When Jon Walk stared down at the scale that morning in 2003 and saw that his weight had gone several pounds beyond the 300 mark, he determined that it was hardly a good look for someone in the health care consulting business.
He vowed to make changes and decided to start running.
Early on, he could jog only a few hundred yards through his neighborhood in Spring, north of Houston, before stopping to catch his breath and massage aching calves.
That was long before he finished a marathon in Austin in a personal best time of four hours and 48 minutes; before he had run the grueling 26-mile race 53 times in 48 states; before he set a goal of running at least 1 mile in every county in Texas; and before he had run the streets and back roads of 375 towns and cities across the nation.
And before the 55-year-old native Pennsylvanian, now a well-conditioned 205 pounds, became a list-making wanderer in pursuit of better health and a unique hobby he can’t fully explain.
Jon Walk makes lists, many tied to his newfound love for running.
He offers no psychobabble explanation, no Zen-like reasoning. “It just keeps me active and motivated,” he says. “I like to think of it as a healthy addiction.”
Walk’s inspiration came from an old Runner’s World magazine article about a man who had run at least a mile in every city and township in the state of Massachusetts. Walk borrowed the idea and made all 254 Texas counties his goal. He’s getting there, having run in 196 thus far.
“When I’m planning my weekend trips,” says the empty-nest parent, “I make an effort to get to as many counties as possible.”
Recently he tied his personal record when he flew to Amarillo, rented a car and visited seven Panhandle county seats in a day. He’d achieved the same number in East Texas a year earlier. “I love seeing the architecture of some of the older courthouses, reading the historical markers and meeting new people,” he says. Once his downtown sightseeing and local history lessons are recorded in his notebook, he goes on a 15-minute run to assure that he’s run at least a mile. Then it’s back in the car and off to the next county.
He’s run in triple-digit heat and below-freezing temperatures, pouring rain and West Texas dust storms. Early on, he learned to precheck his route for loose and unfriendly dogs.
On an early evening run in Archer City, a local sheriff’s deputy watched him closely as he ran past native son Larry McMurtry’s famed bookstore. After flying into the Midland-Odessa airport, he recalls snow and ice making it difficult to keep his rental car on the road.
“The unexpected,” he says, “is part of the fun.”
Whenever possible, he likes to visit a new locale when an organized race has been scheduled. To date, he has competed in races—10Ks, half-marathons and marathons—in 96 counties. “To do so isn’t always possible,” he points out. “For instance, Loving County out in West Texas doesn’t have but 34 people, so it’s a little unreasonable to expect them to organize any kind of race. So, when I went there, I picked a route on a caliche road and waved at the cows as I ran by.”
Then, there’s the other quests.
Though his own athletic career ended with Little League baseball back in Tyrone, Pennsylvania, Walk has enjoyed sports for as long as he can remember. He’s got an impressive collection of back issues of Sports Illustrated and Sporting News to prove it.
A lifelong basketball fan, Walk has been in high school, college and professional venues from El Paso to Amarillo to the Gulf Coast. With new arenas and gymnasiums opening regularly throughout the state, it’s unrealistic to think he might achieve a onetime goal of visiting them all. “I just want to keep seeing as many places and things as I can until I run out of time or money,” he says.
While Walk focuses his travel plans on basketball, baseball and football stadiums, he occasionally finds time for soccer and rugby venues and last spring watched his first Premier Lacrosse League game.
Walk’s lists also spawn new lists.
He has stopped for coffee and a quick snack at 20 of the 34 Bucee’s gas stations in Texas. He need only check his notebook to tell you every bowling alley and movie theater he’s visited in the past few decades.
When the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted his travels, Walk turned to reading and, yes, began listing each book he finished. He focuses primarily on—what else?—nonfiction books about sports, recently finishing a biography of Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan.
He’s also a storehouse of historical knowledge about running. “If I need something like a list of everyone who has ever competed in all seven Texas Ironman competitions, I go straight to Jon,” says Lance Phegley, a longtime friend and former editor of Texas Runner and Triathlete magazine. “In addition to his personal pursuits, he’s constantly promoting others and their accomplishments. He’s always alerting me to something noteworthy that a young runner in some small Texas town has done or some forgotten but fascinating moment in sports history.”
Willie Fowlkes, director of The Woodlands Marathon who has known Walk for over a decade, agrees. “He’s a great friend and asset to the local running community,” he says. “His hobbies are just another cool part of his personality.”
In the summer lull before high school and collegiate teams return to competition, Walk stays busy adding baseball stadiums to his list. On consecutive weekends, he traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, and Pearl, Mississippi, to visit minor-league ballparks. Meanwhile, he was checking schedules to find when and where the upcoming 7-on-7 football tournaments would be held.
As stadiums and gymnasiums begin filling with cheering fans in the fall and winter months, Walk’s calendar quickly fills.
And he’ll be off and running.