Client Spotlight – John Starks – From Hiking Yellowstone to a 13.1 Half Marathon!


This is one of the most interesting and informative Client Spotlights that I’ve done yet… John is the first  of 5 clients that I currently have training for half marathons… As I work towards accomplishing more of my running goals, hopefully opening a running studio in Nashville, and coaching more people for long distance runs, I am continually learning – daily – more about the art of running and just how truly amazing and life changing it can be.

John emailed me late last year with goals of wanting to run a half marathon.  I immediately jumped in and said – YOU CAN DO IT!!  You just have to train, and train right.  This took some serious convincing on John’s part.  He doubted himself and I think me at times too, but ultimately, HE DID IT!!  I knew John was physically capable of doing a half, but I had to help him BELIEVE it.  The thought of running 13.1 miles can be a huge,, overwhelming feat.  Once he realized what an accomplishment finishing a half can be and how he had to overcome the mental part of it – he had it in the bag.

John is a humble, kind-hearted, hard working man that wants to help in any way that he can.  He puts others first, and wants to strive to be the best at what he does.  All of this adds up to being a GREAT person.  I wanted to help him realize that running, training and accomplishing goals IS fun and an amazing experience.  I anxiously awaited hearing from him the morning of Sept 12th, and said, “John – I just want you to send me a picture with your finisher’s medal!!”  Low and behold – I finally got that text and was in tears when I heard he finished, and finished STRONG!

Take a few minutes to read John’s story and how he overcame both physical and mental hurdles to accomplish this amazing goal!!  John, thank you for believing in ME and in YOU and for finishing!  I can’t wait to see what you do next!!!  I asked John some questions about his run and experience, and this is what he had to say…

What made you decide to do a half marathon?  Have you ever run one before and when?


The reason “why” is a  complex question. This was my first official (timed) half marathon. When I was in the Marine Corps, we ran – we ran every day. Sometimes we would run well over 13.1 miles, but that was a long, long, time ago and we trained for different reasons. I was in good shape back then, I had to be, running was crucial. It was a part of my training; I was a Marine.

However, I am not in the Marine Corps anymore and I needed to change my thinking. I set a goal after initially meeting and exchanging several lengthy e-mails with Megan. I wanted a goal to be high enough to make a difference in my life, but a goal achievable based on my wants and my level of fitness. We did an assessment when we first met….lots of questions and paperwork. The goal was to ease my way into longer distance without the need for looking at a stop watch. I doubted it all when I first started training that I could increase some decent mileage to reach a half marathon. I was just coming off some critical medical issues and had not run more than 3 miles at a time for years.


To further set the table, I had a rough time a few months earlier, due to health concerns. I had to get my life in order quickly. Physical fitness was now the last thing on my mind. In one single day (and unexpectedly), my whole life changed. I quit breathing and spent time gasping for air. This gradually got worse over the next  few days and more frequent. I knew I had to make my peace with life when I quit breathing and ended up in the floor in front of my mom in the kitchen. My mother and step father were visiting at the time. She watched in horror and there was nothing she or  I could do about it. Just before I lost consciousness, I began to breathe – another close call. My family was a mess during this time and all I could do was comfort them. My airway was shut off completely and became a regular occurrence, for the next few weeks.


I was faced with doctors who could not figure it out. Anyways, these episodes would go on several times a day. It took 3 ER visits, a ride in the ambulance and 7 – 8 doctors (4 specialists), before a Pulmonary Doctor started to get the diagnosis correct. It all stemmed from sinusitis, stridor, acid reflux, and laryngospasms – if you’re a doctor, figure that mess out! It was a domino effect happening and sinusitis had me choking.  Prior to the visit with the pulmonary doctor, I had made a decision after seeing so many specialists and doctors, I would go one last time. The pulmonary doctor proved to be a gem and she promised we would figure it all out and we would fix what was wrong. I was skeptical, just like I was with Megan (when we set the goal before me to run a half marathon).

The doctor spent time trying to figure everything out and ordered the correct tests. There was a domino effect going on that was complex and due to her willingness to listen, she gave a treatment plan that involved fixing other aspects (too long to explain), that were critical. She then referred me to a surgeon and told me there is no choice. So, I went through a surgery and it worked. This led up to months and months of recovery…and this all led up to meeting Megan.

The goal to run a half marathon was intertwined with all this. I came to Megan because I needed to heal, physically and mentally. I was exhausted from all that happened and needed goals in my life. I needed someone to listen to me, to understand what I had gone  through, and to assure me that I wouldn’t fail. At the time I met Megan, I needed a running coach,  I needed a friend,  I needed someone to help me set a goal. When I didn’t believe in myself and was recovering physically and mentally, Megan picked me up… during all the failures (I thought I was having). She always had time to help keep me focus on training. She help me realize, the failures I have (while training), were actually hurdles of progress.

This is why WE decided to set the goal over 9 months earlier and to do the half marathon. This is why it was my first race this year. The mental and physical aspects took time to sink in. This is why I signed up for 6 races and never ran any of them. Finally I was able to do it no matter what, on September 12, 2015. No, I had never run one before, I never got a medal at the finish line. I never got to run this distance for fun, which was the hardest part I needed to get through my head – HAVE FUN RUNNING.

Tell me about the race – where it was, what you did the week before :)…

The week before was a great week that ended with icing on a cake. All along for the past 9 months, I had been working with Megan on two things: backpacking and running. I had to get stronger and needed to increase my stamina (cardio and endurance). I have hiked some tough areas the past few months and the week of the race was the best week I have had in decades – literally.



Actually, the week was a blur and really started on Aug 31, with a trip to Gatlinburg that began with a 14 ½ mile hike up to Mt. Leconte and back down to Newfound Gap, (the same day).  After this, I did a whole lot of running until September 6,  when I left for Jackson Hole , Wyoming.  Six days before I would run the half marathon, I would lead a hike with a group of 3 in Yellowstone National Park. The week before the race was exhilarating and at the same time, it took a lot of endurance and strength to carry the backpacks in the upper northwest corner of the Gallatin Mountain Range.

Every day I was hiking, I thought about what was coming down the pike the morning of Sept 12….the Smoky Mountain Half Marathon.  This was the seventh race I had signed up for (6 no-shows in my past) and was the last time I was going to sign up for a race (and not do it). Prior to this race, I found reasons not to run the other races. The thing about this particular race is that it played on me mentally. I kept thinking Megan never gave up on me – unbelievable; I canned race after race! I have to do this one no matter what.

Megan never once said one critical thing about giving up, race after race. She kept encouraging me when I wanted to quit running and felt all the short comings.  So when THIS race was coming up, I felt I  had to do it for us, I had to do it for me! This is how it was playing out in my head the week before the race. I always felt I wasn’t ready for a race (no matter how short) and I didn’t want to be timed, because of the running I did in the Marine Corps for time. I had my 8 – minute miles and always did well (years ago). However, I had to change my thinking and this took a LOT of work, I was now RUNNING FOR FUN, This was a new concept in my thinking that took nine months for me to change… and I am still working on this.

I had  booked a hike and led some people on a trip to Yellowstone National Park. So, I went from not being able to run that well months ago to training for a half marathon, to hiking some of the toughest spots in the Smokies and mountains in the west.













On Sept 10, I made the hike to the highest summit I had ever been and the rewards from all the training paid off in a way that will be with me the rest of my life. I decided to hike with someone from our group to Big Horn Peak, along the Sky Rim in Yellowstone. We initially made a wrong turn and what was advised not to do, WE DID! We hiked 14 ½ miles and a lot of it was uphill (straight up hill), up mountains (REAL MOUNTAINS)! If I wasn’t in shape, this would have been a disaster. How I was going to hike this hard and run 2 days later was still beyond me? My flight got in Friday, September 11 at 9 pm and I had to drive to Townsend to do the race, September 12 at 7:30 am.

When my flight arrived, I grabbed my car and was on my way Townsend, TN. On the way, I was told my lodging was given away to someone else. I called before I left for Yellowstone and confirmed my reservations– Wonderful?! I scrambled to  find a place along the way, made several calls, and found a place with vacancy in Maryville, TN. I checked in and by the time I got to the room, I was exhausted – I was tired from the hikes the week before and I was tired after being up for 20 hours. The night check-in person told me the race would start at Heritage High School (10 mins away) and end in Townsend. I found my room at the back of the hotel.  At 1:30 am, I called the front desk for a wake-up call at 5:30 am. At last, I was going to get some sleep and do what I had set out to do for months!

Race Day – I woke up and needed coffee (quick or I would have never made it). I made a small pot and began to get dressed for the race. I had left the bib and info about the race in the car, and never had a chance to attach it to my shirt or read the info. I left at 6:30 am to get to the finish-line, so I could catch a shuttle back to Heritage High School (starting-line for the race). Then,  I could run to the finish line and pick up my car. On the way to the finish-line in Townsend, I stopped and got some Gatorade to put in my Nathan bottle carrier and was told I could go to the finish line and catch a shuttle to the stating line. When I got to the finish line parking, I was told I needed to take a shuttle back to the starting point and the last shuttle LEFT AT 6 AM. It was after 7 am!



I was at the finish line and was told I could not park my car at Heritage High School – no parking allowed. I was screwed. It was 7:11 am and I was 13 miles from the starting point of the race. If I drove there, I would not be able to park and no way of getting my car (anyways). I pleaded with a girl named Sarah (a volunteer) to find someone who would ride with me and bring my car back. She went running and found a gentleman who was a volunteer and off we went. I was driving like a man who was late for a his own wedding. I was going to do this and get there, one way or the other. He hung on and we raced to the starting point. I know I scared him a few times, because I scared myself. Bill Tillery was his name and one day, I will try and make it up – he was a life saver for this!

When I got to the starting point…the race had begun and the police car was in the distance trailing the last runners, past the starting line. That means, I would be starting dead last – I didn’t know if this meant anything or not, but I didn’t care. I would run this. This race meant more to me than any material thing. I finished getting myself together while running and catching up to the other runners. I turned on my IPOD and told myself, its time to have fun. This was it – I was actually doing it this time. There was no backing out…it was emotional.

What meant most to me that day? To finish what we started months ago and text you at the finish line and tell Megan, I did it – I finished! nine months of struggle was finally over and Megan was with me every step of the way – mentally and physically. We had a lot of hurdles from the medical conditions that I needed to overcome – the physical part of getting stronger, building endurance one day at a time, to the mental part of believing in myself and having fun with a run (with no pressure).

So, from cutting a trip short a few days from Yellowstone (September 11) to run on September 12 will be with me the rest of my life. They were both important and no one can take it away now, not even me. It was a big part of my life and it was never about the completed race time.


What was your favorite part of the race?

Easy question- 3 things: 1) catching up with everyone while 2) listening to my starting song – Wake me up when it’s all over ( I love the lyrics) and 3) when the time and  placement were posted. No, I didn’t break any records and I ran for fun, but there was a small part of me that wanted to check: I did a little over a 10 – minute miles and passed 395 people out of 777 that ran that day (best I can figure on the website). My official adjusted run time was 2:12:23.

How did you feel when you crossed the finish line?


I have absolutely no words for this. When I saw the finish line and the people that were cheering us on (no matter what our time of the finishing) and was handed that medal, I thought about where I was the prior year. I thought about all the training involved on a continuous basis, and Megan – my running coach that always believed I could do it. Overall Megan Conner, it was more about you believing in me and the overall accomplishment that carried this through. I had not run that far since the Marine Corps. I wanted to finally come back and tell Megan I made it. I know that all the ups and downs along the way were worth it all. You already knew it would be huge for me, you just needed me to believe it. I felt gratitude, I felt exonerated, you were my only running partner, I felt too much!

What did you learn through the training process?


I could write a book on this. I learned that running every step is built on the prior step. I learned that physically, you have to stay with it and fine tuning always make sense to me with a good coach in the background. This can be vital when setting some good goals. I learned not to make excuses for training and stay with it. The days not training with Megan were just as important as the days we trained. I learned to stay focus and have fun with it all! I learned when and how to hydrate and I learned about fueling the long runs – this came from Megan and it worked! Everyone is different and I needed a plan fit for me.

I learned mentally that running, losing weight, getting in shape has to be about fun –yes I know it takes work too. I learned that training for something like this changed my mind-set along the way in other areas of my life. I learned that you can do whatever you set your mind to do (in most cases). I learned to trust, I learned to trust Megan and keep training when I didn’t want to train. Everyone is different and it is important to find a trainer and coach who is sensitive to each client – it isn’t a one size – fits- all. I learned all this about my training process. Not everyone who calls themselves a trainer or coach can be one – Megan is the real deal, she is one!

What advice would you pass on to others thinking about doing a long distance race?

Get a coach – Get Megan. A long distance run takes physical stamina and mental stamina – both. The ingredient to work this is a good coach in the mix. I know from experience now, I always want to have a great coach in my corner to fine tune these aspects – and you get what you pay for. It makes no sense to me to start training for something without a little or a lot of coaching and advice. Sometimes your form might be off and an experienced trainer can spot it or when muscle fatigue sets in, a coach can change things up. Long distance requires training and a good coach who won’t allow you to quit (unless it is necessary at times for rest or injury) and  will be in your corner every step of the way. The thing is, not to give up, because it is all progress when you stay with it. In essence, warm up before a run, work with a coach who will keep the tempo, don’t beat yourself up on a bad run day, recovery is important – Megan beat me over the head with this (it helps physically and mentally), and get good running shoes! Hang in there and stick with the plan and training…if I can do it, anyone can.

What are your goals going forward?

I want to travel; I will go backpacking in Yosemite, which I booked for 2016; I will hike Santa Fe, NM in 2016; I am looking at hiking to the base camp of Mt. Everest and have my Passport ready to go – debating on timing for 2016 or maybe 2017. I will keep backpacking the highest peaks in the Smokies, I will do a few ½ Marathons out west somewhere next year (and some runs here too) for time. I want to maintain my present physical fitness level and hit all these goals. I will start a business soon to fund my physical fitness goals and they will only grow now.

I will set more specific running goals soon.  The seed stems from running and meeting my coach….I want to know, I want to help people, I want to feel, I want to live, I want to give, I want to be around good positive people, I want to be around people like Megan – those are my goals.

What part does fitness and being active play in your life?  


It mentally changed me and physically helped me. I have more patience with people and I found more confidence. I made new friends that I would have never met and meeting more all the time. I learned that being fit, helped my overall blood pressure and I can maintain a good sitting pulse rate too. It has changed what I do on the weekends and find that I enjoy the physical aspects of running, hiking, and biking – I love it all!

Tell me a little about you – your job, hobbies and so forth


I work for the U,S, Treasury Department; I am a Coordinator and I try and help people perfect different activities and offer advice (to get things prepared correctly). I coordinate work for several states. I have two Bachelor Degrees (concentrating on Finance, Accounting and  Economics) and graduated from the University of Michigan and Athens State University.

My hobbies are hiking running, and biking. I like to hike the hardest and climb the highest. I like to run 3-4 times per week on the Stones River Greenway. I like to squeeze in a good long bike ride and soon, I want to incorporate Yoga in the mix.

I like to help people who just need to get over a hurdle, especially those who are struggling and just need a helping hand. I have a special place for the homeless and will work with them through the winter and the rest of my life. I don’t like people who are too judgmental and hurt people they meet, just because they may be different.

I realize someone’s perception is their reality –  I try and remember this, so I can be flexible with it in my own life and remain humble; perceptions may be false. I have a diversified background and I am glad I do! I don’t have to hate or dislike someone for being who they are. At the end of the day, life is about people and how we treat one another. For me it is how I choose to look at people in a positive manner and help with their goals and hurdles in life.

One thought on “Client Spotlight – John Starks – From Hiking Yellowstone to a 13.1 Half Marathon!

  1. Congratulations to John for persevering and achieving his goal of the 1/2 marathon! Kudos to Megan for being an inspiring coach and friend. You both are winners!!!!

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