John Mohler '69 - The Stories We Carry

On October 13, 2019, at 1:02 in the afternoon, John Mohler Jr. ’69 crossed the finish line of the Amica Newport Marathon in Rhode Island’s “City by the Sea,” arms outstretched and smile wide. No stranger to the euphoric combination of exhaustion and elation, John folded into the waiting embrace of his daughter, Katie. He dipped his head as Katie slipped a medal around his neck—not his first but possibly his most meaningful. Prompted by John’s proud family members, the announcer called out his achievement over the loudspeaker: “John Mohler has now completed a marathon in each of the 50 states!”

John had been on the cross country team at Mount Saint Joseph and at the University of Scranton but hadn’t logged many miles since graduating in 1973. In 2009, fueled by a colleague’s friendly challenge, he found himself lining up at the start of D.C.’s Cherry Blossom 10-Miler. With a passion reignited, he continued running and eventually worked his way up to half marathons, completing six in six different states. But somehow still, this accomplishment felt too mundane. “Only finishing ‘half’ of something really didn’t feel like enough,” John shrugs. So, at 59 years old, he signed up for the 2011 Marine Corps Marathon.

In the months before the race on especially tough training runs, John often found himself questioning, “Why am I doing this?” Then, his son, John ’98, reminded him about a friend of his from Virginia Tech, Seth Mitchell, a marine who had been killed in Afghanistan. “I decided to run, with purpose, in Seth’s honor,” John explains. “I wore his name on a placard on my back during the race, and it was neat when people would ask about him because I felt like I was keeping his memory alive.” John would wear the sign in every race to follow—52 in total.

“My goal initially was just to be able to say that I finished one,” John laughs. Little did he know that first finish line would only be the start of a much grander journey, spanning eight years, all 50 states, and 1,362.4 miles raced.

The next marathon John ran was the Bataan Memorial Death March, a challenging trek through the desert terrain of New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range in tribute to the service members who defended the Philippines during World War II. Survivors of the Bataan Death March shook the runners’ hands and shared stories of the atrocities they had witnessed during the war. “Incredibly, despite everything they experienced, they harbored no animosity toward the Japanese,” John marvels. “We have so much to learn from this generation. I knew I was in the presence of true heroes.”

After that, John was hooked. “Each race has such a different experience to it,” he says. “In a lot of ways, a marathon parallels life. It’s all about the journey.” It’s about overcoming obstacles, persevering through pain or harsh conditions, testing your own limits. And, less often acknowledged but equally as transformative, running—as is life—is about the moments of breathtaking beauty, the people whose paths you cross, and the stories they carry with them.

“There are a lot of people on the course having their own journeys,” John considers, reflecting on the many veterans who raced beside him with prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs in the Marine Corps Marathon. On mile 11 in Kansas, John chatted with a man who had lost 150 pounds in the four months leading up to the event. He met another runner who had suffered a stroke just six months prior. In Massachusetts, he played an inadvertent game of tag with a man who was visually impaired and aiming to qualify for the Boston Marathon; they’d cheer encouragements as they took turns passing each other along the way.

“You take those things back with you for whatever problems you’re going through in a day,” John says. “You think about those people and say to yourself, ‘This is nothing. I can do this.’”

In September of 2012, that sense of motivation took on a much deeper, more personal meaning for John. His son, John, and daughter-in-law, Jenny, received a devastating prenatal diagnosis. Their baby boy, Joseph, was not expected to survive the pregnancy, and if he did, he would only live a short time. Grappling with an incomprehensible reality, John spent hours during training runs and races thinking about his grandson and how utterly precious life is. A few months later, on December 13, 2012, Joseph was born. His brief but beautiful life was filled with love and light. He was baptized, wrapped in songs and prayers, and surrounded by family as he entered Heaven just 60 minutes later.

At John’s next race, the sign pinned to his back displayed a new image below Seth’s; he had another story to carry with him. “Even though he was only here for an hour, Joseph touched—and continues to touch—a lot of people’s lives,” John says. “We all have a purpose in life. You have a lot of time to think about that when you’re out on the course.”

John doesn’t listen to music when he runs. He thinks about life; he swaps stories with fellow runners; and, he breathes in the beauty of each state’s vastly different landscape. During a downhill race through the Colorado Rockies, John watched in awe as the sun peered out from beneath the mountain tops and rose sleepily, painting the morning in an amber glow. California’s Big Sur International Marathon steers runners along Highway 1, the first nationally designated Scenic Highway. Twisting along the coastal slopes of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range, the course boasts views nothing short of spectacular. John remembers looking out over the ocean as humpback whales leapt from the water.

Throughout his journey, John also continued to see beauty in the kindness, resilience, and strength of the people he encountered and those closest to him. In 2015, John’s two-year-old grandson, Matthew—son of Katie and her husband, Sean—was diagnosed with autism. Unfamiliar with the specifics of the condition, John was left with many questions about what Matthew’s life would look like, what challenges he would face. John didn’t want autism to define Matthew.

“I want people to see and love him for who he is. He has an infectious smile and a purity of heart that are undeniable,” John shares. So, John started running for Matthew too, adding his image to the placard just below Joseph’s. He shared Matthew’s story and was constantly encouraged by others who told of their own loved ones with similar diagnoses.

Two more names would be added to the sign before John reached his goal. In 2017, John lost a cousin, Emile, to ALS. A world-renowned cardiologist, he was diagnosed in the prime of his life. John’s family began participating in the Baltimore ALS Walk and Emile always made the trip down from Philadelphia to join them. “To see him so upbeat and supporting all the people around him was very powerful,” says John.

Most recently, in 2019, John’s longtime friend and fellow Mount graduate Mark Parr ’74 was taken by Alzheimer’s. “He was a brilliant CPA and businessman with a great personality. He was an amazing father,” John says. On the day of the funeral, John ran his 49th marathon in Mark’s honor in Massachusetts, where Mark had lived for a number of years.

“I’ve been carrying these special family members and friends with me under the moniker of ‘Celebrating Life,’” John explains. “Since I got into racing, I’ve been able to experience many different aspects of life, which helped me grow and appreciate the gifts I have. I’m out there able to run marathons and many people will never have that opportunity. Many parents won’t get to see their children live to the fullest. I just feel very blessed for everything that I have that I had largely taken for granted before I got into this and really saw life through a different lens.”

After his race in Rhode Island, John had one last marathon scheduled before his journey was truly complete. He would be returning to the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C.— a “victory lap,” he called it. This time, he would run with a charity team. Autism Speaks is an organization founded by the grandparents of a child with autism to raise awareness and fund research. John signed up to run with their team, but he had one request: that Matthew be able to cross the finish line with him. So, one of his team members helped him work out a plan to get Matthew onto the course.

As he neared the finish line, John ran over to the side of the road where his family was waiting. They hoisted Matthew over the fence and handed him off to John. Together, he and Matthew ran the last eighth of a mile. Matthew stumbled along in yellow rubber rainboots, smiling ear to ear. Marines offered enthusiastic high-fives and cheered as the two crossed the finish line hand in hand.

John was washed by indescribable emotion as he carried Matthew over to the rest of the family to celebrate. Reflecting on a similar scene eight years ago, he remembered that first race and the reason he ran, the reason he would never stop.

There is a stretch of the marathon, called the wear blue Mile, where the course is lined by flags and posters of fallen soldiers. As John passed through this time around, a familiar face stood out among the photographs—an image he carried with him always. On that day, the 10th anniversary of Seth’s death, John’s journey came full circle as he acknowledged all that had changed, the people he’d lost, and the ways in which he’d grown since crossing that first finish line.

This is a story from the Spring 2020 issue of The Mount magazine.

Mount Saint Joseph High School

Mount Saint Joseph is a Catholic, college preparatory school for young men sponsored by the Xaverian Brothers.