GOSHEN — Local runner Justin Gillette has reached a milestone in his career – his 100th marathon win.
“I guess it just means I’ve been doing it for a long time,” Gillette, 36, said modestly.
Growing up in poverty in Missouri, Gillette’s original intention was to become a basketball player, he said.
“I start running in middle school to get in shape for basketball, and then I found out pretty quickly that I was better at running than I was at basketball,” he said. “With running, you’ve got one skill to develop, and it’s go fast. With basketball, you’ve got to develop jumping, passing, shooting, defense, and it was maybe a little bit too many skills that I just couldn’t master, so I ran.”
Gillette ran throughout high school and completed his first marathon on graduation day.
“It was pretty cool, but it was also pretty painful because I had blisters on my feet walking across the stage.”
Attending Goshen College after high school, Gillette credited much of his success to coaches and trainers during his college career.
“Running meant a lot to me because it became my ticket to get into college,” he said. “I grew up in poverty. I started my life over and I’ve made money running since I got out of college. It means a lot to me because of what it helped me achieve in life. It was the difference between being in poverty and beating poverty, the way I saw it.”
Doug Yoder, Goshen College’s former head cross country and track coach and director of the Rec-FitnessCenter knew Gillette was destined for greatness.
“I’ve coached a lot of athletes and you have to have a certain will and desire to be able to accomplish what Justin has,” he said. “He has a lot of drive to succeed and get better and to not be satisfied with going through the motions but being at a higher level than most people are OK with. That transfers not just to athletics but in every aspect.”
In Richmond, Kentucky, on March 23, Gillette completed his 100th 26.2-mile marathon win, at the Quarter Horse Marathon. The event is billed as a relay, with four runners on each team, but Gillette ran it on his own.
“I always kind of liked the marathon because you could just run a steady pace for a long time,” he said.
His wife, Melissa, is also a runner. Together they have four children with whom they enjoy taking on races and running.
“When we had one kid I’d run with a jogging stroller, and now we’re at the point where I run with a double jogging stroller,” he laughed. “I think people recognize my red jogging stroller running around more than they recognize me. We’ll run 20 miles sometimes and be pushing my kids for two and a half hours and the kids will just sit there. We’ll talk to them about birds and things that we see along the way.”
Joining a select group of individuals worldwide who have won 100 marathons, Gillette is one of only two people in the United States to hold the distinction. The other is Chuck “MarathonJunkie” Engle, of Lancaster, Ohio, who, at 48, has won over 200 marathons.
“I think it’s a little bit addicting,” Gillette admitted. “It’s one of those things where if you achieve a goal, and then you create another goal and another and you never really settle. If you don’t run, it’s hard to fall asleep. It’s like you don’t have your drug for the day. It changes your mood.”
To date, Gillette has participated in roughly 180 marathons across 40 states.
I can’t say enough about his mental strength,” Yoder, his coach, said. “If you don’t have the right mindset and if you aren’t strong mentally, you’re not going to accomplish what he has been able to.”
Gillette added that location matters less than the atmosphere of the event.
“Phoenix, Arizona, was a good event because the race director made it super fun. You’re running 26 miles, so it’s painful no matter where you are. It has more to do with the atmosphere, who is going, what friends you’ll see, what the weather conditions are.”
He’s planning a few marathons in April, he said, adding that Goshen’s trails will help him along the way.
“The reason we decided to live in Goshen is because it’s got a ton of paths where you can push a jogging stroller. When we were trying to decide where to live as a family we knew that I was going to have to run a lot and it’s nice to be able to do that with the kids. The PumpkinVine and Goshen Millrace, they have some really nice paths in town. People don’t understand how lucky we are to have these trails.”