Paul Piplani is certain that when you read this story, you’ll think one of two things about him:
He’s an inspiration to those who place limits on their bodies. Or, he’s a nut.
"People ask me, ‘Paul, why do you do this?’ " Piplani said.
Piplani is a 49-year-old Phoenix man who finished 103 marathons last year, sleeps in his car because he can’t afford hotel rooms, depends on the generosity of others for food and hopes to run 1,000 marathons by the fall of 2012.
Oh, and he says running isn’t his life.
Piplani, who is competing today in the 26.2-mile Rock ’n’ Roll Arizona Marathon, which he calls a "cool-down," will soon submit proof of his 103 marathons in 2004 to the Guinness Book of World Records.
If the documentation is accepted, he’ll break the world record for marathons in a year, set by Angela Gargano, who ran 100 in 2002.
It is a noteworthy achievement, but running is a far more personal pursuit for Piplani, a slight man with a quick smile and a zealot’s passion.
Piplani started running marathons in 1993, but he didn’t become obsessed with putting one foot in front of the other until a bad business venture in 2000 cost him $250,000 and his Mesa home.
Piplani slept in his Mercury Villager minivan — a Kinko’s parking lot was his favorite overnight stay — and prayed to God.
"I simply said, ‘Jesus, my money is gone, but not my brain, my desire, who I am,’ " Piplani said. "I wasn’t going to let circumstances get the best of me. So I kept going."
And going, and going and going.
Piplani took every nickel of his savings and spent it on running, whether it be for race fees, flights or rental cars. To save money, he slept in the cars, a practice he continues to this day.
"I think the last time I was in a hotel room was 1996," he said.
Piplani found that the quiet solitude of the marathon soothes him. As the mile markers pass by, he meditates on several sayings, including one from Mahatma Gandhi: "You ought to be the change agent you wish to see in others."
"It’s time with the Lord to refocus my energies into more creative thinking," said Piplani, who was born in a northern province of India, along the Pakistan border. "It’s such a pleasant and challenging diversion with which I feel withdrawal if I’m not in communion with nature, that is God. It allows me to think, ‘Hey, what kind of person am I?’ "
Piplani ran 87 marathons in 2001. Last year, on his way to 103, he ran three marathons in three days in Lake Tahoe, Calif., drove to Sacramento and ran a marathon there the next day.
He ran in a 72-hour race and a 48-hour jaunt. He competed in three ultramarathons of 100 miles. He ran in 35 states, three Canadian provinces and, by his estimation, covered between 3,300 and 3,400 miles.
Even in the world of marathon running, that’s considered a bit extreme.
"People don’t understand his love for running," said Danny Wilson, a Colorado resident who has run alongside Piplani. "They think he’s insane."
Piplani’s prowess for long distance is so remarkable that Frank Shorter, the Olympic gold medalist in the marathon in 1972, signed an autograph with these words: "Paul, I don’t know how you do it."
Piplani doesn’t run between races. The marathons are his roadwork. All he does to recover is drain his blisters and take some ibuprofen.
"God has blessed me," Piplani said.
Running 103 marathons in a calendar year is an expensive proposition. Piplani estimated he spent $500 to $600 every weekend on flights, rental cars, race fees, etc.
Piplani is a bio-inorganic chemist by trade — he’s trying to develop a high-tech water system — but whatever money he makes comes from substitute teaching assignments throughout the Valley, and his income often doesn’t keep up with his expenses.
"I don’t have money for food on many days of the week, but my Christian friends help me," he said.
So he runs, for his own sake and for others. Piplani wants to raise awareness of Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS.
He was inspired by Mitch Albom’s 2002 book, "Tuesdays with Morrie," in which Albom’s college professor Morrie Schwartz manages to maintain his sense of humor and positive outlook despite having ALS.
"The way he looked at life, it just got to me," Piplani said.
There is another reason Piplani runs.
He contracted pneumonia and tuberculosis when he was 10 years old. His sister died from the diseases.
"I wasn’t supposed to live, either," Piplani said. "But I say with modesty that Jesus had different plans for me. Now, when I run, I thank the Lord."
It might sound odd, a 49-year-old man with no wife or kids, running 103 marathons in a year.
But Piplani is at peace with himself and his place in the world.
That’s not so crazy, is it?