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After being diagnosed with MS, Jonathan Davidson decided to take up running. He just completed his 50th marathon — one in each of the 50 states.

Holding his infant daughter led him to vow to take care of himself so he could coach her soccer team and, someday, walk her down the aisle.

by November 14, 2018

Friends and family surround Jonathan Davidson in October after he finished his 50th marathon. 

As a child growing up, Jonathan Davidson wasn’t a runner. Well, maybe if he was being chased by a bully or punished at his middle school’s football practices, but that was about it.

But on Oct. 20, Davidson, a senior quality assurance (QA) lead analyst in Vanderbilt’s HealthIT department, completed his 50th marathon since receiving a life-changing diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS) in 2001.

Davidson had set a goal to run one marathon in each of the 50 states — and reached it last month at the 18th Annual Baltimore Running Festival in Maryland with a final time of 5:09:33.

“It’s kind of funny to say, but being diagnosed with MS is one of the greatest things that has happened to me because it got me moving and taking care of myself.”

Surrounded by 30 family members and friends, many of whom made a surprise trip from other parts of the country to watch him complete his 12-year-long quest, Davidson crossed the finish line with his daughter, Brookley, 13, and son, Landen, 11, running by his side, each holding a gold balloon that, combined, formed the number “50.”

Davidson’s inspiration for running was born on the same day as his daughter in March 2005.

“It was her birth — holding her in the hospital and thinking about her future — that made me start thinking about my future and what this disease was going to do to me,” Davidson said.

“I knew I wanted to be able to coach her soccer team and teach her to ride a bike and walk her down the aisle — if we let her date — so it was there in the hospital that I realized I needed to be more intentional in taking care of myself. I thought that the better shape I was in physically, the better prepared I’d be to deal with whatever MS throws at me.”

With a newfound purpose, Davidson ran his first 5K race just four months later in July, followed by a second 5K in September, his first 10K in November and his first half marathon the following April as part of Nashville’s Country Music Marathon.

By Oct. 29, 2006 — a year and a half after Brookley’s birth — Davidson had completed his first full marathon: the Marine Corps Marathon in Arlington, Virginia, which also routed through Washington, DC.

Due to the pain he experienced following that race, Davidson decided to stick with half marathons. He had no intention of running another full marathon. It wasn’t until he met a woman in 2009 who had completed 54 marathons in one year that he would feel determined to finish another.

Davidson completed seven double races — meaning he completed two races in two states in two days — and two triple races, which encompassed running more than 78 miles in three days.

“I thought, ‘If she can do 54 in a year, I can do three in three months’ time,’” said Davidson.

That three turned into five over the span of 13 months between 2010 and 2011. In 2013, at his seventh marathon in New York City, Davidson realized all his previous marathons had been in different states. It was then that he decided to run a marathon in all 50 states.

Davidson completed marathon numbers eight and nine in 2014. He felt so good following his 10th in 2015 that he scrambled to get in another immediately afterward.

“I reached out to Little Rock, Arkansas, and told them my story. They had already closed registration — it was sold out. I asked if there was any way I could get in, and they said, ‘Yeah, we’ll let you in,’ and they gave me race bib number 11 since it was my 11th marathon,” said Davidson.

Davidson completed eight more marathons in 2015, achieving his fastest time during his 13th marathon at four hours and 10 minutes.

During his 18th marathon that November in Philadelphia, Davidson’s foot drop — a condition caused by lesions on his cervical spine related to MS — caused him to fall.

“You can audibly hear my right foot hitting the pavement louder than my other foot,” said Davidson. “And during the Philadelphia marathon at mile 12 or 13, I was tripping over that foot while I was just walking. At mile 14, I fell. I didn’t get hurt — just a little scraped up — and was still able to finish the race under five hours, which I was happy with.”

The challenges didn’t cause Davidson to quit there. He completed 12 races in both 2016 and 2017, leaving only eight races to finish in 2018 to meet his goal of 50 total.

To help him afford the travel costs associated with his goal, Davidson completed seven double races — meaning he completed two races in two states in two days — and two triple races, which encompassed running more than 78 miles in three days.

Davidson chose to end his quest in Maryland because he has family living nearby. Twenty-one friends and family members also made the trek from Nashville to watch him cross the finish line, some of which surprised him the day before on a tour of the U.S. Capitol and again on the National Mall.

Now that Davidson’s initial goal is complete, he plans to focus on running the races in which he’s always wanted to participate. His 51st race will take place next April at the Boston Marathon. He also hopes to complete the Big Sur Marathon in California, which is the world’s largest rural marathon, and the Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati, Ohio. Returning to Arlington to repeat the Marine Corps Marathon next year is another goal.

“I’m going to keep running because I feel like that’s one of the ways my MS has been kept in check,” said Davidson. “It’s kind of funny to say, but being diagnosed with MS is one of the greatest things that has happened to me because it got me moving and taking care of myself. God has blessed me tremendously.”

Davidson’s efforts continue to be fueled by life’s uncertainties.

“You don’t know what tomorrow’s going to bring, whether you have a particular diagnosis or not. Just focus on today and do what you can do. Don’t focus on what you can’t do, like saying, ‘Oh, I can’t run anymore because I might fall.’ If that happens to me — if I get to a point where running isn’t safe for me — then I’ll switch to another form of exercise, like swimming or biking. I just want to keep moving.”

Multiple Sclerosis, Jonathan Davidson, Running, Health IT