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BRUSSELS (Reuters Life!) - People who run marathons often say one race a year is enough, both for body and mind. But that was never going to satisfy Belgium's Stefaan Engels, who has just completed 365 marathons in 365 days.
Actually, even that wasn't enough for Engels, who ended up completing 401 marathons in as many days: 18 on a hand bike and the rest on foot, including 365 in a row.
The 49-year-old from Ghent, northwest Belgium, is now the proud holder of the record for the most consecutive marathons, complementing his Guinness world record for the most triathlons completed in a year (20).
"It was a personal challenge," he told Reuters by phone from his home this week, two days after completing his marathon odyssey. "I wanted to know if it was possible."
He made it sound simple, but it was far from a straightforward "start running, stop after a year" challenge.
On January 1, 2010, Engels set out from Ghent to launch his campaign and ran the requisite 42.195 km (about 26.2 miles) on the first day. He kept up that pace for the next 17 days, but then a foot injury struck and he had to stop.
Quitting was out of the question, however. Engels bought a hand bike the same day and used his arms to propel himself through his daily marathons until his foot recovered.
On day 36 -- in a move that friends say is typical of the stubborn, asthmatic runner who was once told by doctors to avoid exercise completely -- Engels announced he would reset the counter to zero and start the whole challenge again.
"People were saying, 'You're crazy, you're throwing away 36 marathons,'" his friend Michael van Damme said. "But he was committed to running on foot all 365 marathons."
Twenty-five pairs of running shoes later, Engels crossed the final finish line in Barcelona on February 5, completing a journey that has been compared to film character Forrest Gump's epic run across the United States. As with Gump, local residents flocked to run alongside him wherever he went.
While Engels set a new record, there have been other extreme runners who have trodden a similar path.
One of the most famous is the American Dean Karnazes, who in 2006 ran a marathon a day for 50 days, hitting every U.S. state. Karnazes also ran nonstop across California's Death Valley in 49 degree Celsius (120 degree Fahrenheit) and completed a marathon to the South Pole.
The Dutch runner Richard Bottram is about four months into his second attempt to run a marathon a day for a year to raise awareness of cancer. This time, he is running inside a large wheel, with volunteers keeping the wheel turning night and day when he isn't personally running, according to his website.
Last year, the Canadian Martin Parnell completed 250 marathons to raise money for a children's charity.
As for Engels, he said his goal was to motivate others to exercise. He ran most of his marathons in Belgium and Spain, but also logged kilometers in Portugal, Mexico, Canada, the United States and Britain. Had he run in a straight line, he could have made it from Lisbon to New Delhi and back.
The challenge was more mental than physical, Engels said. He spent about four and a quarter hours pounding the pavement each day, with the company of friends and an iPod loaded up with Radiohead songs and other music.
"I never ran alone, always with other people," he said. "I tried not to think too much about what I was doing, because then you go crazy."
Even with a 6,000-calorie daily diet that included lots of fried potatoes and pasta, washed down with the occasional Belgian beer, Engels lost 12 kg (26 lb).
His doctor, Chris Goossens, said tests this month showed no damage to his cartilage, joints or muscles.
Back at home in Ghent, Engels said he's finally putting up his feet for a bit, as he works on a book with van Damme about his experience. He doesn't plan to run again until March.
Engels' record of "most marathons run on consecutive days" smashed the previous one of 52 set by Akinori Kusuda from Japan in 2009.
Reporting by Eva Dou, editing by Paul Casciato