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Pa. Guard chaplain taking running career to new heights

By Brad Rhen | Joint Force Headquarters, Pennsylvania National Guard | Jan. 23, 2020

FORT INDIANTOWN GAP, Pa. – Chaplain 1st Lt. Justin Thomas didn’t necessarily set out to become an elite runner; it just happened.

Thomas, a chaplain for the 628th Aviation Support Battalion (ASB), 28th Combat Aviation Brigade, 28th Infantry Division, Pennsylvania Army National Guard, based at Fort Indiantown Gap, is a member of the Pennsylvania National Guard Marathon Team and the All-Guard Marathon Team.

He began running seriously about eight years ago during his junior year at Susquehanna University after a relative suggested he run a marathon. He was a member of the school’s soccer team and had run a few 5K races, but he never considered running marathons.

“I told her that sounds crazy to run 26.2 miles,” he said.

He decided to give it a try and ran his first half marathon in spring 2012. He began training for the Baltimore Marathon that fall, using a training plan from a magazine.

His marathon-running career almost ended after that first marathon. “After I crossed the line, my dad asked me how I felt, and I replied, ‘I never wanted to do that again,’” he said.

Eventually, he decided to try again and switched from Susquehanna’s soccer team to the track team so he could learn more about running seriously.

Thomas, 28, graduated from Susquehanna in 2014 with bachelor’s degrees in theater production and design and religion. He graduated from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary in Virginia in December 2016 and joined the Pennsylvania National Guard five months later and was commissioned a chaplain candidate.

“I wanted to serve Soldiers in my own community as their chaplain, and I want to serve Soldiers and their families in their darkest and happiest moments at home and abroad,” he said. “At the 628th ASB, I found a family who trusts me to be there for them and a leadership group that strives for the best and supports my growth as a chaplain.”

But in January 2016, after completing the Disney Marathon in Florida, he stopped running marathons because he felt burnt out from the training.

“I was also very busy with my civilian job,” Thomas said. “Between the traveling and long days on job sites, it was hard to balance. I continued to run but just for fun and PT score.”

Not long afterward, a friend told him about the Pennsylvania National Guard Running Team. He learned he would need to run a half marathon under 1:35 or a full marathon under 3:35 to make the team. In December 2018, while in Arizona for work, he ran a half marathon, won the race and qualified for the team.

Capt. Matthew Stern, who until recently served as coordinator of the Pennsylvania National Guard Marathon Team, said Thomas brings more than just speed to the team, made up of about 10 Soldiers and Airmen from across the state.

“Being a chaplain, he brings maturity to the team,” Stern said. “Most folks who run marathons are mentally disciplined people, so he really fits in great.”

Thomas set his sights on the 2019 National Guard Marathon Trials in Lincoln, Nebraska. He set three goals: finish the race (since he wasn’t sure how his body would hold up after taking three years off), qualify for the All-Guard Marathon Team and finish in no longer than 3:10.

“I trained well, ran smart, followed my race plan and accomplished all three of those goals that day,” he said. “I finished 27th out of all the National Guard competitors.”

Joining the All-Guard team has been a unique experience, Thomas said.

“Being sent to races all over the country to run is very cool,” he said. “Not many people can say they get paid to run for fun. It’s really an honor and privilege, though, to represent not just the National Guard but also the state of Pennsylvania when I am out running.”

Thomas has run in seven full marathons and 17 half marathons since 2012. He never imagined running would lead to so many opportunities.

“I just did it for me because I like the challenge, then it turned into a lot more, which is never a bad thing,” he said. “I’m able to help other people learn about running. It’s been really good.”

Thomas said he likes running because it’s his “me time.”

“It’s just me, the road and nobody else around. You can do it anywhere. I travel a lot for my civilian job, so being able to run helps me to explore the area but also relax and enjoy myself.”

The Soldiers in his unit are very supportive, Thomas said. They often ask how his training is going, what race is coming up or how they can improve their running times.

“I get to help soldiers work on their own PT, which is very rewarding to see them accomplish their own running goals,” he said.

Thomas is recovering from a torn meniscus but doesn’t think it should derail his running career. He is training for an Ironman triathlon and the All-Guard marathon trials, which are both in May.

Thomas, who manages onsite services at Mojo Rental North America in Manheim, would like to become a full-time chaplain for the National Guard so he can help soldiers and their families every day. He would also like to work in a hospital setting as a chaplain.

His running goals include breaking 2:45 in a marathon and the one-hour mark on a 10-miler, preferably the Army 10 Miler.

“An overall goal, though, is to stay healthy and keep growing myself and others through exercise,” he said.

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