Zero to 26.2: How a ‘Jesus year’ inspired local Catholic to finish first marathon

Aaron Wilkerson, 34, of Redford, beams at the starting line of the Detroit Free Press/ Chemical Bank Marathon on Oct. 21 in downtown Detroit. Wilkerson, who became Catholic in 2009, said he was inspired by his "Jesus year" — at 33, the age Jesus died — to finally get in shape, dropping 75 pounds in order to complete the first marathon of his life. (Photos by Valaurian Waller | Special to Detroit Catholic)

Dropping 75 pounds to run Detroit race, Aaron Wilkerson reflects on Christ’s sacrifice: In comparison, he says, 'nothing’s really that hard'

DETROIT — Aaron Wilkerson, 34, fueled up on faith and perseverance to take on the Detroit Free Press/ Chemical Bank marathon, finishing the Sunday, Oct. 21, race in about six hours.

However, it was just a little more than a year ago that Wilkerson, then 75 pounds heavier and not exercising, decided it was time to run.

“It’s always been in the back of my mind to do the full marathon, but I could never get my head wrapped around the training,” he said.

He had run a half marathon in 2006, but had never trained for or run the full 26.2 miles. As life for the Redford resident got busier — Wilkerson works full time, has been married for eight years, and has five children — the idea of running a marathon was pushed further away.

At 33, what Wilkerson said was his “quote-unquote ‘Jesus year,’” or Jesus’ estimated age when he died, Wilkerson realized he was either going to get in shape or be overweight for the rest of his life. He decided he had to make some big changes.

“I never approached it as a lifestyle” before, said Wilkerson, a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. “I approached it as a goal.”

With his newfound "lifestyle" approach came the idea of sacrifice — offering up his training in prayer, developing discipline, and picking up his cross. Wilkerson said he always remembered Jesus’ sacrifice.

“Nothing’s really that hard,” he said, in comparison.

Aaron Wilkerson laces up his New Balance running shoes before dawn Oct. 21 as he prepares to head out the door for the marathon.

The more earthly side of his lifestyle change included ditching soda and sweets and exercising more.

Wilkerson began running a year ago before starting a 12-week training program in early spring. However, the 12-week program was just preparation for the real work — an 18-week training program that began in June. He found the programs online and has kept himself on the suggested schedule. He said the 18-week training was especially essential.

“I had to get prepared mentally, spiritually, emotionally, for the 18-week plan,” he said.

The five-day-per-week regimen included shorter runs early in the morning or late in the evening on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, then longer runs on Saturdays and cross training on Sundays.

“It’s very heavy coming from nothing,” Wilkerson said of the 18-week program.

Aaron Wilkerson’s fitness turnaround wasn’t the first faith-based change he has made. He converted to Catholicism and joined the Church in 2009. He wasn’t religious growing up, but was questioning and searching for happiness at 24 years old, despite having a degree and a good job.

A woman he was dating at the time was not a very strict Catholic, but was involved in ministry. He later met his wife, Mary Wilkerson, who was more invested in her faith. Aaron Wilkerson said his analytical side was always satisfied by Church teachings.

“Every question I had, there was an answer,” he said.

At the time of Aaron’s baptism, Aaron and Mary were already good friends, and they began dating two months later.

During Aaron’s marathon training, Mary Wilkerson was very supportive and took care of the couple’s children, ages 7, 6, 5, 3, and 1, when he was training. She also has lost weight and is preparing for a 5K she plans to run within the next couple of months.

Aaron Wilkerson helps his daughter, Julia Grace, 1, with her socks as he prepares for the race. Wilkerson's wife, Mary, said it was "really special" for the couple's five children to watch their father's triumph as he crossed the finish line. 
Aaron Wilkerson smiles surrounded by other runners as he prepares to start his first marathon on a chilly, dark morning Oct. 21.

While his kids didn’t really understand the significance of the race, they were there to cheer him on the day of the event, and race coordinators even let them cross the path barriers so they could greet their dad at the finish line.

“I wanted to capture that moment, and it was really special,” Mary Wilkerson said.

For both Aaron and Mary Wilkerson, training had to be carefully planned around family priorities. Aaron Wilkerson often woke up at 4:30 a.m. to train, while Mary Wilkerson worked out while her three younger children were at the gym daycare.

Training for their races made their faith stronger and opened their eyes to God’s plan, Mary Wilkerson said. Fitting exercise into their daily schedules was difficult, but the more Mary Wilkerson exercised, the more she realized maintaining the body is maintaining a temple for the Holy Spirit.

“Our bodies need to be taken care of because they are a gift,” she said.

She added that aligning priorities is a part of spirituality, and the discipline of faith and health go hand in hand.

“It’s been really cool for me personally to see how interconnected everything is,” she said, adding that living a healthy lifestyle has made her realize God’s intent is for people to care for themselves body and soul.

Despite the spiritual and earthly support, Aaron Wilkerson had his share of tough times. He twisted his knee in December and, while it wasn’t broken or sprained, he didn’t run for a month. Wilkerson said running in the winter is the hardest when it’s cold and dark, and the race is months away.

Having to make such a big lifestyle change was a challenge in itself. Wilkerson said he had been unhealthy for so long.

“I realized that me being overweight was a choice,” he said.

Before the marathon, the thought of completing it was daunting, but Aaron Wilkerson also said he was proud and surprised by his own abilities. Mary Wilkerson said she is excited about running and amazed at how far she has come.

Aaron Wilkerson said he plans to run the marathon again next year. His goal this year was just to finish the race. He plans to keep exercising so he can do better next year, but is taking a break from intense training.

“Now, it’s kind of figuring out that new normal,” he said.