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Running milestone earns W&M professor audience with popular comedian

  • Running an 8K:
    Running an 8K:  W&M Associate Professor of Government Marcus Holmes joined online physical training program Zwift in 2018 to help train for a marathon. Since then, he has run more than 8,000 miles on the platform.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Face-to-face:
    Face-to-face:  Marcus Holmes is working on a book about face-to-face diplomacy that will explain how some world leaders are able to build bonds of trust through face-to-face interactions, while others fail to do so.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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What was once an activity for Marcus Holmes to stay in shape as a college student has turned into a full-blown passion that recently earned the William & Mary government associate professor a distinction shared by Hollywood movie star George Clooney, among other big name entertainers. 

Holmes is an avid runner, logging in the neighborhood of 10 miles a day, and he has been using an online physical training program called Zwift to improve his marathon time and connect with other runners all over the world. Holmes runs so much on Zwift that he has recorded the most running miles of anyone on the platform – 8,107.7 and counting. The Zwift community allowed Holmes to connect with British comedian/actor Eddie Izzard and discuss international diplomacy during a recent virtual marathon.  

Izzard ran a series of virtual marathons for a campaign called “Make Humanity Great Again” and invited many people to join as guests during her runs, including such notable entertainers as Clooney, Stanley Tucci and comedian and podcast host Joe Rogan. 

“Hey, I was a guest just like Clooney,” Holmes recently said with a laugh. “Of course I’m not comparing myself to these people, but I just think it’s kind of fun that I was involved in something some pretty famous people took part in also.” 

During their Jan. 17 conversation, Holmes sat in front of a Zoom background of the Wren Building and Izzard ran on a treadmill. They spoke for nearly a half-hour about topics ranging from Holmes’ work at William & Mary to his research on diplomacy and Izzard’s aspirations to run for a seat in Parliament. 

“We were talking about running and my academic work and that dovetailed with her interests, so it all came together in a nice way that I really wasn’t expecting. It was fun,” said Holmes, who also works as the director for the St Andrews William & Mary Joint Degree Programme and was recently one of the recipients of the Plumeri Awards For Faculty Excellence. 

“As an academic, I find I don’t have many opportunities to talk about my work in a mainstream setting. There are very few ways to have a low-key, 30-minute conversation about your work and an opportunity to tell general folks what it is that you do and how your work connects with the quote-unquote real world. I really found my conversation with Eddie to be fun, and it makes me want to do more of that kind of stuff in the future.” 

During the “Make Humanity Great Again” campaign, Izzard ran 32 marathons on a treadmill in 31 days to raise money for charity. 

Those tuning into Holmes’ conversation with Izzard heard about the research Holmes is doing on diplomacy for a book he is writing with Nicholas J. Wheeler, a professor at University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. 

The book will explain how some world leaders are able to build bonds of trust through face-to-face interactions, while others fail to do so. 

“There are a number of potential explanations for this,” Holmes said. “Maybe the personalities of the leaders have something to do with it. It may be that sex, gender, culture and racial differences are critical. We’re testing all the potential sociological and psychological reasons why those interactions succeed or fail.” 

A passion for running

Holmes started running competitively after college. That’s when he ran the first of his 17 marathons, including those in Boston, Chicago and New York. 

He started using Zwift in June of 2018 in preparation for another marathon. He set a goal to run a sub three-hour marathon, and the online program, which includes a mobile application to chart progress and chat with other runners, helped him accomplish that. 

He ran a 2:59.09 in that race and has since bested that mark with a 2:56.48. 

Holmes estimates he runs 10 to 12 miles a day on the treadmill in his basement. All those miles add up quickly, which is why he was able to rack up such a large number on Zwift. He has become semi-famous for his mile total and for his time in the spotlight with Izzard. 

“I started using Zwift as something to sort of keep my mind off of something that normally is really boring and sort of difficult to do,” Holmes said. “And it turned out to be this large international community that I had no idea even existed that now I’m a part of and kind of famous on it too. When I pop up now, people say, ‘I know you.’ They text me through the app and say hi … so it’s been fun.” 

Holmes has connected with runners in places like Singapore, London and Brussels. What was once mostly idle chitchat has morphed into conversations about Holmes’ work. 

“Now that I did the interview where I talked about my work, people are talking to me about the work itself, so now I have conversations about diplomacy and what I think about Joe Biden because they know what I do,” Holmes said. 

Zwift allows for actual conversations via headsets through an add-on, but Holmes sticks to texting on his old-school Blackberry phone and its QWERTY keyboard. 

“I know it sounds tricky to run and type, but it’s actually not that bad. You kind of get used to it,” Holmes said. 

Holmes started running marathons shortly after college to challenge himself. He moved up to ultra-marathons after that and now has a goal of running 100 uninterrupted miles on the treadmill. 

“One hundred miles is attractive to me because it’s going to be so physically horrendous,” Holmes said. “I’m not sure if I have a masochistic streak or something, but I’m just attracted to these really difficult and challenging physical endeavors. If I am able to do this, I think it will be because of my support team: my wife and kids.” 

Holmes wife, Lindsay Barna, also teaches at W&M as an adjunct professor in the Law School, and she is the assistant director of the Domestic Violence Clinic

Perhaps reaching that century mark will lead to more fame for Holmes. For now, his time with Izzard will be enough.