
PHOTO: Krista Corbeil

As a girl, Lee says her older sister was the sporty one – she taught aerobics at a community centre near their home in Chinatown.

But it was while cheering her sister from the sidelines that Lee got her first glimpse of long-distance running.

It was Run for the ROM, a 24-hour relay where teams pitch tents on a University of Toronto field, eat a mass breakfast, then run a loop around the U of T campus and museum until it’s time for breakfast again.

“I remember that very clearly,” Lee said. “It was just neat to be around runners.”

“I never thought I’d be one of them.”

Lee was already in her late 20s when she started running track for fun.

At the time, she was commuting from her home at Gerrard and Greenwood to Holt Renfrew and starting to get serious about fitness training, dashing to a big indoor gym at Bay and Bloor on her lunch breaks and before and after work.

That’s when Manny Godhino, a work friend who happened to be a marathon winner, pushed Lee to try a 10-km race.

She enjoyed it, and with Godhino’s advice, she trained up to a 21-km half marathon a year later.

By 2000, when she ran her first Toronto Waterfront Marathon, Lee was already planning a new career as a personal fitness trainer.

Although fitness training sounds like a perfect match for marathons, Lee says it’s not always easy to squeeze it all in — she once ran a marathon and went straight to leading a five-hour workout.

“I was in my 20s then,” she said, laughing. “I don’t know if I’d do that now.”

At 40, Lee has run marathons in Burlington, Mississauga, Maui and Honolulu, plus several more in Toronto, where she posted her personal best time of 3:42.

She ran her last two, this year’s 40,000-person strong Chicago Marathon and her 30th marathon here in Toronto, just one week apart.

“My goal right now is to finish 50 by 50,” she said, noting that she has shifted her training style to run two or three marathons a year.

“I’m on a good pace.”

But even now, as Lee looks to future marathons in Paris, on all the Hawaiian islands and the Great Wall of China, Lee said she doesn’t quite fit the marathon type.

“I hate winter,” she admits. “I feel like a fraud, because everybody else loves running outside and I’m like, ‘It’s cold out!’”

Lee also said her fitness training still leaves just three days a week to run – not much in the marathon world.

On that score, Rick Rayman, who Lee met by chance in one of her early marathons after meeting him at Holt Renfrew, sets the bar for everyone.

“He has run every day since December 10, 1978,” Lee said.

At 67, the dentist and U of T professor was finishing his 300th marathon the same day Lee was doing her 30th.

“He’s incredible – a different type of runner altogether.”

Lee goes through four pairs of running shoes a year (“I’m a devout Asics girl”), and probably has just 40 per cent of her toenails thanks to “black toe,” a common runner’s issue where toenails turn black and fall off in hard training.

Still, next to Rayman, Lee said she barely considers herself a runner given all her fitness training.

But while it might have held her back before, since shifting to multiple marathons a year rather than aiming for one at top form, Lee said her gym work is a big reason—besides lucky genes—that she is still injury-free.

In early marathons, she said, “I was seeing pictures of myself finishing races with my head cocked back and my knees everywhere.”

“You don’t realize you run like that until you catch yourself in a bad finisher’s picture,” she said.

Many runners skip full-body training, she explained, not realizing it’s your back muscles that drive your elbows back and keep your posture steady for a whole four-hour race.

Lee’s next goal might be her first indoor marathon. But she is still mulling it over, given that it means 105 laps around a York University track.

“I really have to decide whether I’m going to be able to be in hamster mode that long,” she said.

Chicago was bigger and Maui more scenic, but Lee says no matter how many times she runs it, the Toronto Waterfront Marathon has an unbeatable perk.

“It’s the only race I’ve done where you’ll see the elite athletes,” she said.

Because the Toronto race loops back in places like Queen St. East and Beech Avenue, she explained, everyone gets to see top runners like Deressa Chimsa of Ethiopia, who set a course record of 2:07:05 this year.

“It’s a privilege,” she said. “It’s so great to see.”

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