Gonzales minister runs grueling Disney race series to raise money for St. Jude

The Rev. Mark Goins always thought running marathons was a little crazy.

So for his first marathon, why did he choose Walt Disney World’s Dopey Challenge? It’s a four-day, 48.6-mile event composed of four races — a 5-kilometer, a 10-kilometer, a half-marathon and a full marathon.

“It probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do all together,” says Goins, a 42-year-old minister at the First United Methodist Church of Gonzales. “I had tons of people praying for me through the race, the whole week.”

Goins calls himself a “jogger, not a runner,” but he chose to slog through the Dopey to raise $6,000 for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which he respects after watching under-insured children receive free cancer treatment there.

The fact that Goins can run at all may be a bit of a miracle.

More than 20 years ago, Goins was a 19-year-old student at Centenary College in Shreveport and a reservist in the U.S. Marine Corps. During a two-week training at Camp Pendleton near San Diego, Goins was climbing a telephone pole when it snapped, dropping him 35 feet to the ground and shattering a vertebrae in his back.

“The doctors told me I shouldn’t be walking,” Goins says, “and I shouldn’t be alive.”

Doctors removed one of his ribs and cut the top off his hip to graft a bone in the affected vertebrae. He wore a back brace for six months.

Lying in the hospital two months after, Goins longed to return to Louisiana.

School was about to start, and Goins had even written his congressman with a request to leave the hospital, but was rejected. A business major at Centenary, a school affiliated with the United Methodist Church, Goins had felt a calling to the ministry. But he didn’t want to be a pastor.

So he prayed.

“God, I know you want me to be a minister. I don’t want to be a minister, and you know I don’t want to be a minister,” Goins recalls. “But if you can get me home by Friday, I’ll know that you want me to do it.”

Fifteen minutes later, Goins says, his doctor told him he could return home for a month. After that month, his Marine Corps retirement papers came in unexpectedly early.

Goins finished his business degree in 1994, then enrolled in seminary at Duke University and started his career in the ministry in 1997.

In 2010, the Goins family — Mark, his wife Allison and their three children — moved from Winnfield, where he had been a pastor, to the First United Methodist Church of Gonzales.

About two years ago, Goins struggled with high cholesterol and began eating better. His low-fat diet led to excess energy, which he burned by running.

But, to run regularly, he needed a goal. He ran a half marathon in 2013, but he still never planned to complete anything longer than 13 miles.

Then the bombings at last year’s Boston Marathon changed his view.

“How horrible it was at the finish line, how horrible it was for the runners who had prepared so much and so hard, even the ones who weren’t injured. For these guys, they did all the training and never saw the finish line,” Goins says. “That made me think of all the kids with cancer.”

The Goins’ children had classmates and friends who went to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Their son had a friend diagnosed with cancer in kindergarten, and his family had no insurance.

“He went to St. Jude and he didn’t have to pay a dime,” Goins says. “He’s in remission, and he’s still alive today.”

At the Dopey last month, Goins planned to pace himself. He completed the 5K and 10K easily, then jogged and walked easily through the half-marathon with his wife, Allison Goins. In the full marathon, on Sunday, he ran with his brother-in-law.

All his training paid off, says Allison Goins.

“It wasn’t a shock to his body,” she says. “He had smiles each time he would stop at a point where he saw me.”

Allison Goins texted her mother, who was in church in Gonzales, with updates about the race. The congregation prayed for him along the way, and they expected him to finish about 11 a.m.

His running partner started feeling pain in his knee 13 miles in, then paused at the 20-mile marker and told Goins to finish on his own.

As he crossed the finish line, the church in Gonzales came together to say, “Amen.”