Seven continents, 16 marathons, and miles of memories
Jeff Doyle went on a Kenyan safari. He visited the Great Wall of China. He gawked in awe at Australia’s Ayers Rock and Easter Island’s giant moai statues, traversed the barren landscape of Antarctica, shared a Guinness with Dublin locals.
Doyle did all of that — lived life, saw the world — while running marathons. On June 7, on a remote island way off the Chilean coast, he completed a quarter-century odyssey that’s taken him to the far ends of the planet while raising $75,000, in his estimation, for two charities. Doyle has completed a 26.2-mile marathon on all seven continents.
That feat makes Doyle, a 44-year-old Concord resident, one of about 500 people who can claim membership in the so-called Seven Continents Club, a group with a worldwide reach and local origins.
It began 20 years ago when Thom Gilligan, founder of the Chelsea-based Marathon Tours & Travel agency, started the Antarctica Marathon. After the race, a few runners approached Gilligan to say it was continent No. 7 for them. The novelty caught on — four runners that first day, a pair of others not too long after that, then a group of more than 30 finished together on Jan. 1, 2000, in New Zealand. Since then, hundreds.
“It is a cross-section of people — surprisingly, because you’d think this is a rich man’s endeavor,” said Gilligan, noting that not all of the club’s 500-plus members have traveled to their marathons through his company. “We have schoolteachers, we have retired people, we have young people.”
Around the time Gilligan’s pioneers forged the way, Doyle had built an impressive résumé running marathons domestically. He was by no means a star athlete growing up, playing hockey and soccer as a kid and tennis during his time at Concord-Carlisle High School, but inspiration struck in 1990, the summer after his freshman year of college.
Doyle — now 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds; fit, but not intimidatingly so — was a little more out of shape than he would’ve liked. An effort to reverse that trend snowballed into running the New York City Marathon in support of the Leukemia Society of America (now the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society), an organization connected to a family friend.
“You would go to the hospital with the patient, you see what they’re going through,” Doyle said. “That was an extremely powerful experience.”
It pushed him to raise about $35,000 and run a dozen marathons throughout the decade, including 10 in the United States — four Bostons, three New Yorks, plus lone races in Washington, D.C., California, and Alaska.
Then came the Dublin Marathon in 1997 and the Antarctica Marathon in 1999. Doyle stumbled across the latter’s existence while walking by Marathon Tours’ former office in Charlestown, near where Doyle lived at the time.
Just like that, three continents down.
Then life intervened. Doyle started a business and got married. Running — and traveling — wasn’t a priority.
Inspiration struck again late in the last decade when he read “Lone Survivor,” a book by former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell that inspired a 2013 film by the same name. Then he met Luttrell in person. The mostly secretive SEAL world captivated Doyle.
“That just got me super motivated. I’m like, ‘God, I’ve been sitting on my . . . for eight years. There’s this little SEAL community that to make it through that training is unbelievable,’” Doyle said. “The more I got into it and the more people I met, the more impressed I was.”
The Navy SEAL Foundation, which provides support to the Naval Special Warfare Command community and its families, became Doyle’s new cause. First up: the 2010 Safaricom Marathon in Kenya.
After that race, with four continents down and three to go, Doyle decided to go for it.
“It wasn’t a surprise to me. Jeff is so charitable and philanthropic,” said Doyle’s wife, Mary Beth . “He humbly and quietly went about his objectives. To him, it’s just nothing. Can you imagine what the Navy SEALs do?”
The last three came in relatively quick succession.
In 2013, he headed down under for the Outback Marathon in Australia. The following year, it was the Great Wall Marathon in China (“It’s awful,” Doyle said. “You’d see every human emotion on that wall”); and finally, in June, the Easter Island Marathon. Older and a little more physically broken down, Doyle managed to finish in the same 3:30-4:30 range he found in the 1990s, with the Great Wall serving as a nearly seven-hour exception.
Through it all, he’s raised close to $40,000 for the Navy SEAL Foundation, Doyle said.
“It’s extremely surprising to see that when these guys leave or if they need medical care, it doesn’t come through as much as you would think it would, especially for the elite of the elite,” Doyle said. “You would think the government takes care of them automatically, but it’s very, very surprising. And disappointing.
“I think at some point, no matter how successful you get or how busy you get, there’s always opportunity for you to kind of show your humanity and help other people.”
Doyle is a case study in many of Gilligan’s selling points. It’s pretty cool bragging rights, sure, but pursuing entry to the Seven Continents Club is also a way for people to see the world while doing something they enjoy. It presents an opportunity to experience the local culture and to meet the local people — to break through the “tourist veneer,” as Gilligan put it. And, of course, there is the charitable aspect.
“It’s not all egocentric,” Gilligan said. “It’s a very common thing for people to do it on behalf of another beneficiary.”
The bit about meeting locals in particular held true for Doyle, be it Easter Island (the Rapa Nui natives), Antarctica (countless penguins) or Dublin (friendly old Irishmen).
And the Irishmen were indeed friendly. About 20 miles deep into the Dublin race, Doyle ran by a pub called “JD’s.” Those are his initials, Doyle reasoned, so he had little choice but to check it out. He entered and explained to the folks already indulging that he was running the marathon, noticed his initials, came inside, and didn’t have his wallet on him.
No problem. Drinks were on them that day.
“They were like, ‘What are you doing drinking?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, my last name is Doyle and I’m in Ireland. What else am I going to do out here?’ ” Doyle recalled. “That was a hoot. After my two pints, I got back out on the race and finished it.”
So what’s next for Doyle? He’s considered taking on a 100-mile ultramarathon, and Mary Beth believes he’ll actually go for it one day — if Jeff says he’s considering something, she said, he’ll almost certainly get it done.
But perhaps more pressing, Jeff suggested, is the matter of the guitar Mary Beth gave him several birthdays ago, only to collect dust untouched. He promised her he would learn to play.
■ North America: “New York Marathon,” United States, 1990*
■ Europe: “Dublin Marathon,” Ireland, 1997
■ Antarctica: “Antarctica Marathon,” 1999
■ Africa: “Safaricom Marathon,” Kenya, 2010
■ Australia: “Australian Outback Marathon,” Australia, 2013
■ Asia: “Great Wall Marathon,” China, 2014
■ South America: “Easter Island Marathon,” Chile, 2015
*and nine others in North America