It was love at first step for Yolanda Holder. Power walking had always been a part of this Californian’s fitness regimen, but it wasn’t until her 50th birthday that she decided it was time to step up her game. “I decided I wanted to walk 50 marathons in 50 weeks,” says Holder. Instead, she ended up walking 65 marathons in 52 weeks. That was in 2008. The following year, Holder walked 77 marathons, and she hasn’t stopped since.
That same year Holder decided she wanted to set a world record. “I thought ‘does anyone hold a record for the most marathons walked,’” recalls Holder. “So I got in contact with the ‘Guinness Book of World Records.’ There was a woman in Italy who walked 100 marathons in 2002.” Sure enough, that was all Holder needed to light a fire under her feet, and in 2010 she set the new record walking 106 marathons. And then two years later, she broke her own record with 120 marathons in one year. That’s more than 3,000 miles walked in one year.
“It’s addicting, but it’s a good addiction,” says Holder. “I really liked the people I was meeting and the traveling, which was a big challenge for me at first. My kids are grown and out of the house, so it’s just me and my husband. I was so used to being Tiffany’s mom or RJ’s mom, and now it was finally time for me to just be me, Yolanda.”
In 2013, Holder lost her mom to Type 2 diabetes. Knowing how much walking can help lower the risk of diabetes and heart disease, Holder decided to do an extreme walk from Corona to Oakland, California, (roughly 525 miles) in 15 days to raise awareness about diabetes. She fundraised for the walk and all proceeds went to the American Diabetes Association.
Holder decided to turn her walk for diabetes into an annual tradition and evolved it into a “virtual walk” so that anyone, anywhere in the world could sign up to “walk” along with her, counting the miles from any race they registered for. This past year Holder did her “virtual walk” during the Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 3,100-Mile Race in New York. If it sounds extreme, that’s because it most definitely is. The race, which is the world’s longest certified road race, takes place from 6 a.m. until midnight over 52 days. Out of 10 racers, Holder was the only walker. “In 21 years, they never had a walker,” says Holder. “I was the first one.”
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With such an exorbitant amount of miles ahead of her, Holder knew she had to complete a minimum of 60 miles a day if she wanted to finish. At one point on the course, after having gotten sick three times and suffering from bad blisters, Holder was 44 miles in the hole. “I had heat exhaustion, then food poisoning — which got a handful of us — and then stomach issues,” remembers Holder. “I had a big fight with God. I cried and was asking Him ‘why did you do this, why do you have me here, what is going on.’” Holder made her way to the aid station where she reached for her phone, which ended up being exactly the medicine she needed. “I turned it on and it didn’t stop beeping for four minutes straight with texts and Facebook notifications from people saying things like ‘I’m praying for you, Yolanda,’ and ‘I walked today because of you,’” she says. “There were over 100 messages and they were all the same. I was so embarrassed and had to say ‘oops, I’m sorry God.’” A few minutes later, the race director came over and informed Holder that she had to get in 62 miles or she wouldn’t make the whole 3,100. “Something immediately came over me and I said OK and did 62 miles that day,” says Holder.
Tired but not broken, Holder returned to her room for the night and again picked up her phone. This time she had a message from the editor of her running club Marathon Maniacs, Steve Walters. They had done the math and knew she was behind as well. “He wrote ‘62 miles and a 100K are the same thing, and you’ve done plenty of those,’” remembers Holder. “It changed everything. I started to think to myself ‘OK it’s not 24 hours or 62 miles, it’s just 100K for multiple days — I got this.’”
The last 19 days Holder did 62 miles one day, 63 on another day and even reached up to 65 before the end of a third day. Not only did Holder finish the race, but she came in third place out of five total finishers and set a world record crossing the finish in 51 days, 17 hours and 13 seconds. “It was incredible and I thank every person that sent me a message or cheered and prayed for me along the way.”
Post-race, Holder took some much needed time off from walking. Her blisters needed time to heal and she missed being home while racing, so she was excited to spend time with her husband. After 18 days of rest and recovery — the longest time she’d taken off in three years, she walked for the first time again. Today, she’s back into it and gearing up for her second appearance at the Sri Chinmoy next month in New York City.
“Walking has become a part of my life — it’s my serenity, and time when I can meditate and even pray,” says Holder. “If I have 10 problems in the day, by the time I’m done walking, at least seven of them have been solved or don’t feel as big as they were before.”
Holder has found a new confidence through walking as well. “I’ve always been a shy person, but through walking I’ve met a lot of people and even been asked to speak about what I do — public speaking, which used to be my biggest fear,” says Holder. “Now you have to take the mic away from me to get me to stop talking. I’ve learned a lot about myself as a woman and found confidence in the person I am … all thanks to the power of my own two feet.”