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Lawyer Runs 26.2 on Every Continent

By Thai Phi Le

September 27, 2016

Less than two weeks ago, D.C. Bar member Mike Heyl was running multiple legs of a 200-mile relay race from Cumberland, Maryland, to Washington, D.C., as part of the popular Ragnar Relay series held throughout the country.

In 2011, Washington Lawyer profiled his quest to run a marathon on every continent. More than five years later, he's still pounding the pavement, finding ways to fit fitness into his routine while maintaining his busy practice as a partner at Hogan Lovells.

We are reposting his story below. Do you have your own fitness story to tell? In the upcoming months, we will be profiling Bar members who are working to find the balance between their professional and personal lives. Share with us your de-stressing regimen and how fitness fits in your busy career.

Ice Marathon in Antarctica

Lawyer Runs 26.2 on Every Continent

Early one December morning, Mike Heyl, a partner at Hogan Lovells, began layering up. He threw on a wicker shirt and a wind shell, and stepped into GORE–TEX and waterproof pants. A balaclava was wrapped around his head while his feet were covered in SmartWool socks. Heyl was ready to trek 26.2 miles for the 2010 Antarctic Ice Marathon in a balmy zero-degree temperature.

For Heyl, the Ice Marathon marked the end of a seven–year adventure that began on the roads of Washington, D.C., during the Marine Corps Marathon in 2003. While always a runner, the Marine Corps was his first full marathon.

Inspired by Heyl's accomplishment, Edward "Ted" Wilson Jr., also a partner at the firm, decided he, too, wanted to run a marathon. "I kind of got hooked on the idea that maybe a common person like me can get into shape," said Wilson. The two decided to do the Paris Marathon together.

Heyl was already in good running shape, but Wilson was another story. "I was literally out of breath running from here [at 13th and E Streets NW] to the Washington Monument." They trained for months, though, and in 2004, Heyl and Wilson were running down Avenue des Champs–Elysées in Paris.

"You know, 26 miles, you have a lot to talk about," laughed Heyl. A main topic of discussion? The possibility of running a marathon on all seven continents. "We both like to travel. We both travel a lot for work, and we both like to run. It would be a really neat way to see the world," said Heyl. Their quest would soon take them from the café–lined streets of Paris to the expansive Great Wall of China.

Grueling Training
Research the Great Wall and you will see that it has a daunting 5,164 steps. To prepare, Heyl and Wilson took advantage of the 13 floors at Hogan, hauling themselves up and down the stairs. At their peak, they had traversed the stories of the building 10 times. "We'd go out and run and go back and do it again. It was torture," said Heyl. "There's nothing to look at, just paint and stairs."

They would alternate between the stairs run and long runs. "For me personally, it was great having the partner I work with [to train with]. He's invested too," said Heyl. "His schedule was very similar to my schedule. If we wanted to run and we think we've got a break between meetings, we could fit seven miles in."

Not having time was never an excuse for Heyl or Wilson to quit training despite the busy life of a typical D.C. lawyer. "I had the challenges of work hours," remarked Heyl. "I think for any one of the years that I ran these races, I did not bill anything less than 2,100 hours."

In fact, Heyl often had his BlackBerry in hand while running through the city or on his various trails. He never took conference calls with clients, but would check in with partners and answer any immediate questions if needed.

Great Wall MarathonTheir persistence paid off when they completed the Great Wall Marathon in May 2005. "That, for me, was the hardest [marathon]," Heyl said. The first nine kilometers is marked with steep ascents and descents, and, of course, the famous stairs. "Some are tall. Some are short. Some are long, intentionally so that invaders cannot be quickly running up and down," said Heyl. "Then you run through fields and pastures and a lot more hills. Then you double back and hit the Wall again at probably 22 miles."

Wilson toughed out the marathon despite having a shin splint. "The running part on the so–called flat part was really painful, but for me, the Wall was actually a relief because it was using different muscles," he said. "Mike had pulled us through 25 miles or something, and the last part, you had to get back on the Wall. I was so happy that I had gotten back on the Wall. I knew we were going to finish."

"He pulled me through on that one," noted Heyl. Added Wilson, "It's very much so pushing and pulling the other one."

Two months later, they did it all over again in Australia for the Gold Coast Marathon. The hardest part was the heat. "By that time, we had four continents down," said Heyl. With the birth of his third child, Heyl decided to take a break.

Into the Wild
The break lasted four years. Heyl kept his distance up by running 10–milers, but never committed to another marathon until June 2009. As he was looking at different flight itineraries for a work trip to Sydney, Australia, he realized that the Big Five Marathon in South Africa was to take place the same weekend he was heading home, and it was cheaper to go through Johannesburg than Los Angeles.

"I've always wanted to go to Africa. I've always wanted to do a safari," he said. "I figured, hey, the stars are aligning on this one." By then, Wilson had unfortunately been sidelined with an injury, so Heyl would go it alone.

Held on the Entabeni Game Reserve, the Big Five Marathon course consists of a plateau and a valley, separated by a massive hill. In the valley live the big cats, from lions to cheetahs. The plateau is home to giraffes, rhinoceroses, hippos, and wildebeests.

Heyl saw most of these animals during a 26.2–mile safari of the course the day before the race. "While we were driving the course—we were on the lower part—we actually had to stop because there were two cheetahs that were out hunting and actually had a kill right on the path where we were going to be running the next day," he recalled. "They did promise that during the race, you'll be protected. There's going to be people out with shotguns."

As the sun rose the next day, the greatest challenge was not the wild animals but the hill. "You're going down two miles where parts are at 40-degree [angle]. It completely tears your quads apart," said Heyl. "You get to the bottom part and then you're running through deep sand. We're talking about sinking and no stability … then you have to go back up that two–mile torture."

For Heyl, finishing the Big Five was one of his greatest feelings of accomplishment. With five marathons down, he decided to double up again and signed up to do the Buenos Aires Marathon five months later in October. The two races could not be more different. Heyl went from the hilly wilderness of South Africa to the flat city streets of Argentina. The run took him by the well–known Casa Rosada (Pink House), through the tango district of San Telmo, and into the La Boca neighborhood.

"Six are done now. What am I going to do now?" Heyl remembered thinking. The only continent left was Antarctica.

Running on Blue Ice
Heyl had already registered for the Antarctica Marathon, but was on a three–year waiting list. So he looked up the Antarctic Ice Marathon. "When I first read the description of the Ice Marathon, I thought, there's no way I'm going to do that," Heyl said. It's the southernmost marathon in the world—a couple hundred miles from the South Pole. Pilots need an eight-hour window of perfect weather to get runners from Chile and onto the blue ice runway of Antarctica. Often, the race is delayed as pilots wait out weather systems.

Everyone sleeps in small solar tents. There's no running water. "Basically, they give you a bowl of water if you want to wash your hair and hands or whatever," he said. "That's just nuts. That's crazy." But Heyl decided to be crazy and on December 15, 2010, he was bundled up and ready to go.   

As he trampled through ice and snow, Heyl looked around. "I was taken aback. The scenery was just spectacular. There are mountains everywhere. Every time you turn your head, it was a picture that you could take." If he was thirsty in between rest stations, he could simply take ice and snow from the course. "We're talking thousands of years old frozen water. It doesn't get any fresher than that."

He chronicled his journey with photos at numerous mile markers, but by mile 19, the camera froze. The day began at zero degrees and never got above 15 degrees. He hammered out the last few miles and, at the finish line, Heyl celebrated with all the runners, who fittingly came from every continent. All seven marathons were completed.

Bucking the Trend
Back in Washington, D.C., Heyl continues running. Wilson is also getting back into the game, currently training for the 2011 ING New York City Marathon as part of Fred's Team to raise money for cancer research at Memorial Sloan–Kettering Cancer Center.

"We as lawyers sit behind a computer. We have a very sedentary existence," said Wilson. "But we're bucking the trend," added Heyl.

"People need to see the benefits of exercise in terms of rounding them off as a person and making them better able to cope with other parts of their life," said Wilson. "Investment in our health is just as important as an investment in our career. Long term, that's really what it's all about, isn't it?"

Want to tell your story? Email Thai Phi Le at [email protected].