From 400 pounds to his fourth Boston Marathon

Jason Pina with Angie Spencer at the 2015 Boston Marathon

*Editor’s note: When Angie ran the Boston Marathon in 2015 Jason and his lovely wife Shai hosted us in their home. We also got to meet the fine folks at Tenacity (the charity Jason runs for) who are doing great work for Boston kids! -Trevor

Jason Pina had a secret dream. It was so secret he didn’t even tell his wife, Shai, who he had been with for almost 25 years. When Pina announced his quest — running a marathon — Shai knew that her husband would accomplish it even though he wasn’t a runner and had once weighed 400 pounds.

‘For me, running a marathon was a dream’

Pina had taken off a lot of weight before starting his running journey. “For me, running a marathon was a dream,” he said. “At first, I didn’t tell anyone about it, including my wife who I have been with since I was 15 years old. I thought long and hard about it. I made my dream public and had to figure out a way to make it happen. The next day I tried to run a mile and I wasn’t too optimistic.”

Still, Pina set a target of running a marathon before he turned 40, which at the time was 11 months away. As he searched online for a race, he discovered one in his neighborhood that happened to be held the day before he turned 40 in May 2012.

“I told my wife and friends the next month in June 2011,” he said. “It’s important to me to make my goals public. And I really wanted to make those goals happen in my personal and professional life.”

Pina prides himself on setting goals and accomplishing them. “Once I told Shai what I was going to do she assumed I was going to get it done. At one point, I weighed 400 pounds. I told her one day that I wanted to lose weight. I lost 101 pounds in eight months, and then a few years later I told her that I wanted to lose more weight. And I lost another 80 pounds. I think she is used to me putting in my mind, ‘I am going to do X,’ and then I do X.

“I don’t have total control of what goal I set, it just comes to me and it happens.”

Pina, who weighed around 250 when he started his marathon quest, ran a half marathon in October 2012.

“I was in pain for days,” Pina recalled. “The thought of me doubling that up, I didn’t think that was in the cards for me. During that period, I learned a lot about marathon training. I met people in the running community and learned how nice they were. I never had thought about New York, Boston, or Chicago and never thought about running those. But I decided to keep training and get into marathons. Three to four years later, I am still doing it.”

After losing 20-25 pounds during his initial marathon build-up, Pina now races at around 235 pounds.

The first marathon

Pina lined up for his second race, the Providence Marathon, which takes place less than five minutes from where he lives.

“I had memorized the streets and the sections of town where we ran,” he said. “Everyone started gathering and so I worked my way to the back, figuring I would be the slowest person. And when the gun went off, we walked up to the starting line. I just started crying. I couldn’t believe I was about to run a marathon. I thought about all the weeks I had been training. I ran in the rain. I ran alone. And how far I had come in my own personal journey. Once I got my emotions under control, I took it easy. Because my training was so good, I had never felt so good running. It was so easy to run.”

Still, like many first-time marathoners, Pina admits he went out too fast and wasn’t truly prepared.

“It was a warmish day,” he recalled. “Between Mile 15 or 17 and Mile 21, there was no water on the course. That’s something I did not plan for. I did not carry water for most of my runs. I ran without headphones or water and just did it. That was kind of a sufferfest. I ended up walking a lot the last bit of that marathon.

“When I crossed the finish line, I cried again. I thought about Angie Spencer saying, ‘Don’t sit down after a race — that’s the worst thing for you.’ I basically just kept walking around, hanging out with my family and friends. I tried to walk and I wasn’t as bad off after the race (as compared to after his half marathon).”

‘I am grateful for every mile’

Pina has come a long way in his running journey. “A big key for me is not taking it for granted,” he said.

“When I see people who have physical and health challenges, it makes me a lot more grateful for what I can do and for how my body supports me. I can do a lot more than I ever have before in my life. For most of my life, I took my body for granted and what I could do and didn’t prioritize my personal health.”

And he recognizes how far he has come and how fortunate he is.

“I am grateful for very mile,” Pina said. “Every mile I go out and run and get back, whether it is three miles or a 20-miler, I spend a few minutes patting myself on the back. It wasn’t too along ago when I couldn’t run, or wouldn’t run. I really appreciate it.”

Pina has adopted a better diet, though he admits it is far from perfect. “In my running journey, I am really conscious of what I put in my body and how it affects my running,” he said. “I would say that I make better food and fuel choices now than five years ago. But I think they are not as good as I want to be all the time.

“Running, because it is so hard on your body, has made me more conscious of the choices I make in what food I put in my body.”

Next quest: the Boston Marathon

Before he was a runner, Pina essentially lived on the Boston Marathon course for five years. But he had no interest in watching it, much less participating in it.

With his first marathon finish secured, Pina targeted Boston for his next one. He connected with a nonprofit charity, and he raised money on its behalf in order to run. “I did the training cycle and everything was great,” he said, adding that would drive an hour once a week to run on the course with a Boston marathon training group. “I was jazzed to be training on the course with the hills and all that stuff.”

Boston Marathon Bombing
On race day 2013, “the weather was perfect,” he recalls. “The logistics of getting out to the start were great. Everything was great. I saw a friend at the 10K mark. I felt great, felt healthy and strong.”

With a half-mile to go, Pina just had to make a couple of turns. “Then I saw people walking around,” he remembered.

“And as slow as I run, that wasn’t shocking to me. But everyone was walking. Then I heard the sirens and I didn’t know why so many people were having medical issues.”

But the medical issues weren’t related to marathon injuries as Pina would soon discover. Police barricades on the course stopped him and other runners from their goal. “They told us that there might have been a gas explosion, or the other rumors we heard,” he said. “They were just trying to get everyone blankets and juice because we had been out there for hours. We eventually had been told there was a bombing.”

Pina knew his family had grandstand tickets. “I assumed they were OK. My feeling was that if for some reason they were not OK, I would have the rest of my life to mourn and be upset. But I am not going to do it now.”

Pina and other runners were escorted to the finish area to retrieve their belongings. “Then I went to the spot where I was going to meet my family,” he recalled. “I couldn’t use my phone — all the lines were dead. We met up and they were all fine. They were walking to the grandstand area when the bombs went off but were not in the middle of the fray.”

Elite company

Pina received his medal a few days later since he had completed more than half the course. He also received a great opportunity. “That same day, my mother-in-law called me and asked if I wanted to run the Pittsburgh Marathon.”

Sponsors of that race brought in about 30 Boston runners who did not finish, and put them up with the elite runners and paid for everything. “An ultra-marathoner friend said, ‘No one is ever going to treat you like an elite runner. You should go. You will be fine.’ “

And she was right.

“I can remember three or four of us who took a limo to the hotel,” Pina recalled.

“We all had on our Boston Marathon jackets from that year, in the traditional blue and yellow. When we got out of the car, there were a lot of people there and they all gave us a standing ovation. I’ll always be grateful for the opportunity to run Pittsburgh.”

A few weeks after being stopped short of the Boston finish line, Pina completed the Pittsburgh race. “I never knew how hilly Pittsburgh was but I did it.”

And he made it back to Boston the following year.

“Got halfway and hurt my hip,” he said. “There was no way that I wasn’t going to finish. So, I basically walked from Wellesley (College) to the finish.”

Running for charity

Pina runs for Tenacity, a nonprofit group that aims to get inner-city youth involved in tennis. (To donate to Pina’s charity, click here.)

“It’s a natural link for me to hook up with them,” said Pina, who works in education at Ohio University. “Their mission is great. They let me run Boston which is great because I don’t have the physical talent or time to train and qualify. That’s the reality. If it wasn’t for then, I wouldn’t have been able to run Boston three times.”

This year, Pina will run his fourth Boston Marathon, his 10th overall race of 26.2 miles.

“My wife and I grew up in the inner city and didn’t have the things or the support that others grew up with,” he said. “When I looked at their program, I could only wish that I had their support growing up in middle and high school. I like to help them out a little bit.”

Just as Pina gives back to his charity of choice, he understands that others need encouragement to begin their running journeys. After all, Pina has come a long way from his 400-pound self.

“The number one thing for me is to commit to fitness for years, not weeks,” he advised. “When I first started out running a mile, the concept of running 26 was beyond my mind.

“Be reflective in your journey and don’t forget about the times when you couldn’t (run). Don’t take for granted the days when you can. The one thing I love about the running community is that I have never been made to feel that my speed makes me less than others.”

Speed drill

Name: Jason Pina
Hometown: Pawtucket, Rhode Island
Number of years running: Five
How many miles a week do you typically run: 25
Point of pride: Finishing the Pittsburgh Marathon 20 days after Boston bombing forced me to stop a half mile from the finish.
Favorite race distance: Marathon
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Gatorade after a long run! 
Favorite piece of gear: Garmin watch
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Almost any rap music
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “Pain is temporary, pride is forever.” 
Where can other runners connect or follow you: Twitter @jbpina

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