When running is a way of life

Justin Gillette... “I enjoy racing in the heat so much more than running in the cold.”-

“I would like to keep racing marathons long enough for my children, aged four and one, to be able to remember the experience. I am 31 years old right now, and hopefully I can be competitive for another 9-10 years,” says Justin Gillette, who is very passionate about long-distance races. By G. Viswanath.

On January 19, 2014, Justin Gillette and Melissa Gillette reached a major milestone as husband-wife couple to win a marathon for the 10th time. Both Americans, they won the 5th Marathon Bahamas in Nassau, an event for cancer awareness.

In an interview to Sportstar, Justin talks of his obsession for running marathons. Though the American has won a number of marathons multiple times, he is way behind compatriot Chuck Engle, who has won 168 marathons. Behind Engle are Helge Hafsas (Norway, 162 wins), Jobst von Palombini (Germany, 153) and Ole Sporleder (Germany, 79).


Question: The numbers are awesome. You have run in 135 marathons and won 72. Why this passion and dedication for running marathons?

Answer: I love the idea of living without regrets. When my grandpa got older and approached his death in 2010, he talked about all the things he would have done differently; the opportunities he would have pursued. That is when it dawned upon me that I only get one shot at running successfully and I need to make the most of it. So I attacked marathon running with determination and to win more than most people think is possible.

When and where did you run your first marathon? What kind of competition did you face?

The first was the Mid-South Marathon in Wynne, Arkansas. I was a young and inexperienced 16-year-old who just wanted to run a marathon to knock it off my life’s ‘To Do’ list. I ran a 3:19:42s. I have run some big marathons; the Boston Marathon is probably the biggest race I have done. I come from a rural, farming community and hence the big city races are pretty stressful since I do not have much experience navigating big cities.

You run week after week, which goes against medical advice. Moreover, it’s said an athlete is advised to taper off and relax three weeks before a marathon. How do you manage to run in so many races? How often do you consult doctors because of so much strain that you put on your limbs and your mental faculties?

I try to avoid going to the doctor’s office. I am afraid a doctor would suggest I eat better, race less and rest more, which is not what I want to hear. I do visit an athletic trainer to work on my muscle soreness or minor aches. She understands that I like to race a lot, so she has yet to tell me to back it down.

What is your practice routine? Does it include gym work?

I split my year into four parts and train accordingly; winter-based training where I just run 10-15 miles easy a day, then in spring I add speed workouts; in summer I do my highest mileage and hardest training. I will go up to 140 miles per week during this time of the year. In the fall, I aim to do my fastest racing, so I cut back on the miles and keep the speed work going. I like to do a lot of mile repeats and do a few 30-mile runs in the summer. I do not lift weights at all. In my spare time, I like to cut and split firewood. I think this gives me a pretty good physical workout to keep my muscles in shape.

The Kenyans, Ethiopians and almost all marathon runners do high-altitude training. Do you?

I wish I could train at high altitude. Unfortunately, I do not. I have a wife and two little children, so I have to stay close to home for training. My wife (Melissa) is a PhD student at the University of Notre Dame. We live about a half-hour from the campus.

Justin Gillettewith his wife Melissa and son Miles.-

The shortest and longest gaps between marathons you have run…

The shortest gap has been just one day. I ran back-to-back marathons in 2011. It was pretty hard! I am not sure if I will do it again for a while. Sometimes I will have up to four weeks between races, but that is pretty rare anymore. I like two-week gaps at best.

You must have run most marathons in the USA. Which have you won the most?

I have won the Johnstown Marathon in Pennsylvania six times, Kona Marathon, Hawaii, the Veterans Marathon, Columbia City, Indiana, five times each.

Obviously, you have run in varying temperatures…

The coldest marathon I have ever run is in eight degrees Fahrenheit at the Gobbler Grind Marathon in Overland Park, Kansas, in November 2013. I wore several layers of clothing, which made running fast pretty much impossible. The hottest marathon I have ever run is the Kona Marathon, Hawaii, which is the location of the Ironman World Championships. It is famous for its hot lava fields. I won the Kona Marathon five years in a row, from 2008 to 2012. I enjoy racing in the heat so much more than running in the cold.

Which marathon has been the most demanding?

Probably the Veterans Marathon in Columbia City in 2011. The day prior to the event, I ran a marathon in Sarasota, Florida. Once I completed the marathon in Florida I flew back home to Indiana, caught a few hours of sleep and raced the next day. I was able to win both marathons, but it was very painful the second day.

Have you at any time thought of giving up running marathon?

I have been running marathons pretty frequently since graduating from Goshen College, Indiana, in 2005. Since then I have been pretty successful and mainly been injury free. In the summer of 2013, I had my first major injury — plantar fasciitis (inflammation of the thick tissue on the bottom of the foot). I ended up missing most of two months’ running and became depressed over my fitness fading away. In October 2013, I thought it would be easier to retire than to work back into shape. But then, it would be a cowardly way of doing things. I am not back to my pre-injury levels yet, but I am gaining.

Did you ever think of running at the Olympics or IAAF events?

In order to compete at the Olympics I would need to run under 2:10 and my personal best is only 2:25. I ran my personal best in my fifth marathon in six weeks. I learned pretty quickly that my specialty was in being able to race fast and frequently instead of being able to run really fast only once or twice a year.

How many times have you and your wife Melissa won a marathon the same year?

Melissa and I have won the same marathon 10 times since we got married. When we go to a marathon and win, it really makes our trip home more enjoyable. We can share good memories of the race and have matching awards to decorate the house with.

Which is the race you have enjoyed running the most and for how long do you wish to run?

I would like to keep racing marathons long enough for my children, aged four and one, to be able to remember the experience. I am 31 years old right now, and hopefully, I can be competitive for another 9-10 years. Once I am 40 years old, my children will be involved in their own sports which will take priority over my running.