MERRILLVILLE — When she completes a marathon next June in Alaska, Jan Andrews will have run marathons in all 50 states.

Not bad for someone who just starting doing the races when she turned 40.

It was at that age when she decided to try something new. She joined the YMCA, a running group and did a 5K.

Andrews, a kindergarten teacher at Salk Elementary School in Merrillville, did her first marathon — the Chicago marathon — in 2010.

"I liked that everybody — all sizes, all shapes — was out there together," she said.

She enjoyed meeting people, the sense of accomplishment, the "runner's high."

She learned about groups that tried to do marathons in every state. She decided that would be her next mission.

"My goal was 50 before 50, so I'm going to make it," said Andrews, 48, of Crown Point.

She has since done 32 full marathons and 26 half-marathons — as well as one 50K — in 49 states. (She noted that she's not a true "50-stater," as she has counted the races that crossed through multiple states.)

She planned her marathons around vacations — Disney World, Hawaii — and college visits with her kids. She went to see family members along the way: in Texas, Georgia, Louisiana.

She said her most difficult race was in Madison, Wisconsin, because it was rainy and cold. Her best run was in North Carolina, where the course was hilly, which she actually prefers to flat courses.

"I do love the mountains," she said. "That's something we don't have around here."

To train for the marathons, she gets up at 5 a.m. four or five days a week to run. She also does spin and yoga classes.

The benefits of completing all the races have gone beyond just a sense of accomplishment.

"I'm so much stronger," she said. "Things don't bother me as much. I'm mentally and physically stronger. It's a good stress relief."

She has inspired students to get into running. She leads boys and girls running groups at Salk Elementary. She has gotten fellow teachers to do races with her.

She also incorporates her interest into her lessons with students.

"They're learning sight words, and 'run' is one. They know that Mrs. Andrews loves to run," she said. "I bring in in my medals, and they get excited. They ask me if If won. I say, 'Yes. I finished my race. That means I won.'

"They're starting to write simple sentences. They write about running: 'My mom and I run.'"

What would she recommend to others who want to attempt a similar 50-state feat?

"Try to run with a group if you can," she said. "It gives you motivation, especially when it's 5 in the morning and dark and cold. When you know someone's out there waiting for you, you have accountability.

"And get good shoes."

So what's next after she runs in all 50 states?

"I would love to do Athens next," she said. "There is also one that runs up the Great Wall of China."

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Health reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.