It's only been dark for a few hours when the dreaded hotel alarm clock buzzes in the wee hours of the morning in Saint Joseph, Mo.
By this day, Alex Brant's body is exhausted — the 24-year-old Moscow speech therapist is about to run her seventh marathon in seven days, all in separate states — but she has something special to look forward to this day. It's her last marathon of the trip and this time she's running it with her mom, Michelle.
The Brants are excited for the race and it's all smiles at the starting line despite a start time of 3:30 a.m. Soon the marathon is underway. It's easier than the day before for Alex, who knows the end is near and is enjoying the company of her biggest fan.
Halfway through the race, Michelle sends Alex ahead to finish on her own, but after she's done, Alex goes back to finish with her mom too. What else was she going to do after running more than 183 miles in a week?
"That was a really really cool experience," Alex said two weeks after accomplishing the feat. "I am far more proud of my mom than anything I accomplished that week."
Growing up, Brant was never the best runner on her junior high or high school track and cross country teams. She didn't even want to run competitively in college, so she joined a club cross country team at Penn State instead.
But that hasn't stopped Brant from setting seemingly impossible goals for herself, and meeting them along the way. She started running at 9 years old and hasn't really stopped since.
A native of Pittsburgh, Brant ran her first marathon at 19 and, to her surprise, won her age group and qualified for the Boston Marathon in her first attempt. Her time of 3 hours, 33 minutes, in the 2014 Pittsburgh Marathon just beat the cutoff mark for her age group by two minutes.
"It was still to this day the best day of my life," Brant said. "It was really surreal that I had been essentially training for that since I was 9 years old. I knew that I wanted to run as far as I could and in that moment, my body just sort of clicked that day."
With two major bucket list items checked off the list, Brant set her sights on a bigger goal — running a marathon in each of the 50 states.
She moved to Moscow in 2017 and got the idea last January to pursue seven marathons in seven states in seven days through an organization called Mainly Marathons that holds events all over the United States.
At first, Brant thought about just doing three or four of the marathons, but she eventually decided to at least pursue all seven, so she signed up for July's Prairie Series.
The series encompassed seven states Brant had never run in before: North Dakota, Minnesota, South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri, starting July 8 and ending July 14.
"The first day, I was scared to death," Brant said. "I didn't know what was going to happen. My biggest fear of course was injury.
"I was under no circumstances going to let me get myself to where I was in a recipe for an illness or an injury that would be difficult to overcome."
After the first day, Brant realized she was going to really have to chow down on the calories if she was going to be able to keep running. So after her first meal, she went back and had a second dinner right then and there.
"I had these visions of having all these super specific foods that I'm used to," Brant said with a laugh. "(But) as the days drifted closer to seven, I wasn't above eating a bacon cheeseburger."
As the days went on, they got harder, longer and slower for Brant. She said the hardest days mentally were the fourth and fifth days, knowing that the bulk of the mileage was still ahead of her.
The hardest physically was Day 6, when Brant got a calf cramp that stuck with her for miles.
To Brant's relief, English runner Nick Nicholson — who Brant said owns the record for most marathons run in a year with 253 in 2017 — was also running the Prairie Series, and he stopped to help her with her calf cramp.
"He stopped his race and squeezed my calf cramp — he knew a special trick," Brant said. "Then we ran to the end together, which was a really cool experience.
"I was very grateful for him. I couldn't have made it to the end without all of his insight."
For Brant, long-distance running is more than a hobby, it's a challenge, a getaway and a big part of her life. She said it even helps with her job as a speech-language pathologist, when she has to relate to patients who have to set a big goal or take a leap outside their comfort zone.
"Working as a speech therapist, I work with a lot of families and a lot of individuals that really have to push through a lot of hard times," Brant said. "It's just really humbling to have all of the blessings that I have and to not take that for granted.
"I always like to be in a position where I'm pushing myself and I understand what it's like to maybe go a little further, becauses then ... maybe I'll have a little more of a basis to know what it's like to be scared to try something new or be scared to fail."
So far, Brant has run 13 marathons in 13 states. She said she enjoys training on the Palouse, where her favorite run is the Latah Trail between Moscow and Troy.
The next race on her list is the Two-Bear Marathon in September in Whitefish, Mont.
"I think that will be my next race (and) I think I'm just going to do one race this time," she said with a laugh.
Stephan Wiebe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 208-883-4629.