NEWS | Jan. 24, 2020

Pa. Guard chaplain taking running career to new heights

By Bradley Rhen

FORT INDIANTOWN GAP, Pa. – Chaplain 1st Lt. Justin Thomas didn’t necessarily set out to become an elite runner, it just kind of happened.

Thomas, a chaplain for the 628th Aviation Support Battalion, 28th Combat Aviation Brigade, 28th Infantry Division, Pennsylvania Army National Guard, based at Fort Indiantown Gap, is a member of both the Pennsylvania National Guard Marathon Team and the All-Guard Marathon Team.

He began running seriously about eight years ago during his junior year at Susquehanna University after a relative suggested he run a marathon. He was a member of the school’s soccer team and had run a few 5K races, but he never really considered running marathons.

“I told her that sounds crazy to run 26.2 miles,” he said.

He decided to give it a try, and in spring 2012 he ran his first half marathon. He then began training for the Baltimore Marathon that fall using a training plan he got out of a magazine.

His marathon-running career almost ended after that first marathon.
“After I crossed the line, my dad asked me how I felt, and I replied ‘I never wanted to do that again,’” he said.

Eventually, he decided to try it again and switched from Susquehanna’s soccer team to the track team so he could learn more about running seriously.

Thomas graduated from Susquehanna in 2014 with bachelor’s degrees in theater production and design and religion. He then attended Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary in Virginia, graduating in December 2016.
He joined Pennsylvania National Guard in May 2016 when he was commissioned as a chaplain candidate.

“I wanted to serve Soldiers in my own community as their chaplain, and I want to serve Soldiers and their families in their darkest and happiest moments at home and abroad,” he said. “At the 628th ASB, I found a family who trusts me to be there for them and a leadership group that strives for the best and supports my growth as a chaplain.”

But in January 2016, after completing the Disney Marathon in Florida, he stopped doing marathons, because he felt burnt out from the training cycles and the amount of time it took to prepare to run at the level he was running at.

“I was also very busy with my civilian job,” Thomas said. “Between the traveling and long days on job sites, it was hard to balance. I continued to run but just for fun and PT score.”

Not long afterwards, a friend told him about the Pennsylvania National Guard Running Team. He looked into it and learned that he would need to run a half marathon under 1:35 or a full marathon under 3:35 to make the team. In December 2018, while in Arizona for work, he ran a half marathon, and although it was one of his slowest times by 10 minutes, he won the race and qualified for the Marathon team.

Capt. Matthew Stern, who until recently served as coordinator of the Pennsylvania National Guard Marathon Team, said in addition to being one of the team’s faster runners, Thomas brings other things to the table.

“Being a chaplain, he brings maturity to the team,” Stern said. “Most folks who run marathons are mentally disciplined people, so he really fits in great.”

Stern said the size of the Pennsylvania team fluctuates but right now has about 10 Soldiers and Airmen from across the state.

After making the state team, Thomas set his sights on the 2019 National Guard Marathon Trials in Lincoln, Nebraska. He set three goals: finish the race (since he wasn’t sure how his body would hold up after taking three years off), qualify for the All-Guard Marathon Team and finish in 3:10 or under.

“I trained well, ran smart, followed my race place and accomplished all three of those goals that day,” he said. “I finished 27th out of all the National Guard competitors.”

Joining the All-Guard team has been a unique experience, Thomas said.

“Being sent to races all over the country to run is very cool,” he said. “Not many people can say they get paid to run for fun. It’s really an honor and privilege, though, to represent not just the National Guard but also the state of Pennsylvania when I am out running.”

To date Thomas has run in seven full marathons and 17 half marathons since 2012. He never imagined running would lead to so many opportunities, including being on two running teams?

“I just did it for me because I like the challenge, then it turned into a lot more, which is never a bad thing,” he said. “I’m able to help other people learn about running. It’s been really good.”

Thomas said he likes running because it’s his “me time.”

“It’s just me, the road and nobody else around. You can do it anywhere. I travel a lot for my civilian job, so being able to run helps me to explore the area but also relax and enjoy myself.”

The Soldiers in his unit are very supportive of his running, Thomas said. They often ask how his training is going, what race is coming up next or how they can improve on their own running times.

“I get to help soldiers work on their own PT, which is very rewarding to see them accomplish their own running goals,” he said. “It might be an upcoming race they are doing, or it might just be for PT. “

Thomas is currently recovering from a torn meniscus but doesn’t think it should derail his running career. He is actually training for an Ironman triathalon and the All-Guard marathon trials, which are both in May.

“The injury taught me that I can power through other things,” he said. “It’s made me find a new route to push my endurance a little more and become disciplined in something else.”

Thomas, 28, is a native of Stewartstown, Pa., and he currently resides in York, Pa., and is manager of onsite services at Mojo Rental North America in Manheim, Pa.

He said he would like to become a full time chaplain for the National Guard so he can help soldiers and their families on a daily basis. He would also like to complete Clinical Pastoral Education so he can work in a hospital setting as a chaplain.

As far as running goals, Thomas said he would like to break 2:45 mark in a marathon and break the 1 hour mark on a 10-miler, preferably the Army 10 Miler, which he missed last year due to injury. He would also like to win the March for the Fallen at Fort Indiantown Gap and complete an Ironman triathalon.

“An overall goal, though, is to stay healthy and keep growing myself and others through exercise,” he said.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Please contact Lt. Col. Keith Hickox (717) 861-6254, or e-mail