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In 1999, when Justin Gillette was 16 years old and living in Ironton, Mo., he and a friend decided to run a marathon. Despite his lack of experience at the distance, the race went well and he was immediately hooked. Two years later, he won his first marathon, and he has gotten used to winning ever since. Today, Gillette — who now lives in Goshen, Ind., and boasts a marathon PB of 2:25:44 — has an incredible 114 marathon wins to his name, and he hopes to add even more to his resume. In fact, if he can hit 200, he’ll get free pizza for life at a pizza shop in his hometown called the Iron Mule. It’s a lofty goal, but with free pizza on the line, it’s well worth the time and effort to get there.
Gillette’s winning ways
A long time has passed since Gillette won his first marathon, but he’s still winning races regularly. In November, he ran back-to-back marathons at an event in Fort Worth, Texas, called the Texas Quad, crossing the line first in both and securing the 113th and 114th wins of his career. This was only Gillette’s third time running marathons on consecutive days, and while he says “there is a steep learning curve” when it comes to back-to-back racing, he fared pretty well.
“If you run too hard on the first day then you’ll have nothing left for the second day,” he says. “I wanted to get in two quality races regardless of finish place.” Gillette says he left Texas feeling satisfied with both efforts, and getting the two wins was just a bonus. He also notes that this was his first race win in Texas, which leaves only 15 states in which he hasn’t won a marathon. He hopes to check off all 50 states at some point in his career.
Gillette has four children, ages two up to 11, he operates a firewood business and he coaches a number of athletes. On top of all this, he still finds time to train and, of course, race. He tries to run as many marathons as he can each year, but the total number depends on two factors: his home life and how his legs feel. “I have to be a present dad and husband,” he says. In 2020, despite the pandemic, lockdowns and a calf injury, Gillette managed to win 13 marathons, noting that it will take him several more years of winning the same numbers of races to reach 200.
The pizza bet
Before Gillette made the deal at the Iron Mule, he had a similar (although much smaller-scale) agreement with the owner of a restaurant in the Bahamas. It was 2015, and Gillette was preparing to run the Bahamas Marathon. The night before the race, he went to dinner with his wife and friends, and when the owner asked why they were on the island, Gillette responded candidly: “I mentioned that I was there to win the marathon.” The owner laughed and told Gillette that if he won the race, he would eat free at the restaurant for life. As usual, Gillette got the win, and he returned the next night for a meal on the house.
"Not long after that I was at the Iron Mule sharing the story with Coach B,” Gillette says. Coach B is Don Barzowski, owner of the Iron Mule and coach of the high school cross-country team in Ironton. “He offered the same deal at his restaurant — free food for life, but only once I have won more marathons than anyone in the U.S.” Gillette is close, and he currently ranks second on that list, only behind Chuck Engle, who has won “around 200” marathons. Gillette isn’t sure of Engle’s exact tally, but he says he believes Engle has retired, so the total number to beat won’t be changing anytime soon. “My plan is to keep focused on myself and if I get in the 180 to 190 marathon win total, then I’ll check on the record.”
Gillette says he eats at the Iron Mule whenever he visits Ironton, and he always makes sure to update Barzowski on his progress. “Each win, I tell him that I’m getting closer, but then he serves me humble pie and says I’m also getting older,” Gillette says. “At 114 wins, I know it’s a stretch to catch Engle, but it doesn’t mean I wont try my best. Free pizza is a motivator.”(01/13/2021) Views: 262 ⚡AMP