Marathon Man

Nearly every week in 2012, Ellis has run from 20 to 55 miles from one Iowa town to another and then encouraged numerous audiences to find and pursue their passions.

It’s nearly 7:30 on a late August evening in eastern Iowa, and Jim Ellis ’06 is lying down in the grass near a highway. He’s been running since 5 a.m.—having started 44 miles ago in Davenport—yet he’s still 10 miles away from his destination, Iowa City.

As he pushed a 150-pound jogging stroller of supplies in 80-degree heat and high humidity, his iPod has gone through playlists by Mumford & Sons, Josh Garrels and other favorite artists. He’s reflected on favorite Bible verses and thought about the people who inspire him; planned upcoming talks to youth groups and classes; and consumed over three gallons of liquids and thousands of calories in energy bars and gels.

Dusk is beginning to surround his sweat-drenched body. His irritable left tendon feels better now that he’s put on a different pair of Brooks shoes, but he calls his fiancée, Chantalle: “I don’t think I can go any farther.”

Ellis has been running across the state of Iowa since January. Each Monday—except for a time of scheduled rest every five weeks—he embarks upon a run the length of a marathon or two. Running from four to six miles an hour, he ventures from one small town to another, stopping regularly to refuel and take pictures of wildflowers, barn quilts, water towers or the dogs that follow him. By the time he unlaces his shoes at the end of the day, he will have covered between 20 and 55 miles.

He spends the rest of the week with a host family—often people he’s never met. He’ll make some new friends, update his website [], take an ice bath or two, reread his favorite John Steinbeck over coffee, go for some short runs and think about the next leg of his journey. But most importantly, he’ll give as many as 16 presentations of encouragement and challenge at clubs, schools, nursing homes and churches.

“My mission is to inspire, challenge and equip people to discover and use their God-given abilities well,” says Ellis. “I want them to find more meaning by doing what they’re passionate about.”

Ellis has been joined for many portions of his run by friends, family and new acquaintances. In September, his stepfather, Scott, ran with him part of the way from Pella to Des Moines.

His passion for running got its start when he was a youngster in the Denver area and his stepfather suggested he jog to get into condition for soccer. Sometimes, on the way home from school, he would run 20 laps on the track in his school clothes. Ellis ran his first marathon as a senior in high school—winning his age group—to impress a girl. Later, as a soccer player at Northwestern, his goal was to run the whole game so opponents couldn’t keep up with him.

In 2007, he volunteered to run 32 miles in one day to raise money for The Bridge, a faith-based transitional housing agency for women and children in Orange City. It was the first time Ellis realized his gifts could be used to improve the lives of others. A year later, he ran 62 miles for the same cause.

Ellis, then a middle school youth director in Sioux City, had to explain to co-workers on Monday why he was walking like a penguin. One said she could see him combining his passions for running and youth someday. Maybe he could run across the country and speak to students?

“Crazy idea,” he thought to himself, but it kept coming back. Over the next three years, people brought up the idea several times. Eventually accepting it as a call from God, Ellis quit the job he loved and began planning for a yearlong 1,500-mile, west-to-east-and-back-again run across Iowa.

What a journey it’s been. On the way to Orange City in January, as he ran in a blizzard, all of his water bottles froze an hour after he started. In early September, on a 64-mile run to Grinnell in 100 percent humidity, he quit in exhaustion 22 miles short of his goal.

With shoulder-length brown hair, Ellis has been told he looks like snowboarder Shaun White and “Shaggy” from Scooby-Doo. He’s been stopped by a sheriff’s deputy responding to a call from a concerned citizen who thought a woman was running with a baby. He’s had his picture taken next to a 5,000-pound popcorn ball in Sac City, driven a tractor to plant pumpkin seeds in Manchester, raced in a wheelchair with nursing home residents in Sanborn, and slept in an old green VW van near Bellevue.

He ran with Scott, a crack addict who credits God and running for saving his life. Ellis met Lonn, a wheelchair-bound victim of a drunken-driving accident who has rigged up a way to continue his passion of fishing. And he spent time with Dirk, who completed 10 marathons in 30 days last year to raise awareness about the prevalence of suicide among Native American youth.

Along the way, Ellis has talked to more than 10,000 Iowans about such topics as failure, hospitality and persistence—all things he’s experienced while on his adventure. And he’s encouraged them to make what author Jim Collins calls “Big Hairy Audacious Goals.”

For Karen, it was to record a CD. For the student council at Davenport West High School, to gather more than 3,000 pounds of food for a local pantry. For Chris, to take steps toward better health.

“It’s been a blessing to have people share with me what they want to do with their lives. They want someone to say, ‘You can do it,’” says Ellis.

“Just try one more mile,” Chantalle suggests.

Ellis gets up, positions himself behind the stroller, puts one foot before the other, and starts out.

“I run because I love it,” he reminds himself, “not because I have to.” One mile becomes two, and within a couple of hours, he’s met his goal. 

Classic Comments

All comments are moderated and need approval from the moderator before they are posted. Comments that include profanity, or personal attacks, or antisocial behavior such as "spamming" or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. We will take steps to block users who violate any of our terms of use. You are fully responsible for the content that you post. Comments posted do not reflect the views or values of Northwestern College.