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Big Guy Going Long: Shot Put World Champion to Novice Half Marathoner

Two-time Olympic shot put medalist John Godina opens up about the physical and mental challenges of training for his first half marathon.

John Godina is a big guy—6’4” and 290 pounds in his competitive years. That size came in handy as a shot putter—he’s a two-time Olympic medalist,1996 and 2000, and four-time World Champion, in 1995, 1997, and 2001 indoor and out.

Size is not as useful as an endurance athlete. Now 47, Godina is training for the Publix Atlanta Half Marathon on March 1, the day after the Olympic Trials Marathon. So, 13.1 miles—or, put another way, more than ten miles further than his lifetime long run before this whole thing started.

His life has changed in subtle and overt ways in the last four months. What hasn’t changed is the elite athlete’s need for a challenge, for a game day when you have to perform. That’s how he got into this situation.

Godina shot put Athens
John Godina at the 2004 Olympic Games / photo: JEFF HAYNES/AFP via Getty Images

Looking for a Focus

“There’s no real moment to prepare for in day-to-day life,” Godina explained, from his home in Phoenix. “You go along, doing what you need to. But now, there’s a day, March 1st. I gotta do this race, I have to develop a plan. I was working out, but the process was missing. Without a moment in time that you’re preparing for, you never challenge yourself.”

That, and certain mid-life realities (“This torso is no accident,” he tweeted) found a platform and a purpose with his former agent, Rich Kenah, now executive director of the Atlanta Track Club. Celebrating Atlanta’s Olympic heritage, Kenah rounded up 1996 Olympic medalists Godina and sprinter Gail Devers who were both game for something completely different. They’re following ATC’s online training program for the half marathon, with oversight by ATC coach Amy Yoder Begley.

Godina officially started the program in November 2019, but did a little remedial work on his own so he was able to run three miles at a go. That was already about 2.9 miles more than he ever ran as a world class shot putter.

A Complete Turn-Around in Training

“The training is totally different,” he said, comparing his shot put program. “I never ran more than 20-meter sprints. I threw for an hour or two. Then two to three hours of heavy lifting. It was like hard intervals, but we took five to seven minutes in between lifts; 25 to 30 of those. No endurance at all. There was nothing where you’re moving continuously—this is a complete turn-around.”

As a shot putter, he said, sleep was a major focus—he went to bed at 8:30 or 9—and, of course, pretty much constant calorie intake: “Everything—protein, fats, carbs. I didn’t have an aversion to it. Which became sort of a problem when I retired at age 36.”

From Explosion to Slow Burn

The mental preparation, too, is night and day. Godina described shot put as a violent sport. “You put the same energy into a throw as a punch; the mental approach is the same,” he says. “Shot put has the highest power output of any sport, but it’s very technical. It’s like golf and boxing combined—that’s not easy. You have to visualize this explosion, a really violent punch, but it’s got to be accurate. When you do it right, with this vertical component from your legs, you’ve taken all the energy from the ground up and this punch comes out at 30+ miles/hour.”

Violence as a mental state is not useful in a half marathon. While shot put is brief and intense, a half marathon provides lots and lots of time to cogitate on things. “The hardest part is analyzing, or over-analyzing, what’s going on with my body,” Godina says. “Is this normal? Should I stop? I have nerve pain in my feet. I can feel the pain building, and once it starts, my heart rate increases, so it not only hurts physically but it hurts my heart rate.”

Still, in the scheme of things, foot pain, blisters (“Who cares”), long run fatigue and the burn of mile repeats was, he found, surprisingly easy to bear: “Getting used to a lower level of discomfort for an extended period of time, that was not that big of a deal. Even my feet—if I walk for 20 or 30 seconds, it goes away. With running, when you’re done training, it’s almost instant recovery. I was surprised how good I felt between training sessions. After heavy lifting sessions [as a shot putter], for three or four days, life was really painful. And then you did it again.”

Like all initiates to distance running, just getting used to continuous movement and time on his feet have been a big part of the process, according to coach Amy Begley. “The same things that made him an Olympic medalist and World Champion have helped him get through the miles,” Begley says. “His work ethic, focus, high pain tolerance and competitive drive.”

Steady Progress, String of PRs

Godina is a fan of the ATC online training program because it’s easy to see progress. “I didn’t realize how slow I was,” he mused, scrolling back through the data, noting the gradual rise in mileage, the low week of 1.7 miles when he traveled to China for work (he’s the founder of Altis, a track and field training center) and the momentous day in early December when he ran six miles at once, “That was a big one.” January 18 was another landmark—the day he hit double digits in a single run.

“Physically, it was hard,” Godina says. “And mentally, actually. For some reason, going for a certain distance—10 miles—seems harder than running for an amount of time. I felt my feet, but it got done. My breathing was fine. I just listened to my nerdy podcasts.”

Three weeks out from the half marathon he was at peak training—a Wednesday workout of four minutes at 7:45 pace (significantly faster than his 9-minute goal race pace) with a minute recovery, repeated four times; and on Saturday, his longest long run of 13 miles.

The structure of his endurance week is similar to his former shot putter week, anchored by a more intense pace workout on Wednesday and a long run on Saturday. Other days are either light running (three miles) or cross training (he loves/hates his Peleton), with a day of rest on Sunday. Notably missing from this program is lifting: “I’m trying to get as light as I can. My muscle mass comes back fast, so no lifting.”

Godina’s endurance diet has far fewer calories than his former shot putter’s regimen but proportionally more carbs. He’s lost 25 pounds and would like to shed 10 more before race day, but probably will not go so far as to sacrifice beer. “This is not about austerity.”

His resting heart rate was always low and hasn’t changed much—it was 46 in the middle of a day that included a morning pace workout.

Still Chasing It

All along, Godina had been aiming at a two hour half marathon, but lately he’s been hearing how hilly Atlanta’s course is—a factor he didn’t consider. But he’s got a backup plan. “If I don’t hit sub-two hours in Atlanta, I may keep my training going. There’s a half marathon in Santa Cruz—totally flat.”  And then the truth came out. His actual goal is 1:58:04. Godina’s wife, Kristina, a veteran marathoner, currently owns the household record of 1:58:05.

Sleeker, speedier, mileage honed, a master of zen, half marathoner John Godina has not, apparently, lost his competitiveness. But has this experience changed his mind about running?

“When I was a shot putter, I did dislike running, very much,” he says. “And I don’t want to say I enjoyed every minute of this—there were hard moments—but it’s a step in a process. I don’t enjoy running, but I enjoy running with a purpose. I get it that people can get hooked into this, that this could be a lifelong thing that people could enjoy.”