Ever toed the line for a race worried you might finish dead last? Try starting there. That’s exactly what Iraq veteran J.R. Martinez will be doing on November 4th in the ING New York City Marathon. But for J.R., every person ahead of him will have a dollar sign written across their back: For every runner he passes, Timex will donate $1 to New York Road Runner’s youth programs.
J.R. is no stranger to starting from zero. Just two months after deploying to Iraq, the Humvee he was driving hit an IED, leaving him with burns over a third of his body. It took nearly three years and dozens of surgeries before he was discharged from the hospital—and the military—lugging a solid 65 extra pounds on his 5’9” frame.
A celebratory trip to Cancun with some friends was his wake up call for getting back into shape. Seeing his flabby T-shirt-clad body surrounded by bare chests and bronzed pecs, he was ready for a change. Back home in Georgia he did a total 360, cleaning up his diet and running. In three months he was down 30 pounds. He went on to several acting roles, including playing a vet on All My Children, before taking the stage—and winning—Dancing with the Stars. His book, Full of Heart: My Story of Survival, Strength, and Spirit will be out October 30. Here’s how J.R. is tackling the 26.2 mile challenge.
Confront your challenge head-on. “When I was a high school football player growing up in Georgia, I hated running because of the heat. When I came back weighing 240 pounds and started running, I put on a sweater. I made myself even hotter because I just felt like I had to sweat all that junk out.”
Don’t fear pain. “Everything I’ve been through has definitely given me the mentality of powering through. Burns are a painful and difficult thing, and I prided myself on taking minimal pain meds. But the pain is just a test—it will go away. And if I stop I just have more time to think about it and mentally create more pain.”
But know when to cut yourself a break. “Don’t be foolish and damage yourself either. If you’re tired, if your body needs a break, listen to your body and just stop and walk for a block and pick it right back up and keep going.”
Don’t go it alone. “Two years ago I got a black lab named Romeo. He’s my running partner—we run everywhere together. Even though he has two more legs than me, and he should run faster than me, I just try to keep up with him. He’s my motivation. Last night we ran eight miles. He’s right there with me.”
Ask for advice. “I’m an amateur, so I'm always asking people for running tips, especially through Twitter (Tweet me at #runjrrun). I used to get blisters on my toes on my long runs, but people turned me on to Injinji socks, which are like gloves for your feet. They’re a pain in the ass to put on—they go between all your toes—but they’re great.”
Commit yourself even when things don’t go according to plan. “My job (as a motivational speaker) is not a nine-to-five. I’m on a plane in one city one day, another city the next, back to back. It’s hard. I got a late start on training because I was finishing my book, so I didn’t really start training till the middle of July. I’m not on the traditional path of marathon training—I missed that whole boat—but I’ve got mad respect for people who do marathons and train like this. It’s hard mentally let alone physically. I’m just trying to do the best I can possibly freaking do. Last night I flew home to L.A. from Colorado, ate dinner, and went for my hour and a half run at 9 p.m.”
Find your own goal. “I don’t want to embarrass myself on November 4 in front of millions of people, and I want to raise money for this program. I want to help raise money to teach kids about a healthy lifestyle. How cool is it to say you actually did it, that you attempted it and you did it? My long-term goal is simply to say I want to finish the race in a strong powerful way.”
Trust yourself. “I never did ballroom dancing prior to being on the Dancing With The Stars, and I never ran a marathon prior to this. There were days on the show when I woke up, my feet hurt, and it would take me 20 minutes to get to the bathroom. It was like walking on glass, but I did it and I was able to prove to myself that I could do this. Everything in my life up to this point given me the strength and courage to believe that I’ll get through this if I just push myself to power through.”
But don’t trust your gut. “I’ll tell you what sucks about running: I don’t now what it is, and maybe this is too much information, but all of a sudden I have to use the bathroom in the middle of running. I don’t know what the hell it is—maybe it’s all that bouncing around but what am I going to do on race day? I hope they have Porta Potties lined up. I tell everybody just try not to eat a couple hours before, maybe a banana and water. That’s why you lose weight running marathons.”
Believe in your ability no matter what. “Nine and a half years ago I was in a San Antonio intensive care unit being taught how to walk. Now, not only have I taught myself to walk, but I taught myself to ballroom dance, and I’m about to run 26.2 miles. I don’t care who you are, that shows you can freaking make it, you can do it. There are endless possibilities, you just have to create the new normal for yourself.”