ST. CHARLES – Justin Gillette grows more photogenic with time.
The formerly pudgy Ironton, Mo., middle-schooler transformed into an elite marathoner by adulthood, so these days, the grip-and-grins sprout like water stations on a 26.2-mile course.
Several fellow runners prompted Gillette for a picture after he won Sunday's Advocate Dreyer Fox Valley Marathon, but not before a "Pssst...Hey, Justin" moment of a much grander scale. Race photographers missed Gillette crossing the finish line so, for posterity's – and sponsorship's – sake, he went back to recreate the excitement of setting a course record in 2:31.34.
"That was kind of odd, but you do it for the race," Gillette said. "When there's so many racers finishing at once, they have a hard time picking out who's who. But hey, I'd gladly do that for the race. It was a good one."
A self-described professional marathon runner living in Goshen, Ind., the 29-year-old Gillette captured his 14th marathon title of 2012 and 52nd of his racing career. He won his first in 3:35:00 on the morning he graduated high school in 2001. There has been plenty of pomp and varying circumstance since.
With his wife and infant son unable to attend – Gillette partly runs to support the family and his wife's doctorate studies at Notre Dame – a blast from his more distant past showed up.
Now an administrator at Elgin Academy, Doug Sept coached Gillette's Arcadia Valley (Mo.) Middle School cross country team in the mid-1990s. Gillette never won any middle school races after taking up running simply to get in shape, but Sunday marked the second marathon victory Sept has witnessed.
"Just fantastic," Sept said. "I always knew that Justin had the determination and the drive. If anything, he always ran more than he needed to in middle school and high school. It's great to see that success pay off."
Distance running lends itself to determined, goal-hungry athletes. Regardless of their finishing time, the 2,300-plus men and women who started the marathon, half-marathon or Fall Final 20 had stories about why they run and how it soothes their souls.
Give them a second to catch their breaths, and some also would stump to spectators about the merit of even jogging down the block.
As a college student outside Atlanta, Naperville native Marvin Jones, 26, joked that he didn't particularly like driving 26.2 miles, let alone running it. He often heard overtures about getting into races. He declined them with the same frequency before finally relenting a few years ago.
On Friday evening, the commercial real estate appraiser in York, Pa., left work and drove about 12 hours to a hotel near O'Hare Airport. He rested Saturday, ran in the 3:14s Sunday – a still-satisfying personal record despite being nine minutes shy of his goal – ate and got back in his car to drive home.
Jones' co-workers may not understand such an unconventional weekend, but then again, Jones never really considered competing for them.
"If you have someone to train with, like a friend that's really motivating, it's a breeze," he said. "It's not nearly as hard as it sounds. You see people exhausted and it looks like it's so hard and it sounds so far. It's not that far. It's really not that far."
Women's winner Vanessa Meneses finished in 3:03.60, a touch shorter than her commute time from Champaign, where she's a medical student at Illinois.
Running just her second career marathon, Meneses figured a victory was doable when she looked up last year's winning women's time, 3:06.10 by St. Charles East product Shannon Bixler, the women's half-marathon winner Sunday.
"I knew it was a possibility, but it would be challenging since my last marathon was around 3:15," Meneses said.
Meneses' mother, Mariela, was part of the Fall Final 20 field, and also a first-time visitor to the Tri-Cities for the event.
Two years after about 900 runners registered across the three primary races, the marathon, half-marathon and Fall Final 20 are on the verge of tripling in participation.
"You see a lot of smiles here, you see a lot of PRs, you see a lot of I-did-it-for-the-first-time looks and stuff, and that's what we're delivering," said co-race director Dave Sheble of St. Charles. "Word spreads pretty quickly when you do that."
Both Gillette and Meneses beat their nearest competitors by at least 10 minutes, 18 seconds. Men's and overall runner-up Gregory Maves, a 25-year-old from Indianapolis, finished in 2:41.52 – eight seconds shy of eclipsing the previous record time of inaugural 2010 winner Mike Iacofano.
Topping Iacofano was foremost on Gillette's goal list entering the race. Last week, he won the Sioux Falls (S.D.) Marathon in 2:30:10 to eclipse his own course record by just more than a minute.
A handful of last-minute withdrawals aided Gillette's entry. Had he been unable to register for Fox Valley, Gillette said he likely would have joined his brother, Steve, at Sunday's marathon in Erie, Pa.
Steve Gillette finished seventh at the 2010 Fox Valley Marathon, delivering a time and place his brother playfully jokes about. Next week, Justin Gillette is set to defend his title at the Rochester (N.Y.) Marathon.
"If you don't have something you're aspiring to try to achieve, then you're just out playing around," Gillette said. "I know at any moment it could be done. I could get injured or get in a wreck or something and this could all be over. So I just try to enjoy as much as I can of the running."
Recently, the photo-ops became a package deal. Gillette has learned to relish those, too.