Around the World in 26.2 Miles

Tony Nelson

For good reason, the Twin Cities Marathon bills itself as "the most beautiful urban marathon in America." The course winds around Minneapolis's city lakes, Minnehaha Creek and the Mississippi River, two downtowns, and dozens of neighborhoods dappled with rich colors of autumn. And, most years at least, there are no dead horses on the side of the road.

The same thing cannot be said of Easter Island, where Nissa Larson ran a marathon last year. Decomposing herbivores are hardly the only oddities she has encountered in her prolific running career. In Kenya, she huffed and puffed as giraffes looked on. In Antarctica--yes, there is a marathon in Antarctica--she trudged on a torn-up dirt path with penguins as her witnesses.

Strangely enough, the 27-year-old Golden Valley native has yet to run a marathon in North America. That will change on Sunday when Larson competes in the 24th annual Twin Cities Marathon. Assuming she crosses the finish line, the feat will earn her a peculiar honor: Nissa Larson will become the youngest person to complete a marathon on all seven continents.

"Something crazy has happened in every one," Larson says, as she nips at an iced mocha and nibbles on a muffin at Java Jack's coffee shop in south Minneapolis, near mile 10 of the race. "In Kenya, the U.S. embassy had closed and we flew into Uganda and then got on an unmarked plane because of terrorist threats on British Airways. In Nepal, there was the whole problem of their king dying and the Maoists and everything, and our embassy was closed there, too. But I look at it as: I could die here, I could die anywhere, so why not go? You don't better yourself by not seeing something."

A runner since 7th grade, Larson was on the cross-country team at St. Mary's College in Winona. The year after she graduated, in 2000, she ran the New Zealand marathon. In 2002, she made the trip to Antarctica. That's where she first heard about "this quest," and something called "the Seven Continent Club." Later that year, she ran Sweden. Just like that, she had three continents under her belt. In 2003, it was Kenya. In 2004, Easter Island. This February, she ran Nepal.

"People think I'm a trust-funder or something," Larson notes. She's not. Her father is a tax consultant, her mother a registered nurse. To finance her globe-trotting, she has worked a staggering variety of jobs--everything from pulling staples from packets for Target to pricing beads for the local jewelry boutique the Bead Monkey to coaching cross-country and track at Armstrong High School.

Her wanderlust is not driven purely by a desire to run exotic marathons. Over the years, she has backpacked across Europe twice, driven across the United States twice, and studied abroad. "I think you appreciate home more when you're elsewhere," she offers. "I studied international business at school, and when I got out, I realized if I got a job with a company, I would be in a cubicle somewhere for the first 10 years of my career. The idea of having two weeks' paid vacation a year was beyond anything I could ever comprehend.

"So I decided I would rather work 30 different jobs but have the flexibility and the ability to say, 'I'm going somewhere' than be tied down to a cubicle, sitting in traffic, hating the world. So I found running, and I found this. It gives you an excuse to say, 'I'm going.'"

Larson's fastest time came in New Zealand, where she finished at the 3:41.24 mark. "New Zealand was the easiest because I was just coming off of racing in college," she explains. "It was their first marathon there, so there weren't many spectators. In Antarctica, we had to bring our own water bottles and use the scientific bases as water stops. The roads aren't paved, and the water in our bottles kept freezing. We saw a couple penguins along the way. There were more penguins than fans.

"Stockholm starts their marathons at 2:00 in the afternoon, which is very hot. The year I ran was one of the hottest they've had, so they opened up the fire hydrants and we all got waterlogged. Kenya was fun, because there was a lot of wildlife. A giraffe ran with people. At nights, we would go and do wildlife searches and look for lions with big searchlights, and the next day we were running right where we had seen them. They had people posted with guns on the course.

"Easter Island is very hilly, and the weather changes instantly. The Katmandu Marathon [Nepal] was the hardest marathon I've ever run. It was the first marathon in Katmandu, and you know how you stop traffic for the marathon? Well, people in Nepal are not familiar with running, nor do they really care. And it's not a country of, you know, vehicle emissions tests or anything.

"We started the marathon really early in the morning, nobody was out and about, and traffic was stopped. We ran through the city and out and then turned around in a square and ran back. The way out was fine, but on the way back we hit rush hour, and it was total chaos. They have their tuck-tucks and little buses with people hanging off the side, and bicycles, and motorcycles. Katmandu is a valley, so all the pollution just sits there. I ended up walking the last little bit, because there was so much traffic. My friend got hit by a bus."

Sunday will be slightly different, and she says she's ready. She's been training, getting in her miles on Luce Line Trail, a limestone hiking and biking path near her house. She never runs the lakes in the Cities ("a fashion show," she says, dismissively), but she is well versed in the Minneapolis-to-St. Paul course, because she's worked water stops at previous Twin Cities marathons.

For number seven, she will be cheered on by family and friends. When it's finished--after she's plowed through the mythical runner's wall at mile 20, conquered the hill on Summit Avenue, had the medal draped around her neck, and completed a dream she first dreamed in 1996--she'll return to Golden Valley, where there will be a pig roast in her honor. Her next goal?

"I'll find something," she says.

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