Less than 10 years ago, Chackbay native Josh LaJaunie thought running a race would be impossible for him.
At more than 400 pounds, the self-described “Cajun boy,” a former college football player for the University of Arkansas at Monticello whose career was undone by injuries and poor eating habits, struggled just to fit into a seat on an airplane.
But that all changed when the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl in 2010 and LaJaunie became inspired to become an athlete again.
“I had a real shakeup with my relationship to what 'impossible' meant,” LaJaunie said about the “paradigm earthquake” that motivated him to become fit. “I sort of reviewed my own life and what changes I could make.”
On Sunday, the 39-year-old runner celebrated by completing just over 13.1 miles in the 2018 Humana Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon in New Orleans, a race that aims to make running more fun by lining each course with live bands, cheer teams and more.
LaJaunie decided to compete in his first race, the Crescent City Classic, in 2012. At that point, he still weighed 340 pounds, and he had to start slowly.
The next year, he ran again and finished the 10K race in less than an hour. Now, weighing in at about 190 pounds, he’s become something of a local Louisiana hero.
On Sunday, LaJaunie ran alongside a small group of others from the Pelican State and beyond who are members of the Missing Chins Club, a runners’ organization he formed last year for people who also have struggled with their weight.
What started as a private Facebook group meant to offer encouragement and nutrition advice has grown to a 50-member organization of runners who combined have lost more than two tons of fat.
Many follow the plant-based diet LaJaunie swears by, along with his rigorous workout regimen.
His story, and his mission to help others, have inspired so many others that he landed on the cover of Runner’s World magazine, which in turn inspired even more to run in Sunday’s race.
“You feel alone when you’re a big fat guy and you’re trying to lose weight and you have skinny friends,” LaJaunie said. “We create community around those people taking their first steps, so they aren’t feeling so alone.”
LaJaunie, who has competed now in more than a dozen races since he started getting in shape, didn’t beat his own personal record — a full marathon in three hours and 24 minutes — on Sunday.
In fact, he ended up finishing the half-marathon in just under 2 hours and 4 minutes, because he was focusing on form and pacing a friend who was running in her first marathon.
“To help someone navigate that new terrain … it’s special,” he said. “It’s very rewarding to be able to help someone do that.”
The Missing Chins Club members joined a long list of elite and well-regarded athletes taking part in the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon in New Orleans, which has been held in various cities for 20 years.
On Sunday, runners started in the Central Business District before heading uptown along St. Charles Avenue, then going through the French Quarter and out Esplanade Avenue before ending in City Park.
Local bands were stationed along the route. At the finish line, participants were treated to a post-race concert headlined by Soul Rebels and Cowboy Mouth.
By Sunday morning, the race was on track to welcome more than 20,000 participants from all 50 states and 44 countries. The runners ranged in age from a 12-year-old who lives in Pineville to an 86-year-old who had traveled from Venice, Florida.
Along the route, hundreds gathered on the sides of the streets with banners, bells and whistles to cheer them along.
Among the elite athletes was the winner of the full 26.2-mile marathon: New Orleans resident Marcus Hoof, 24, who finished in a little over 2 hours and 33 minutes.
“It was a lot of fun,” Hoof, a student at Tulane Medical School, said after finishing the race. “The crowd was great.”
Kylen Cieslak, the top finisher among women for the full marathon, finished in 2 hours and 56 minutes.
Also joining them was 45-year-old Kevin Castille, a Baton Rouge man who holds world records in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters for 45- to 49-year-olds and who competed in the U.S. Olympic marathon trials in 2016. He won Sunday’s half-marathon, finishing in an hour and six minutes.
The woman’s first-place finisher for the half-marathon, 28-year-old Sarah Crouch, finished in one hour and 17 minutes.
Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1967, also competed in the half-marathon.
Switzer, the subject of a famous photo showing a race official trying to pull her off the course in Boston, was on hand before and after Sunday’s race to offer encouragement to fellow women and elderly runners.
“I’ve broken barriers all my life for women,” Switzer, now 71, said before the race. “You guys go do that. Run all your life. Be active.”
LaJaunie offered similar advice.
“You just stay with the grind, and it will be worth it,” he said.