Any given day, one might see 35-year-old Justin Gillette, a Goshen College alumnus, running on the Millrace Trail, pushing a stroller as he chips away at his mileage for the week, which averages near 80. Chances are, he’ll wave as he passes, perhaps briefly stop to talk before he continuing down the trail.
For many people, to run a marathon would be an accomplishment of a lifetime. For a select handful, the goal is to win a marathon. Gillette takes it one step further; he is well on his way to winning 100 marathons, a feat that would into the upper echelon of endurance athletes.
Gillette currently has 96 marathon wins, having run approximately 180-190 total races. He is ranked second in the nation for number of marathons won. There are only four or five people in the world who have won more marathons.
Gillette caught the marathon bug at the age of 16. This was in November of 1999, when Y2K was threatening to bring and end to the world.
“The world was not prepared to go into the 21st century, and so I wanted to clear my entire bucket list before the world came to an end,” said Gillette. As the end approached, Gillette began to fall in love with the sport. “We were six weeks away from doomsday, so I went and ran and then I thought, ‘Oh, well maybe I’ll do another one.’”
A three-time All-American in the marathon distance at GC, Gillette holds the school record of 2:29.14, which stands today. As a student, Gillette qualified and ran in a number of outside marathons, including his first Boston Marathon—2:34.33, good for 90th place.
“He definitely trained harder than anyone else on the XC and track teams,” said Doug Yoder, a former Goshen College cross country and track head coach who recruited Gillette. “He was only really focused on running and competing the best he could.”
Currently, Gillette’s marathon personal record is 2 hours and 25 minutes, which averages out to just over a 5:30 pace per mile.
Gillette’s racing has taken him to the far reaches of the country, including Bar Harbor, Maine, and Keauhou, Hawaii, providing him with unique opportunities and sponsorships. Following one victory in Hawaii, Gillette discovered that part of the prize was a dedication of a local tree in his name. There is also a restaurant in the Bahamas, the Conch N’ Kalik Bar and Grill, where Gillette and his family now are able to eat free forever.
“The restaurant owner, I think his name is Franky, asked me what I was in town for,” he said. After telling the owner he was running a marathon, the restaurant owner said, “if you win and you tell the T.V. that you eat here, then you can eat here the rest of your life for free.”
“And so I won,” said Gillette. To this day, his marathon jersey hangs on the restaurant’s wall.
Now a father of four children, Gillette only runs 10 marathons each year, which is down from the more than 20 he used to run. He also knows he needs to preserve his health. Two years ago, Gillette was diagnosed with an esophagus condition that severely limited his ability to swallow. At its worst, he choked at nearly every meal, and he had the Heimlich performed on him over 100 times.
“You ever been to South Side Soda Shop?” Gillette said. “I almost died there.” He noted with amusement that there are places all around town where this has happened. This drastically affected Gillette’s nutritional intake.
Gillette was forced to temporarily put running on the back burner and focus on recovery.
“Every athlete has different injuries,” he said. Gillette has lived with the condition for 2 years. Luckily, he is starting to recover.
In the early spring of 2018, Gillette was told he’d be able to eat a full diet by the end of the year. On March 26, 2018, he announced his return to marathoning, posting on Twitter: “Not a fan of cold and snowy marathons but snagged my 95th marathon win.”
“[Gillette] will reach 100 marathon wins,” said Yoder. “He is very dedicated to training and being the best prepared that he can be.” When Gillette hits 100 wins, he plans on having a celebration in the Fellowship Hall of College Mennonite Church on campus, complete with personalized bobbleheads.
With the milestone victories in sight, Gillette said, “Pick a shorter race to do a lot of. Marathons are long.”