He has shin splints and stress fractures in his legs. He doesn't train; in fact, he hates running. He has lungs ravaged from smoking for more than 30 years before he quit.

But on Sunday, Raef Guirges intends to run his 100th marathon when he hits the streets for the Long Beach International City Bank Marathon. It will be the third Long Beach race for the Torrance resident.

Guirges, 56, won't be hard to spot. He'll be the one with the large American flag and a T-shirt that both carry the same message: "God is Love."

It is the message, he says, that carries him through 26.2 miles of agony and has carried him through 99 marathons in all 50 states and on three continents.

Runners head west on Shoreline Drive near the start of the Long Beach International City Bank Marathon on Oct. 9, 2011. (Jeff Gritchen / Long Beach
Runners head west on Shoreline Drive near the start of the Long Beach International City Bank Marathon on Oct. 9, 2011. (Jeff Gritchen / Long Beach Press-Telegram)

"It is just a message that equals peace," Guirges said. "I believe very strongly about this message. It has turned my life around."

Guirges added that while he is a Christian, the message he carries is for all faiths.

"The only reason I run is to bring the word and carry the flag, because I believe I owe it to America," said Guirges, who emigrated from Egypt in 1981. "I hate to run."

For this reason, Guirges says he doesn't train for the marathons, which he typically finishes in about 5 hours. His preparation consists of soaking in Epsom salts the night before a race.

To help deal with the pain from his stress fractures, Guirges takes pain medication and wraps his lower legs in material cut from wet suits. Typically, he said he can't eat for a couple of days after a race because of pain.

And yet he has been driven to continue his quest to carry his message forth.

Guirges said he had his epiphany while watching the Los Angeles Marathon on television in 2004. At the time, he was a pack-a-day smoker with a 35-year habit and a sedentary job as an accountant.

Guirges vowed to run in the 2005 Los Angeles Marathon and carry forth his "God is Love" message, which he said he was already stamping onto any cash that passed through his hands.

A run around the block gradually built up to a couple of 10-kilometer runs, about 6.2 miles, before Guirges took on the marathon.

Once he finished that first marathon in Los Angeles, Guirges said he was hooked.

At a marathon in Little Rock, Ark., Guirges said he met a man who told him about the 50 States Marathon Club. That gave Guirges a new goal.

"He really encouraged me," said Guirges, who now believes that man was sent to him to deliver the message. "He said 'You have a nice message.' I told him, 'I don't have the time, I have my own business as a CPA."'

But it seems once an idea settles in Guirges, he has to follow through.

In a couple of dizzying stretches, Guirges said he ran marathons in eight and seven consecutive weeks.

"I just wanted to finish the 50 so bad," he said.

In December 2007, in a driving snowstorm, Guirges said he reached that goal in the Roxbury Marathon in Connecticut.

In 2006, Guirges said he first began suffering pain in his legs from running. He didn't know there were shoes designed for distances and ran his early marathons in sneakers.

When he went to an orthopedist, Guirges said he was told he needed to stay off his feet.

Guirges said he told the doctor he had already promised his cousin's wife he would run with her in Miami. He just couldn't let her down.

"The doctors told me not to walk, but I know there is something stronger than me, than anyone else. I know God wants me to do this, so I just keep going," Guirges said.

In all of his 99 races, Guirges said he has never failed to complete a run, never fallen or suffered a serious injury, never experienced so much as a car problem or flight delay -- something he attributes to a higher power.

A big party is planned for Guirges after the Long Beach race, which he said he promised his wife and two children would be his last.

"I told him that after a hundred, you just have to stop," said his wife, Rouma. "It's too hard."

Yet she's been nothing but supportive during Guirges' almost 100 races, she said. She has attended most of them to cheer him on and stands behind his message.

"I think he's preaching the word of God around the world," she said.

Secretly, though, he now has the idea of joining the Seven Continents Marathon Club, which now has 77 members and would, of course, require participation in the Antarctic Ice Marathon.

"I promised my wife and kids, this is it," Guirges said of the Long Beach race. "If I tell my wife and kids (about another race), they'll scream at me and make it worse for me."

While he hasn't shared this new aspiration with his wife yet, in a separate interview she said that if Guirges truly wants to continue, she won't stand in his way.

"If he would like to run again, I'm not going to stop it, really," she said.

For now it seems Guirges can't stop his love-God, hate-running journey, and he's already contemplating a Tucson race in December.

"I refuse to die like anyone else," he said. "God is love. Stop the hating and the killing."


greg.mellen@presstelegram.com. 562-714-2093, twitter.com/gregmellen