Marathon Man

John Milligan is a goal-oriented kind of guy, in business and at play. The team leader for Vermeer’s AXIS program and running enthusiast has set an intriguing and ambitious goal for himself outside the office: to run a marathon in every state by his 50th birthday.

He drew up this plan soon after completing his previous one in 2008, which was completing the Boston Marathon. And he’s off to a running start (note lame pun!) as he’s already crossed 11 states off his marathon list.

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“I participated in one of the most amazing experiences of my life when I completed the Boston Marathon in April 2008. When I completed Boston, I thought, ‘Well, now what?’ There’s not a bigger race than Boston from a marathon standpoint,” John explains. “After reaching that goal, there was an anticlimactic feeling that stuck with me, so I decided to up the ante and I now have a goal to run a marathon in every state.”

Between September 2009 and February 2010, John completed marathons in Nebraska, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Indiana, Georgia and Arizona. Those races doubled his total states, which also include Texas, Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa and Massachusetts.

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To reach his 50th state by the time he turns 50, John, now 40, needs to average three to four marathons a year.

Today, John is a full-blown running enthusiast but that wasn’t always the case. Growing up in Brazil, John played soccer and continued that in college, which included a demanding training regimen of mandatory running. “Running was a means to an end and was something I had to do,” he says.

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But then John suffered an in-match serious neck injury during his senior year, diagnosed with torn neck muscles and an acute concussion. He has lived with intolerable neck and back pain ever since that day in 1991 and had tried everything for alleviation including pain meds and even contemplating drastic surgery to realign several of his cervical vertebrae.

By 2001, John was traveling extensively on overseas business and it was taking its toll on his body — a combination of not eating properly and lack of exercise left him out of shape, feeling sluggish and still dealing with his physical pain. Marathons were still not in his line of vision.

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“So I started to run consistently. It began with 20- to 40-minute runs and I slowly increased the time. Then I started paying more attention to the distance instead,” John says. “I pretty much would just lace up and go run. Every week I would add a mile to my longest run.”

John had never gone more than six miles in a run but that changed in 2001 when a colleague asked if he would run with him as he trained for a 20-km race that June. “I asked how far he was he going [in his training run] and he said, ‘Eight.’ I couldn’t imagine anyone having any reason to go that far, so I thought he meant only eight minutes,” he remembers. “When I realized he meant eight miles, I talked him down to 6.5. It was one of the single-most miserable runs of my life. Lucky for him he was faster than me or I probably would have pushed him in a ditch.”

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As they ran, talk gravitated toward running a marathon that fall — a goal was set. It was also during this time that the physical pain he endured from his injury was now manageable. “There’s nothing more motivating than having a race on the schedule,” he said. “Except in my case, the motivation was that the pain truly was becoming more manageable. Endorphins became my best friend.”

John ran in the San Antonio marathon in November 2001and his victory was finishing the race. “I didn’t set any land-speed records, as my goal was simply to finish. But by then I was hooked,” he said.

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John said he was hooked on everything about marathons: “The feeling of completing a goal — running a marathon to me is a pretty big goal — the exhilaration of completing a marathon and the interaction you have with the other runners and the support you get from the crowd,” John explains. “And just the feeling of crossing that finish line after having been out there for three to three and half hours…there’s something very addicting about that.”

The Boston Marathon was a goal of John’s that he met sooner than he expected. To qualify for the Boston race, he needed to run a marathon in 3:15:59 (for his age group). He ran three marathons in 2007, qualifying for the Boston Marathon in Illinois with a time of 3:10:08. “To a lot of people, the ultimate goal in running marathons is to get to Boston,” John said. “I thought it would take me five or six years and I got in the first year I tried.”

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And thus far, his Boston experience remains his favorite — from the race to the people to the journey to get there. He has qualified for the 2011 Boston race. “The Boston Marathon is just fantastic,” John said. “The amount of support you get from all of the communities…spectators average about 20,000 per mile. I wrote my name on my arm and people who I didn’t know were shouting my name, offering encouragement.”

John says he loves what running offers you — physically and emotionally. And he encourages his AXIS team members to get off that couch and join him in the challenge. “No one will take me up on that,” John says, laughing. “I think they look at me and think, ‘You’re absolutely nuts!’ But in all seriousness, I’m just on a runner’s high and just feel so good and want them to feel the same. You don’t have to go out and run long distance, you can walk a few miles…just exercise.”

Sharon M. Bueno is managing editor of Trenchless Technology.

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Best time: 3:10:08
Best finish: 29th overall, Quad Cities Marathon, Illinois (644 entries)
Pre-race snack: two bagels, two bananas, Gatorade and coffee
Running shoes: Buys them every 10 to 12 weeks
Best Place to run: Boston
Favorite runner’s movie: Prefontaine (1997)

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