Running: Marathon man rings in his 50th with style

When it comes to positive, larger-than-life characters who just love interacting with people, Ross Steele is hard to beat.

The 55-year-old owner of Westbay Real Estate has made a name for himself outside of business with his passion for running marathons.

On Saturday, he will complete his 50th when he takes on the challenging Taniwha event around the picturesque Waikato River trails.

Steele has completed 19 Rotorua Marathons and all the major New Zealand events but it is his exploits around the world that set him apart.

It all started in 1997 with the Gold Coast Marathon, after he took up running to lose weight, and he later went on to complete the 42km distance in New York, London, the Great Wall of China, Antarctica, Santiago and Tanzania.

The word "seven" tattooed on his calf is a permanent reminder of him earning membership of the Seven Continents Club - one of world athletics' most challenging groups.

"When I got back from Great Wall of China in 2004, a tour organiser asked me if I had heard of the Seven Continents Club, which really pricked my ears up at that stage," Steele said.

"I thought it was a really cool thing to do and there are about 300 members worldwide, including six Kiwis. I made the group after doing the Kilimanjaro Marathon and that was when I got the tattoo."

Of his 49 marathons there is one that stands out for Steele.

"Top of the list was Antarctica. It was unique but very bleak, and there were about 145 marathon runners there. It took me six hours 10 minutes but it was just a wicked experience.

"It is also the only time I have been beaten over the winning line by two penguins. As I came around the corner heading for the banner, they were there just before the finish line, and as soon as I saw them I thought what a great photo opportunity. So I took their photo and they went over the line ahead of me."

To prepare for Antarctica, Steele spent four sessions in Sanford's cool store at the Mount just to get his head around how cold real cold was. It was minus 20 degrees in there and a stark preview of what he was to face.

At the other end of the temperature spectrum were the conditions Steele faced in China, where the temperatures reached 36 degrees, and he drank more than 10 litres of water to get through.

The most poignant experience from all his 49 marathons was when he took part in the New York race just seven weeks after the 9/11 Twin Towers attacks.

"It was very humbling to be there and very emotional to see runners with T-shirts on, with a picture and name of a loved one they had lost. There wasn't just one, but dozens of those shirts.

"Going past fire stations and police stations where there were big photos of all their dead mates on the fences was very moving. I feel it was a privilege to be part of that. New York is such a vibrant city."

Steele long ago gave up worrying about what time he takes to do a marathon. For him it is about enjoying the experience, taking photos and interacting with the colourful characters he meets along the way.

"It has been a really cool journey and I have met some amazing people. I have been to some places beyond my wildest dreams 20 years ago and seen some extraordinary things.

"Life is a journey and it is what you put into it and aspire to do. It is all about following your dreams and my dreams have paid huge dividends."

Another side of Steele's personality is evident in the fun he likes to create at marathons by dressing up in various costumes.

For Saturday's 50th he plans to run in an all pink number, perhaps even a tutu, to ensure the milestone is remembered forever.

"Normally I run marathons in a bright orange Hawaiian shirt. Saturday the theme will be pink from head to toe. I like having fun and enjoying it, taking the mickey out of everybody."

Steele also puts back into the sport through the Tauranga Road Runners Club by helping others reach their goal of completing their first marathon.

"I get huge satisfaction out of helping the newbies across the finish line at their first marathon and to see the elation on their faces. Running marathons does brilliant things and is great for the mind."

Now Steele is about to reach the 50 marathon milestone, no great surprises to know what he wants to achieve next.

"I am looking at my next 50 and I absolutely want to do 100 marathons. I am already booked in for three events next year, two marathons and the 85km Tarawera Ultra Marathon, but I did eight last year and this year, so I would like to think I could maybe rattle off 10 next year."

- Bay of Plenty Times

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