Seven marathons in seven days on seven continents. Jonathan Terrell believes he is up to the challenge.
Mid-lifer takes on world in a week
“People have done it before, so I know it’s not impossible,” said Terrell, 55, a charter member of Legatus’ Washington, D.C. Chapter.
This coming January, Terrell will be competing in the World Marathon Challenge. In one week, participants run seven marathons on all seven continents, beginning at Novo Base in Antarctica, located in the Antarctic Circle.
Assuming there are no injuries or setbacks during training or the actual competition, Terrell will then run a combined 157.2 miles over six days in South Africa, Australia, the United Arab Emirates, Spain, Colombia and Miami. Terrell’s week will consist of running and catching chartered flights.
“When he told me, I was like, ‘Are you crazy? That doesn’t even make sense,’” said Christine Terrell, Jonathan’s wife.
Parallels of endurance, spiritual strength
From late September to early December, Jonathan will run a marathon every week to prepare himself.
“I’ve put this out there, so it would be too embarrassing not to finish,” he said. “Even if I have to crawl the last one, I’ll finish it.”
Terrell is running in the World Marathon Challenge to raise awareness and funds for children’s mental health services at Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C., a cause dear to his heart. Terrell said he figured he could generate more media attention than running a simple 5K or regular marathon.
“There is still a tremendous prejudice and discomfort in society about talking about mental health issues,” Terrell said. “As a result, even though 1 in 5 children will have some kind of mental illness, they don’t get treated until many years after the symptoms start manifesting themselves.”
As a devout Catholic, Terrell also sees strong parallels between endurance running and the spiritual life. He quotes St. Paul, who wrote to the Corinthians how athletes train and deny themselves. Terrell also notes how the Apostle encouraged the faithful to run in such a way as to win the prize of eternal life.
“This kind of endurance activity is very much a metaphor for the spiritual life,” Terrell said.
“As we know it, in the spiritual life we constantly fall down, we set ourselves up to fail, but we get back up and we go to confession, we go to Mass, and we keep at it.”
Those spiritual insights have come as Terrell, who grew up in England in the Anglican Church, has matured in the faith he embraced when he entered the Catholic Church 20 years ago. The depth of his spirituality has developed through lessons he learned from attaining the disciplines needed to finish long-distance races.
“Just as the spiritual life is a process and a daily practice, not a one-time event, so it is with endurance sports,” he said. “It’s daily training, preparing for the races. There is a lot of discipline and delayed gratification, but also tremendous rewards that come from all that.”
The first time he ran a marathon, Terrell recounted the deep satisfaction he felt when he neared the finish line to applause, uplifting music, a cheering crowd and the announcer calling out his name.
“I had this flash like, ‘Is this what’s it’s like when you get to Heaven?’ From there, I was hooked.”
Day of awakening reprioritized everything
Terrell began running almost seven years ago. He remembered waking up one morning in January 2011 and finding himself to be in the worst shape of his life. As happens with many adults, the daily demands of being a married father with two young sons and running a consulting firm over time led Terrell to stop taking care of himself.
And he noticed that not tending to his physical health affected other areas of his life, even his spirituality and his mental state.
“I was the fattest I’ve ever been. I felt disgusting, and I felt miserable,” said Terrell, who around that time had read in his diocesan newspaper about an upcoming marathon for vocations and to support seminarians.
He decided to run in a half-marathon and trained for five months. He didn’t tell anyone until right before the race. He then signed up for his first marathon as a member of the diocesan vocations team and trained for another five months.
“I enjoyed being part of that team,” Terrell said. “I enjoyed going to Mass with them and running the race in that way.” The next day, he signed up for the London Marathon as a member of a Catholic Charities team.
“So very early on, this is connected to my faith,” he said. “I started using marathon running as a spiritual exercise.”
At his fifth or sixth marathon, Terrell dedicated the whole race to his pastor, who was ill at the time. Throughout all 26.2 miles, he said the rosary and prayed to a particular saint at every mile marker.
“I offered the whole thing up, that I might through my suffering, for at least a few hours, take away my pastors’ suffering,” Terrell said.
“Jonathan’s faith is very important to him,” his wife, Christine, said. “He lives his life and runs his firm based on his faith and the beliefs that come from our Catholic faith. He derives a lot of strength from his spirituality.”
Taking Catholic leap for life
Terrell decided to become Catholic when he was still a practicing Episcopalian in New York City. Also a talented musician, he sang in the choir at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and described being moved by the homilies given by Cardinal John O’Connor, the late archbishop of New York who was staunchly pro-life.
Since he was a child, and even during his teen and young adult years when he considered himself an atheist, Terrell believed deeply in the pro-life movement. He could never understand the arguments against the unborn child’s humanity. And when he learned that his Episcopal Church had a pro-choice position on the issue, Terrell said he could no longer in good conscience continue on in that church.
His dedication to the pro-life movement is an asset to Live Action, a pro-life organization where Terrell serves on the governing board. Lila Rose, the founder and president of Live Action, said Terrell inspires her.
“I think Jonathan brings an intense focus on the things that matter most,” Rose said. “He often asks me, ‘Lila, what’s the next big thing? What’s the number-one thing we need to accomplish?’ That very intense focus is something he brings to Live Action, to his business and to his incredible workout routine.
“I like to say I’ve learned a lot of business tips from Jonathan. I can’t say I’ve picked up his workout routine,” Rose said. “I’m embarrassed when I can tell him I ran a couple of miles and he just ran 20 that morning.”
IronMan for God
To date, Terrell has run in 19 marathons, multiple triathlons and two full IronMan competitions, where participants run a full marathon after swimming 2.4 miles and a 112-mile bicycle ride.
“It’s something to run a marathon, but imagine running a marathon after doing all that?” said Christine, who added that she and the couple’s sons, ages 12 and 14, have planned family vacations around marathons and have accompanied Jonathan to races in Paris, Rome and England.
Terrell, who trains between 20 to 25 hours a week, said he tries to involve his family as much as possible, adding that the support system is vitally important. Running may seem like a solitary sport, but he said it takes a team to be successful. “I feel physically healthy which makes me feel more spiritual healthy, and as I’ve become more spiritually healthy, I feel even more physically healthy,” Terrell said. “It’s all kind of a virtuous cycle.”
BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer.