After Quitting Smoking, He Started Running—137 Marathons Later, He’s Still Going

Joe Huber doesn’t let anything slow him down. Not even a trio of serious heart conditions.

joe huber
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Runner’s World+ member Joe Huber admits he didn’t choose the easiest hobby.

While others might collect baseball cards, say, or perhaps restore antique furniture, the 71-year-old retiree from Pine Brook, NJ, instead runs marathons—137 and counting, to be precise.

Huber first picked up his fix when he ditched another. A three-pack-a-day smoker until age 32, Huber started running in order to lose the 30 pounds he gained after quitting. In 1982, he began logging miles with some buddies, one of whom had run the Boston Marathon, so he decided to aim for 26.2 miles in Beantown, too. (Hey, why not?) He only planned on tackling the feat just once, but after banditing Boston in 1989—he even managed to snag a medal at the finish line—he became hooked on the post-race high. “The sense of achievement I got out of the first one, I still get,” Huber says.

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Since then, Huber, a former senior vice president in non-profit agencies, has run as many as nine marathons a year—most throughout the northeast U.S., though he’s raced in places as far away as Prague. Name a year, and Huber can easily tell you exactly which events he completed during it. How? Because he tracks every race on the same gray cotton T-shirt that he’s raced in since 1992. They’re all listed in chronological order, including the New Jersey Marathon (his most-repeated race, at 14 times), and his hometown New York City Marathon (his favorite, nine times).

joe huber rw member
The back of Joe Huber's race-day T-shirt (and marathon tracker).
Courtesy Joe Huber

“Marathoning has made me a more confident person in life because I know I’m doing something that a fraction of people on this Earth can or even want to do,” says Huber. “I think of myself in most ways as an ordinary Joe, but marathoning has really made me feel special.”

While Huber’s myriad marathon accomplishments decorate the back of his trusty tee, it’s the phrase on the front of the shirt that he’s adapted as his life motto: “A marathoner’s strongest muscle is his heart.” Lately, the irony isn’t lost on him.

In November of 2021, Huber noticed that he was getting winded more quickly than normal as he put in winter work on his treadmill. “It happened suddenly and inexplicably,” Huber says. “It took me by total surprise.”

The condition didn’t improve by spring, so he saw a series of cardiologists, who eventually diagnosed him with a trio of heart conditions: sick sinus syndrome, a disease where the body’s natural pacemaker is unable to produce a consistent heartbeat; chronotropic incompetence, when the heart can’t produce a high enough heart rate during exercise; and cardiomyopathy, a disease that makes it difficult for the heart to pump blood throughout the body.

Huber was blindsided by the diagnosis and was worried that his running career might be over. “I was so healthy—I’d never had anything worse than a pulled hamstring in my life,” Huber says. “[The possibility of not running] made me very sad, as it’s such an integral part of who I am.”

While doctors initially recommended a pacemaker and defibrillator, Huber eventually sought the consultation of a sports cardiologist, who believed that medication alone would help him regulate his condition and, crucially, allow Huber to run. Fortunately, the specialist was right.

Huber didn’t have any restrictions on his running, but to better manage his stamina, he adapted his training plan to the Galloway Run-Walk-Run method. Though he was skeptical of the strategy at first, after integrating walking into his weekly training—and testing it out in some marathons—he’s come to love the hybrid style of running.

“It allows my legs to stay fresher, stay stronger throughout the run, and recover,” Huber says. “In my last couple of years of doing run-only marathons, I was hitting the wall at mile 18 or 20. But now, I can do my run segments faster—then walk briskly—and maintain that throughout all 26.2 miles.”

joe huber rw member
Huber in front his "marathon shrine."
Courtesy Joe Huber

When he’s not racing, Huber is giving back to the sport that has meant so much to him. A decade ago, he began coaching local runners, often those who want to transition from walking to running, for distances ranging from the 5K to the marathon. Huber knows he doesn’t have the competitive background that many coaches do, but he does have thousands of miles on his legs. “I’ve run over 100 marathons, so I’ve probably made every mistake in the book,” he says. “But I’ve learned from them, and I can teach people how to avoid those mistakes.”

Huber also leads an annual shoe drive in nearby Montville, NJ, for which he has collected more than 7,500 pairs in his three years at the helm. He donates the sneakers to disadvantaged people across the world via Soles4Souls and Got Sneakers. Locals now affectionately know him as the “shoe guy.”

Huber is still monitoring his health closely under the supervision of his cardiologist, but he isn’t letting a few setbacks slow him down. He has his eyes set on the Cleveland Marathon on May 22, followed by four marathons in the later half of the year, including races in the Hamptons, Hartford, Philadelphia, and Palm Beach.

“If I don’t enjoy it, or I can’t do it, I’ll stop,” he says. “But until those two things coincide, I’ll keep marathoning because I love it.”

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