GRAND FORKS—Seven days, seven half-marathons, seven continents.
A grueling week, but Byron "Fireball" Ball—an airman at Grand Forks Air Force Base and a father of two—muscled through, pushing through sunburn and fatigue to finish races from Antarctica to Australia for a nearly 20-hour total running time. His races wound past the mountains of South Africa, the cobblestones of Portugal and the sunny skies of Miami, and he tackled them all with what fellow runners call a charismatic, humble doggedness.
"Just don't give up," Ball said last week. "It doesn't matter if you have to crawl, walk, whatever. Right now it may suck, but later you'll look back and say, 'Hey, I did that.' "
Ball, 37, is the son of an airman, following his military family to Germany and back again as he grew up before joining the Air Force himself in 1998. He saw the world—South Carolina, South Korea, Japan, Texas and now North Dakota—and he's deployed to Iraq three times. For much of his time in the Air Force, he's worked as a firefighter, though now his duties tend toward squadron command and morale. He lives with his wife and two children not too far away from Choice Health and Fitness, where he's often trained.
Ball said his journey around the world started in 2016, when he saw a documentary about Ted Jackson, a 43-year-old Englishman who ran seven marathons on seven continents in a week to raise money to fight multiple sclerosis, a condition Jackson's wife battles.
Ball was captivated and inspired, and was soon running races of his own. He ran six marathons in six states in six days in 2016, driving himself from state to state, hotel to hotel, sometimes in the driver's seat with bags of ice against his legs. He ran a half-Ironman race—that's a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and a half marathon—that he drove to in Calgary, Alta.
And after eyeing the race and juggling his schedule for about two years, he jumped in the World Marathon Challenge, set to run from Jan. 31 through Feb. 5. He left Friday, Jan. 26, from Winnipeg then went on to Toronto to Ethiopia to Cape Town, South Africa, where he arrived at 3 p.m. Sunday local time, and then had an orientation about an upcoming race in Antarctica on Monday. And on Tuesday, he was running.
"I think It was actually colder in North Dakota that day than in Antarctica," he said. "When I was running I was thinking, 'Man, I can't believe I'm actually doing this.' "
The next day he raced in Cape Town, where he marveled at the mountains—and where he learned the hard way to wear sunscreen—and raced the day after in Perth, Australia. The next day he was in Dubai.
"You ever hear people say, 'Money can't buy you happiness?'" He asked. "People who say that, they haven't been to Dubai."
Next up was Lisbon, Portugal, and then in Cartagena, Colombia, and finished in Miami.
"Once I was done with the whole race, once I stopped and stayed still, you just realize everything hurts," he said of returning home, joking that once he was back in North Dakota, all he could do was sleep. "Everything was just hurting. Groin, calves, the webs in your feet."
But he's not finished yet. Ball dedicated his runs to Chief Master Sgt. Richard L. Etchberger, a Medal of Honor recipient recognized for valor in the Vietnam War after he'd died on a mission in Laos. The airman leadership school at Grand Forks Air Force Base is named after him.
Ball said he's been able to raise about $3,000 for the memorial foundation named after Etchberger, which provides leadership awards and support for Air Force families. He'll soon fly to Montgomery, Ala., for commemorative ceremonies and a footrace memorializing the 50th anniversary of the battle in which Etchberger and his fellow airmen were killed.
Fellow runners who were with Ball on their trip around the world remember their time together fondly. One runner from the group scratched, and Ball ended up with his ski goggles. On the plane that flew from race to race, he'd wait until runners fell asleep and pose next to them, goggles on—his way of remembering the runner who couldn't make it and keeping his fellow runners' spirits up.
"Byron was a—probably everything you would expect out of someone who serves in the military," said fellow runner J.P. Caudill. "(He was) driven. Very driven, very motivated. He never looked like he would give up. He was always motivated to get to the finish line. Always encouraging others as they were going by, and everyone was encouraging him as well."