SANTA MONICA, Calif. – It was only a little more than nine years ago that J.R. Martinez was in a hospital learning to walk.
The look on his face will tell you that it’s still a vivid memory – a memory that he may not think of often, but one that is deeply ingrained in him and becomes a reflection of just how far he has come.
The story is now well told: While serving in Iraq as a U.S. Army infantryman in 2003, Martinez suffered severe burns over 34 percent of his body after the Humvee he was driving hit an explosive. Martinez spent the better part of three years having 33 surgeries and rehabilitating.
First it was walking – step by step in a hospital.
Then it was dancing – winning “Dancing with the Stars” with pro partner Karina Smirnoff last year on the show’s 13th season.
And now, Martinez has taken on a new challenge – running the New York Marathon.
An avid athlete growing up, Martinez played football and ran track. But fulfilling an athletic goal isn’t why Martinez is running – he’s running for charity. Martinez will be the marathon’s final starter, and for every person he passes, Timex will donate $1 to the New York Road Runners Youth Programs, a program that works with kids to promote running, fitness and leading an active healthy lifestyle at all ages.
Martinez is finding out just what an undertaking a marathon is, especially for someone whose life often feels like a marathon already.
A career as a motivational speaker has Martinez on the road nearly three weeks out of every month. On top of that, he just wrote a book, “Full of Heart – My Story of Survival, Strength and Spirit”, that will be released soon. In May, Martinez’s girlfriend Diana Gonzalez-Jones gave birth to the couple’s first child, a daughter named Lauryn Annabelle.
What’s the key to managing a plate as full as his?
Even he doesn’t know.
“The key is… I don’t know,” Martinez said. “I don’t realize what I’m doing until I’m actually doing it.”
It was Timex that approached the former soap opera actor in June with the proposition.
There was only one problem: Martinez had never even run 10 miles before.
“I played sports growing up in high school. I played football, basketball and ran a little bit of track, but nothing in regards to distance,” Martinez said. “I was athletic but even when I joined the military, I never really ran a lot in the military. I think the most I ever ran was seven miles maybe.”
Former softball player and ESPN commentator Jennie Finch ran for Timex last year and raised just less than $31,000. Upon hearing that, Martinez laced up his shoes and set out on a $31,000 mission.
“I said this could be a good opportunity,” Martinez said. “No. 1, so I could kind of get back into shape, the book is almost done so I’ll have a little more free time. And then, it’s cool because it raises money for charity.
“To me, that’s probably the coolest thing about it. I try to do as much as I can for charity and so for me, it’s just really nice to have the opportunity to raise some money for kids.”
Martinez employed the services of a trainer. As a distance running rookie, Martinez and his trainer mapped out a plan that would allow him to train while on the road and at home in Los Angeles. The emphasis is not on time, but instead on keeping pace with a target heart rate while running set distances. Timex helped him out with an Ironman GPS watch, which monitors heart rate, pace and distance.
As dedicated as Martinez has been to preparing for the marathon, he is trying hard not to let his training interfere with his family life.
“In life there’s always moments where your job will come down, it’s a busy six months, but then maybe the next five months are not as busy and a little slow. So I think it’s important to tell whoever is in your life, ‘Just bear with me,’” Martinez said.
His priorities have changed since the birth of his daughter, just as they do for any parent. He is now a family man and it’s evident in the way he beams while talking about things as simple as running errands with his daughter. While he acknowledged he is getting used to the transition, Martinez and Gonzalez-Jones have also found ways for training to bring the family together.
“I kind of said to the girlfriend, ‘Why don’t you come to the park with me? And while I’m running, you walk and you get a nice walk in.’ So it turns into a family thing,” Martinez said. “The baby is being pushed, my black lab is running with me, the girlfriend is getting her walk in so it kind of works. It’s one of those things, like a case-by-case thing that you have to find a balance in.”
Martinez then switches gears quickly. Yes, it’s great to have his family helping him train. But this is also a competition, and his competitive spirit is more than obvious. Martinez talked excitedly about the adrenaline rush he expects to have with every person he passes. He likened it to the excitement of being at an auction and outbidding others for that big-ticket item.
“Jennie Finch, she raised just a little under $31,000 last year. Now mind you, I heard her time and I’m like, she smoked it, she did amazing,” Martinez said. “And here is my crazy ass going, ‘Oh, I’ll try to aim for $31,000.’ I don’t know what I was thinking.”
For someone who has already overcome so much, Martinez continues to push himself and thrive off of challenges.
“I never thought in my life that I’d be running a marathon, but here I am,” Martinez said. “Over the course of nine and a half years since my injuries that everything that I’ve done that wasn’t traditional in my life has only made me stronger and better.”