As a general rule, John Pyle believes anything worth doing is worth overdoing. He doesn’t just grow a mustache; he grows a grizzly handlebar mustache fit for a turn-of-the-century strongman.
And when he runs, he doesn’t just go for a leisurely jog over the Ringling Bridge. Instead, he laces up for 100-mile marathons and carries a 3-foot-by-5-foot American flag with him.
In just two weeks, the 55-year-old, ultra-distance runner will push himself even further. Beginning on March 1, the Sarasota resident will embark on the biggest challenge he’s faced so far in his career. As part of the Patriot Run Across America, he’ll run — literally cross country — from San Francisco to Key West. His goal is to raise $1 million for the Wounded Warrior Project, which benefits injured veterans. Pyle will average 40 miles a day for 80 days, finishing his trek with the Keys 100 Mile Race from Key Largo to Key West on May 20.
Pyle always has been an athlete. He had dreams of playing professional baseball, and he played football and ran track at Manatee High School. However, his athletic days came to an end when he decided to drop out of school and pursue work as a carpenter.
Soon, Pyle found himself drifting farther away from the life he imagined for himself.
“I worked hard, and I made a lot of money,” he says. “But I started partying a lot, and I got into a lot of trouble.”
By the time he was in his mid-20s, Pyle’s life devolved into full-fledged alcoholism.
“My friends would say, ‘John, you’re a nice guy, but you drink too much,’” Pyle says. “I realized that once I started drinking, I had no control over my actions. I’d been hitting it really hard, and I looked at myself in the mirror and had a wake-up call.”
On Feb. 28, 1987, Pyle decided to make a change. He entered a treatment center, started exercising and got sober.
“I became a better husband, a better son, a better everything,” he says. “I don’t think I give my wife enough credit for all her support. When I got sober, I became worthy of her again.”
Pyle and his wife, Toni, met while working together in the 1970s and have been married for 32 years. Even after John was sober, he continued to face struggles in the form of financial woes. He and Toni ran a successful clothing store on St. Armands Circle that fell victim to a poor economy, and Pyle’s subsequent venture into real estate met a similar fate.
“I’ve made and lost three fortunes in my life,” he says. “As quickly as the money came in, it disappeared. It was a lot of fun, and it touched a lot of lives, but it wasn’t anything like running.”
Feb. 28 will mark Pyle’s 25th year of sobriety — a fitting way to start his 3,200-mile journey. To prepare, he’s enlisted the help of famed adventure runner and coach Ray Zahab, who has had Pyle on an intense training regimen, which includes running 200 miles per week and dragging a tire around a track for three miles. As the run approaches, his training has tapered off. Now Pyle is focused on resting and packing on some fat to get him through the first two weeks of the run, which he thinks will be the hardest.
“In the back of my mind, I’m thinking, ‘Wow,’” Pyle says. “There’s going to be a lot of pain, but I feel like I’m ready. You have to be a little bit crazy to do this.”
Pyle is no stranger to overcoming obstacles. Part of what drives him to push through the pain is the spiritual experience he gets from a grueling, long-distance run.
“The farther you push yourself, the more profound the experience is,” Pyle says. “Running spills into all aspects of life. We’re capable of so much more than we think we are. It’s about transcending pain and rising above it.”
Pyle’s story is inspiring, not only because of his incredible accomplishments and tenacity but also because of the everyman quality that he possesses. His personality strikes an interesting balance between intensity and an easy-going innocence that makes him instantly relatable. Even though he’s well known and admired by runners across the country, he isn’t an untouchable celebrity; he’s more like a friendly neighbor who just happens to be running thousands of miles across the United States. His outlook on running is similar to his outlook on life.
“If you watch children run, they don’t think about it, they just do it,” says Pyle. “They’re happy, joyous and free, and that’s our natural state before life gets too serious. That’s what I strive for when I’m running: to be happy, joyous and free.”
For more information, visit www.patriotrunacrossamerica.com.
By The Numbers
25 — the number of years Pyle has been sober.
70 — the number of marathons and ultras John Pyle has run.
80 — the number of days it will take Pyle to complete the run.
200 — the number of miles Pyle ran each week to train for the Patriot Run Across America.
3,273 — the number of miles from San Francisco to Key West.
10,000 — the number of calories Pyle expects to consume each day during his cross-country run.
Even more recognizable than John Pyle’s moustache is perhaps his running partner — a large American flag.
Five years ago, on his way to a 9/11 run, Pyle grabbed the flag from his porch as a show of patriotism and was surprised by the reactions it drew.
“You wouldn’t believe how inspirational it is to see that flag running down the road,” Pyle says. “And there’s no slacking on my end when I’m carrying it. As long as people are looking at that flag, running is effortless.”