Sometimes it takes a while for what he is saying to sink in.

But as Kelly McKay continues to explain what he means by a Christmas Bird Count marathon, and the reality of it begins to dawn, people's reaction turns to something akin to shock.

A Christmas Bird Count marathon has nothing to do with a 26.1-mile race on foot. Rather, it is a grueling, sleep-deprived, journey McKay makes by car so that he can count birds in 23 different locations over 23 consecutive days. Sometimes he returns to his home in Hampton, Illinois, for some rest at night, and sometimes he stays where he is in hotels. But either way, he averages only about three hours of sleep, relying on Pepsi to keep himself awake.

"You really did that?" people will ask.

Yes, he did. And not only once, but nine times, finishing his ninth on Jan. 5 of this year.

I've written about McKay's marathons in this space before, most recently in 2016. I'm returning to the subject today because I find both the marathons and McKay to be amazing.

The Christmas Bird Count that begins on Dec. 14 and ends on Jan. 5 is sponsored by the National Audubon Society. People throughout the country count the number of birds at their feeders or out in the field at predetermined "counting circles" that are 15 miles in diameter. Different circles are assigned on different days. Over time, the data reflect trends.

In addition to being the country's only known marathoner, confirmed by the Audubon Society, McKay is second in the country in terms of individual counts overall with 476. Only Paul W. Sykes, of Watkinsville, Georgia, whose count stands at 525, has done more.

"He's trying to hold me at bay," McKay says of Sykes. "We touch base every year. He knows exactly where I am, and I know exactly where he's at." 

McKay doubts he'll ever catch Sykes because "I gotta get a real job with benefits," he says.

At present, McKay is a self-employed wildlife biologist, supporting himself by doing biological surveys for various groups and companies, which gives him the flexibility of taking 23 days off between December and January.

If he secures a full time job, he doubts he'll be able to take that time off. "I don't think Paul has much to worry about," he says.

McKay's day-by-day journey for 2017-18 is printed in the accompanying chart. He had two all-night drives, including traveling from the area of Carbondale, Illinois, to Sterling/Rock Falls on New Year's night. That also was the coldest stretch of his marathon, with the temperature on Jan. 2 going from a low of minus 23 to single digits during the day, McKay said.

He admits that sometimes it's really hard to stay awake. "What makes it tough is that there's nobody to talk to."

But McKay would do a count every day of the year if he could.

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