FALLBROOK — For Hank Donigan, a 58-year-old Marine Corps veteran who retired a colonel in 2007, the magic number is 25.
That’s how many marathons Donigan plans to run by the end of 2014, and it’s no pipe dream, either: As of last Thursday, when we met in a coffee shop downtown, he had completed 12 events that were at least 26.2 miles in length — one was 51 miles, he admits, but he still only counted it once.
“This time last year, I would have never dreamed it,” said Donigan, a modest man who eschews the limelight and is on a mission to raise $25,077 for the Semper Fi Fund with his high-mileage exploits.
His pledge leads to some outlandish situations, as you might imagine. Donigan was to have run his 13th marathon during a layover this weekend in Omaha, Neb. Picture him driving back to the airport to make his connection to Washington, D.C., after nine hours of running.
And, over the Thanksgiving weekend, he plans to run two marathons within the space of three days in Dallas, Texas.
As if that wasn’t enough, the 25-in-2014 milestone isn’t Donigan’s only active marathon vow: In 2000, when he was still on active duty, he pledged to run 25 consecutive Marine Corps Marathons, held annually in Washington, D.C.
That commitment will take him until he is 69 years old to finish, and if it wasn’t for his service record, it would be hard to imagine it.
Donigan served the Marines for 30 years, starting when he graduated near the top of his Naval Academy class in 1977.
He’s been to 44 countries, speaks French, Arabic and some Japanese, and has earned two Legion of Merit awards, among other decorations.
“I’ve been in Iraq so many times I’ve lost count — the first time I was in Baghdad was 1984,” Donigan said.
You wouldn’t know it by his physical condition — trim and fit — but Donigan has a 90 percent disability rating related to a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress, which he attributes to the especially intense bloodshed he witnessed in Lebanon in the early 1980s.
“I suffered pretty severely from those experiences probably for two decades,” he said, “(but) I don’t have anywhere near the symptoms I once had. I went through a period of three years when I couldn’t even read a book.”
Today, he teaches at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College on Camp Pendleton. He showed up to our interview Thursday wearing penny loafers and khakis — his uniform now that he teaches graduate-level courses to officers in line for promotion.
Donigan’s friends will tell you that he is the consummate Marine, an officer who commanded in fierce combat and collected riveting war stories from the tail end of the Cold War through the War on Terror.
But his career path wasn’t always aligned so intimately with the Marine Corps.
In 1982, after trying his first endurance event, the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii, Donigan was tempted to leave the Corps and pursue athletics. The triathlon was expected at the time to become an Olympic sport, which it did at the 2000 Sydney Games in Australia.
“Very shortly thereafter (in the early ’80s), I was transferred to a combat unit,” he recalled. “It just changed my life, and whereas I had been oriented on athletic things, now I had all this experience and the Marine Corps said, ‘We don’t have many guys like you around. We want to keep you.’”
His love of physical challenges began early on, as a boy growing up in Boston.
“The Boston Marathon is such a big part of the local history there — I mean, you learn about it when you’re coming up through grade school,” he went on. “Allegedly, I had a grandfather who ran the Boston Marathon in 1916. I’ve never been able to prove it, but … that’s what got the ball rolling.”
In the military, Donigan was an infantryman, and so I asked whether he hadn’t done his fair share of running in the Corps — enough to last him the rest of his life.
“Actually, the Marine Corps made me a runner,” he said.
I have never attempted a marathon or been tempted to, but I’ve read enough to know that athletes can take weeks to recover. At Donigan’s pace, there’s a marathon to be run every other week — and that’s if they were spaced evenly throughout the year. By late July, Donigan wants to be a month ahead, so he plans to run three in as many weeks starting yesterday.
“It’s a cycle of recovery — you’ll rest a little bit, start to run the soreness out, and then build up toward your next one,” he explained. “It also has to do with the intensity — you have to run these races really gentle.”
A husband and father of five, Donigan has lived in Fallbrook since 2003, and speaks highly of the community’s connection with its military neighbors.
He ultimately wants his fellow residents to take ownership of his fundraising effort and join him in support of the Semper Fi Fund.
But no matter what the public’s response will be, there’s no stopping this Marine now that he has his mission.
“You get out there for long periods of time by yourself and it gives you a bit of tranquility,” he told me. “I think there’s a lot to be said for just being active.”
For more information, or to pledge support for Donigan’s quest, email
firstname.lastname@example.org or search Facebook for “Run Hank Run.”
Online: Semper Fi Fund
Know anyone with an interesting job, history or outlook on life? Contact Tom Pfingsten at email@example.com