MADISON HEIGHTS — When Jon Austin retired as city manager of Madison Heights in 2013, he had been the longest-serving person in the role at 21 years — a marathon in its own right. But now Austin has run a literal marathon, in each of the 50 states — one of the top feats of distance running. And he’s not quite ready to slow down.
“I feel that God has blessed me with people in my life that have helped me complete this long journey,” Austin said in an email. “I look forward to the future and new challenges that lie ahead.”
Austin, 63, a 30-year resident of Madison Heights, was recently approved as a certified finisher by the 50 State Marathon Club. His first marathon — the San Antonio Las Colonias Marathon — was in 1984, when he was 26 and living in Texas.
A marathon is 26.2 miles long. Austin’s personal best time was three hours and 14 minutes, during the Kiawah Island Golf Resort Marathon in South Carolina in 2013 when he was 56. Most of the marathons Austin completed were after his retirement that year, traveling mostly by car to minimize expenses.
His fastest times have also been posted since 2013, winning his age group race 13 times, making the podium in second or third place an additional 10 times, and finishing in the Top 10 an additional 13 times. His best age group performance was in Louisville in 2015, when he won his age group of 86 men. And his best overall finish was in Casper, Wyoming in 2014, when he finished 12th among all participants.
The goal to run the marathon in all 50 states came about when he met a fellow runner at a marathon in 2002 who was vying for the feat. Austin had already done a number of runs by then, and after completing his 10th state marathon in 2010, he was accepted into the 50 State Marathon Club to officially undertake the quest.
To date, Austin has run over 50,000 miles and 405 races, including 59 marathons, over the span of 40 years. He said his faith gave him strength. He also thanked his wife Lori for her support — planning trips, helping with driving and more — as well as his former running coach Jackie Rzrepecki, his Rochester-based running group Rzrepecki Racing, and Clint Verran Sports Medicine, especially assistant physical therapist Tracy Ryckaert.
He said there were difficulties at times. Over the last 10 years, Austin injured his right knee, right IT band, both shoulders, his left elbow, both hips, his right foot, both hamstrings, his lower back and more. But he also said it was worth it to visit some of the nation’s most beautiful national parks, among them Acadia, Bryce Canyon, Denali, the Grand Tetons, the Smoky Mountains, Mesa Verde, Glacier, Yellowstone, and Zion.
Austin said the most beautiful courses included the shores of Lake Superior north of Duluth, Minnesota at the 2013 Grandma’s Marathon; the waterfalls of Hilo Bay at the 2016 Big Island International Marathon; the Atlantic coastal views of the 2018 Newport Marathon; and the mountain and canyon views of the 2019 Revel Rockies Marathon.
One especially scenic finishing line, he said, was the 2015 Hartford Marathon at Bushnell Park in Connecticut, where runners were funneled through 400 colorful fall mums and passed under an 1886 brownstone arch, the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Memorial.
Another breathtaking route was the Big Island International Marathon in Hawaii, in 2016, where the first 13 miles followed west Hilo Bay. Austin described how on one side there were dark blue waters where morning surfers rode the waves that crashed on shores of charcoal-black lava rocks, while on the other side there was a lush landscape of tropical rainforests with towering waterfalls rushing down the mountains as he crossed old stone bridges on a winding road above the ocean.
Sometimes the most memorable aspect of a race was its atmosphere. Back in 2009, he ran in the New York City Marathon, the largest marathon in the world. That year there were 43,000 finishers with 45% of them being international runners. Austin was less than a block behind the beginning of the elite men’s start.
A cannon marked the start of the race, where the runners followed the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge to “New York, New York” blasting over loudspeakers. As they ran through the five boroughs of New York City, there were 2 million spectators cheering them on, with the loudest stretch being entry into Manhattan from the Queensboro Bridge to 1st Avenue, where the din from the crowd sounded like the engine of a jet taking off. The race finished at Central Park at Tavern on the Green.
Austin also ran in the 2013 Boston Marathon, finishing 50 minutes before the terrorist bombings that shocked the nation, and in the 2018 Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon, a somber event that honors the 168 Americans who died in the 1995 bombing.
Looking forward, Austin has signed up for two more marathons in the fall, and he will be revisiting North Dakota and Indiana to improve his finishing times there, which would make him one of only 130 runners in the world and the fourth in Michigan to have finished a marathon in all 50 states under the four-hour mark.
He is also considering other long-term goals, beyond 2021, including completing 100 marathons or even running international marathons. The Abbott World Marathon Majors are considered the most important high-profile races in the world (not including the Olympic Marathon), and include Chicago, New York and Boston, which Austin has already done. The other races are in London, Berlin and Tokyo. Austin is considering those, as well as the Auckland marathon, which he can work into a trip visiting his son who currently lives in New Zealand.
While Austin is no longer the city manager of Madison Heights, his passion for fitness is still present at City Hall today, in the form of a wellness program encouraging employees to be healthy. The program started in the early 2000s, inspired by Austin’s own experience near the turn of the century losing 60 pounds through diet and exercise, and improving his overall quality of life. It’s a voluntary health promotion and awareness effort.
Melissa Marsh, the current city manager, said in an email it’s been an ongoing success.
“The program has changed throughout the years regarding specific activities and incentive programs, but the core remains the same — healthy employees are happier and more productive employees,” Marsh said.
The wellness initiatives culminated in the onsite medical center MiLife, created in 2015 after Austin’s retirement, providing eligible employees and dependents with no-cost primary physician services and no-cost generic medications. And the city continues to hold its “Healthy Heights” 5K each year with the goal of keeping everyone moving.
Marsh is a runner herself, having started 20 years ago when she realized she was feeling winded taking walks with her husband. She decided to start running, starting about 100 yards and then slowing to a walk, and each day she went a bit farther.
“That summer (20 years ago) when I ran from my house to the post office, I stopped and cried! I’ve been in love with running ever since,” Marsh said.
Since then, she has completed numerous marathons and half-marathons, including qualifying for Boston and the Pikes Peak Ascent.
“The most significant thing about running is that it helped me to find my people,” Marsh said. “The running community and the friendships I’ve made running are priceless — I can’t imagine my adult life without them.
“The second best thing is the health benefits,” she said. “As the city manager, it isn’t surprising that I spend a large part of my day sitting at a desk. However, running keeps me active, gets me outdoors, controls my weight … and has given me an excellent heart rate! In addition, it reduces stress and clears my mind.”
She said she is amazed by what Austin has accomplished.
“As a runner, this is a significant achievement,” Marsh said. “Anyone who can take the time and make considerable effort to run a marathon in all 50 states should be very proud of themselves. When I was first told of (Austin’s) goal, I knew it was only a matter of time before he achieved it.”