Living a healthier lifestyle is usually on the top of the list for those Americans who make New Year’s resolutions, yet many give up on their pledge sometime during the calendar year.
One who inspires those to persevere is 56-year-old Raef Guirges, who has proven it is never too late to get in shape.
For 35 years, the Torrance resident was a pack-day-day cigarette smoker. Guirges’s deskbound job as an accountant added to his unhealthy lifestyle.
That all changed in 2005 when, after receiving an email inviting him to run in the Redondo Beach Super Bowl 10K, Guirges accepted the challenge. His wife and children thought he was going through a mid-life crisis.
“I had never run before and I used to joke about people who ran as being crazy,” said Guirges, who was still smoking at the time. “But the race sounded like fun. My wife didn’t believe I could run one mile.”
With no training and running in ordinary tennis shoes (he didn’t know there were shoes specifically designed for running), Guirges completed the 6.2-mile course in 58 minutes, 15 seconds.
“After I finished, I said ‘God, I think you want to tell me something,’” said Guirges, a devout Christian who professes his belief by wearing a T-shirt and displaying an American flag both with the motto “God is Love.”
Guirges decided to register for the L.A. Marathon which was only one month away from his initial race. He said he felt God was sending him a message.
“The voice I kept hearing was ‘Everyone doubts you, but I have a bigger mission for you,’” Guirges recalled. “I believe God chose someone too old and too weak to help spread His word.”
Despite previous efforts to quit smoking that included patches, gum and meditation, Guirges suddenly overcame his addiction to tobacco. He completed the L.A. Marathon in four hours, 59 minutes and found a new addiction – the challenge of marathon running.
If the combination of running and walking the 26.2 miles of a marathon wasn’t difficult enough, Guirges soon faced another obstacle. In 2006, he developed shin splints, an injury caused by repeated trauma to the connective muscle tissue surrounding the tibia. The injury also led to stress fractures of the bones.
Guirges’s doctor advised him to stay off his feet for a lengthy amount of time, but Guirges had already committed to running a marathon in Miami with his cousin’s wife.
“I explained to the doctor that I had already paid for my plane ticket and race fee and I was going to go,” Guirges said. “The doctor told me to do the race in a wheelchair, but I said no, signed release papers and was on my way.”
An avid scuba diver, Guirges cut the legs from a 7mm wetsuit which he uses to support his lower extremities during each race. He also takes Extra Strength Tylenol to help alleviate the pain which prevents him from any type of training.
“I really don’t like running,” Guirges admitted. “But spreading the word of God is my mission and He helps me get through it.”
Guirges has finished a marathon in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, completing the feat on Dec. 8, 2007 during a snowstorm at the Roxbury Marathon in Connecticut.
There were a couple of stints where Guirges would run marathons in eight and seven consecutive weeks. Completing 50 marathons was a goal he deeply wanted to achieve. Yet there was more to come.
On Oct. 7, 2012, Guirges reached another milestone. He finished the Long Beach International City Bank Marathon in six hours, eight minutes, marking his 100th marathon. It was an emotional time for Guirges as he crossed the finish line.
“I was crying,” Guirges said. “I went to my knee, kissed the ground and made the sign of the cross. I thanked God and couldn’t believe I had finished 100 marathons. I knew I didn’t deserve it and wondered why God chose me.”
Prior to his 100th marathon, Guirges vowed to his wife Rouma and two children that the race would be his last. Raef’s heart told him his otherwise.
He finished his 102nd marathon on Dec. 9, 2012 in Tucson, AZ and is looking forward to the L.A. Marathon on Sunday, March 17. Guirges plans to run 14-15 marathons this year and has set another goal of 200 marathons.
A member of the 7 Continents Marathon Club, Guirges dreams of completing a marathon on each continent. He has North America, South America and Africa under his belt and is hoping to scratch two more off his list, including Asia, in 2013. The most difficult will be the Antarctic Ice Marathon which is held in November each year.
While he has the full support of his wife, Guirges said she doesn’t attend his races like she used to.
“Rouma is not able to watch anymore,” Guirges said. “I am in so much pain. It usually takes two days before I can eat and sleep right.”
Guirges has come a long way since moving the United States in 1981. Raised by Christian parents in Egypt, Guirges came to America with a strong background in accounting.
He worked as a janitor while learning the English language and eventually became a Special Agent Criminal Investigation for the IRS, a position he held until 1990. Guirges now has his own CPA business in Torrance.
Guirges claims to be the only Middle Eastern runner to reach the 50 and 100 marathon milestones and is proud of how his message has reached so many people.
“Many times local newspapers will publish my story when I come to their town to run,” Guirges said. “Often there are spectators on the side of the course chanting ‘God is Love’ when I pass by.”
Guirges said he plans to spread the gospel until the day he dies.
“Ideally, I will die while running,” Guirges said. “I want to die leaving a record that will be a challenge for many others.”
Related: The Redondo Beach Superbowl 10K