50 Marathons, 50 States, and One Heroic Quest
By Peter Kelly
John Jaeger never considered himself a runner. But in 2009, in his late 30s, a friend convinced him to run a mile with him. He did not know it then, but Jaeger was taking the first steps on what has become a journey of thousands of miles.
Last October, Jaeger completed his 20th marathon, in Bar Harbor, ME. Earlier last year, he completed number 19 in Pittsburgh. That was preceded by a marathon in Atlanta, GA; and in Las Vegas, NV, before that.
Jaeger is on a quest: 50 marathons in 50 states, while raising $250,000 for the children of Mercy Home. His noble pursuit of this 50/50/250 slash line has taken him across the country, spreading awareness about the Chicago home for at-risk youth along the way. Jaeger is more than a third of the way toward his goal; something he never would have imagined undertaking after his first marathon experience.
A mission close to the heart
Jaeger eased his way into running. After that first mile, he ran a 5k. Soon, he was able to complete a 10k. As his endurance grew, Jaeger’s friend suggested the Bank of America Chicago Marathon on Oct. 10, 2010. He thought 10/10/2010 had a nice ring to it, so they signed up. Though Jaeger finished, he remembers it was more of a challenge than he had expected.
“I learned that there’s a strategy to running marathons,” he said. “It’s not just go out there and run.”
Temperatures on race day reached the mid-80s, and Jaeger ended up in the medical tent after passing out.
Following that race, Jaeger backed off on running. Yet, he missed the process of training. In 2013, he decided he would try again in Chicago—but this time he would be prepared. He conducted research on proper nutrition and hydration techniques. He also decided he wasn’t going to just run this marathon for himself; he wanted to help others along the way.
Jaeger thought of the Mercy Home Heroes team, which fields more than 300 athletes who run the event on behalf of the charity. He was drawn to the organization because its mission was close to his heart.
“When I was very young, my dad passed away,” he said. “My mom was left with three young boys. She could have had a situation where she couldn’t take care of the boys, or the boys could have gone into foster care, or who knows?”
Jaeger feels fortunate that his mother found a man who lovingly welcomed the boys into his life, raising Jaeger and his brothers as his own.
“He’s kind of my Mercy Home,” Jaeger said.
Making it hurt
With Mercy Home in his corner and a new plan of attack, Jaeger sought redemption in the Bank of America Chicago Marathon. In 2013, he achieved his goal of completing the race in less than four hours, cutting 35 minutes off his previous time. Still, something didn’t feel complete.
In fundraising for Mercy Home, Jaeger went above and beyond—raising about $6,000. Yet, he felt there was more he could do. Recalling the words of a friend who passed away, Jaeger decided to look inside himself and dig deeper. “You’re not giving enough, if it doesn’t hurt,” his friend used to say.
This message stayed with Jaeger, and he decided he would not only push his limits physically, but financially as well.
During Jaeger’s training, he encountered a pair of runners wearing shirts that said “50 marathons in 50 states.” This planted an idea in his head, but Jaeger wanted to take it a step further. Like the inspiration of 10/10/10 to run his first marathon, John once again decided to motivate himself numerically. He would embark on a journey to run 50 marathons in 50 states, and he would raise $50,000 for Mercy Home as he went.
But as the dollars and miles began to pile up, Jaeger felt he needed to push himself further.
“I realized $50,000 is going to be nothing,” he said. “So, I raised it to $100,000. And then shortly thereafter, I realized I’m on pace for $250,000. And that’s where the bar is set right now.”
From a simple one-mile run in 2009, Jaeger is now on a quest to conquer marathons nationwide while raising crucial funds for the children of Mercy Home. And he has had plenty of memorable moments along the way.
Creating awareness across the country
So far, his best finish time was in Cleveland—3 hours, 51 minutes. He recalls that the New York Marathon was like the Chicago Marathon but on steroids.
And one of his most inspiring races took place at the Marine Corps Marathon in Arlington, in 2015.
“The whole marathon is staffed by Marine Corps personnel who are cheering you on,” he said. “And during the course of that run, you’re seeing disabled veterans run, you’re running with active military guys who are running in full gear—which gives you no excuse to feel sorry for yourself.”
And Jaeger has completed every race in his Mercy Home Heroes shirt, spreading the mission of the charity throughout the country.
While in Louisiana for a marathon, he attended a tour of the LSU campus. A stranger approached Jaeger and asked him about his Heroes shirt. After explaining the mission, the stranger pulled $20 out of his pocket and gave it to Jaeger as a donation.
In Kentucky, a local news crew approached Jaeger’s daughter and her friends and asked them for an interview. Jaeger’s daughter shared her father’s mission and his commitment to Mercy Home with a television audience.
Aloha to the journey
Now 50 years old, Jaeger hopes to complete his quest by the time he is 60. At that point, he wants his journey to end in one of the most beautiful states with the people he loves.
“The last one is going to be in Hawaii,” Jaeger said. “And I told my kids that if they agree to run number 50 with me, then I will pay for their trip.”