The feeling was pure joy.
Tom Minichiello of Naperville was a few miles from the end of the Houston Marathon and closing in on a goal.
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Crossing the finish line of a 26.2-mile race is a dream for many runners, but for Minichiello, that wasn't enough.
He had to repeat the feat in all 50 states. And Washington, D.C. And finish in less than four hours. Every. Single. Time.
In late January, in the last state on his journey, Minichiello was thousands of feet away from reaching his dream.
"I had good adrenaline for the last five miles because I knew I was going to get my goal," Minichiello said about his performance in Texas, where he finished the 50sub4 Marathon Club challenge. "I finished in 3:45 on the nose, which I didn't realize at first because I was smiling and yelling at the crowd. I was in a state of happiness."
Minichiello, 55, completed the majority of his races in two and a half years, powering through 26 marathons in 2012 alone. The dozens of courses he's followed brought him to a surprisingly sweaty marathon in North Dakota, a subfreezing start in Alabama, a midnight run wearing a headlamp outside Las Vegas and the realization that even average runners can accomplish amazing feats with dedication and drive.
States of running
Minichiello's quest actually began overseas.
In his late 20s, while in South Korea for business, co-workers told him a company 12K race was coming up and he would be participating. There was little choice -- if any -- so Minichiello started training.
When race day came, he ran the whole distance and finished faster than he thought he could. The result was the same during a company-sponsored 10K in Arizona in the early 1990s.
The experiences were turning a former New York City boy, one who played street sports like baseball and basketball and always admired marathoners running through Central Park, into someone who defined himself as a runner.
"Then I was starting to get hooked," Minichiello said.
Soon he adjusted his lifestyle around running and began setting his alarm for 4:15 every morning.
Chicago and Boston were Minichiello's first marathons -- Chicago because he moved to the area in the mid-1990s and Boston because, well, it's Boston, and for marathoners, that's the holy grail.
The first marathon that counted toward Minichiello's goal of completing one such race in every state was the Los Angeles Marathon in 1998.
But the 50-state goal first came into focus the next year, when a fellow runner on the Illinois Prairie Path mentioned it to him. It stayed in the back of his mind as he ran local 5Ks and 10Ks while redecorating his home, dealing with back issues and raising his four daughters, now ages 17 to 25.
In 2006, at age 47, Minichiello dove back into marathoning and realized he hadn't lost speed. A few years later, the idea of tackling one marathon in all 50 states began to sound fun, and the goal of completing them in less than four hours began to seem realistic.
"I've had a lot of positive feedback from runners saying, 'if it wasn't for this goal, I wouldn't have pushed myself. And I'm glad I did,'" said former Glen Ellyn resident Jeff Hill, who created the 50sub4 Marathon Club for serious -- and seriously speedy -- runners who don't want to travel the nation jogging marathon courses, but would rather run a "quality" race.
Quality is subjective, but Hill says any marathon faster than four hours makes the cut. Runners must have completed marathons in less than four hours in 10 states before joining the free, informal club.
Minichiello joined in late 2011 after crossing the finish line of the Seashore Marathon in Rehoboth Beach, Del. And when he became the club's 52nd finisher last month in Houston, Hill was on hand as a fellow competitor.
"For me to actually be there to congratulate someone, it's a big thrill," Hill said. "Because I know how hard it is."
26 in 2012
Hard, difficult, challenging, painful, arduous -- they're all understatements for the year Minichiello had in 2012.
That was the year he got serious. Serious enough to complete 26 marathons in 52 weeks, which sounds like one every two weeks -- but that didn't work out so smoothly.
He once ran four marathons in a month, and twice ran two of the races only six days apart.
He chose to "run" each race at his training pace of 8:30 a mile, instead of "racing" for a quicker time. Keeping the pace relatively controlled helped avoid injuries, while massages, yoga and ice baths helped conquer soreness.
"I was in awe of how much he was able to do and not get injured," said Joanne Moss of North Carolina, a running buddy of Minichiello's who is on her own quest to run a marathon in all 50 states.
Minichiello started his racing year eight days into January 2012 with the Disney World Marathon in Orlando, Fla., which turned out to be his all-time favorite.
"You finish and start at Epcot. You run through all four theme parks. You high-five Mickey Mouse at the end," Minichiello said. "You just can't beat it."
Spring and fall were the busiest, with races as often as nine in 12 weeks. He ran in Maryland with "a guy named Joe from Pennsylvania" who blabbed the entire time about his wife, his ex-wife, his job and his side business distributing beer. He ran Grandma's Marathon in Duluth, Minn., named for the restaurant where organizers dreamed up the race.
He traveled, almost always alone and only for two-day trips, to Oklahoma, Virginia, Rhode Island, New Mexico, Utah and more. If Minichiello wasn't training, racing or working -- he's in finance and now works for Westell in Aurora -- chances are he was booking flights and plotting the courses ahead.
By the end of 2012, Minichiello was tired of the long runs and weekends away. He pushed through his last marathon of the year Dec. 1 in Memphis, Tenn., where he "went slow right from the start" and came in only five minutes below the four-hour threshold.
"If it's not a good day in a marathon, it gets to be really painful in the final miles," Minichiello said.
Dec. 1 wasn't a good day, so he took some time to recuperate with hot yoga, "water running" and spinning. By 2013, he had 36 races down and 14 to go.
The last leg
Louisiana, Georgia and Hawaii kicked off 2013 for Minichiello. By now, he had plenty of running buddies like Moss, people he would meet for pasta dinners the night before each race and friendly faces to find at the finish.
He ran with Moss in Kansas, where they accidentally got off course for about a half-mile, but still finished before four hours passed. He ran in Kentucky, where he paced two young women in their first marathon to a 3:42 finish, which hit their goal. One of his last races was in Missoula, Mont., a familiar spot because one of his daughters attended college there.
Washington, D.C., isn't included in the 50sub4 Marathon Club, but Minichiello ran 26.2 miles there, too, to join the 50 States & D.C. Marathon Group USA.
Even with all those miles behind him, when Minichiello got to his final starting line in Houston, the nerves set in.
Years of rambling runs on the Illinois Prairie Path or training sprints on the track at Wheaton College flashed before his eyes. Pre-race strategy of coffee and a PowerBar two hours before go-time kept things routine. And he knew to find plenty of water, sports drinks and energy gels -- often called "goo" -- at aid stations along the course.
But health had caught up to him, with kidney stones sidelining him for eight days after Thanksgiving and bronchitis lingering about two weeks over Christmas.
"I get nervous before every marathon. I was more nervous before the final one than ever before," he said. "A lot can happen along the path of 26.2 miles and it's still a lot to put your body through."
Race day in Houston turned out to be a good day. Soon, the runner in race bib 5050 was smiling and waving, coasting to a finish he could feel would be well below four hours.
"When he finished the 50th state, it gave me hope and inspiration that I can actually do this," Moss said.
He made it happen with determination and willpower.
"He doesn't look like a stereotypical runner," Hill said about the Naperville man, who stands 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighs 140 pounds. "He's someone who has succeeded through force of will and I'm really proud of him."
With the 50sub4 goal under his belt, Minichiello is giving his legs a break, but his runner's mind is dreaming. He's looking forward to hanging his commemorative race medals and helping measure the course for the second annual Edward Hospital Naperville Marathon, planned for Nov. 9. And he's wondering what his next goal should be. Run a marathon in each province and territory in Canada? Go for 50sub4 all over again?
Decades after marveling at runners in the New York City Marathon, Minichiello has become one of them -- more than 50 times over -- proving he belongs in what he calls a "special, elite group."
It took some luck to avoid injuries, a chunk of money -- probably about $30,000 -- for race entries and travel, and countless hours to train and recover. But Minichiello says all it really took was the decision to try, and the inner drive to endure.
"I think it's just the concept of pushing yourself and of the average runner doing something extraordinary," Hill said. "Because it's a tremendous challenge."