Tony Hillen will pin on a bib number for the first time in late April and run the 5K and the half marathon at the Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon.
They’ll be his first-ever races. And the runner lining up at the start line will be a leaner, fitter Tony Hillen.
“A year ago, he couldn’t run down the block. The fact that he can run 10 miles now kind of blows me away,” said Hillen’s wife, Kristin.
Hillen has lost 120 pounds in the past 15 months. He started running last summer and late last year decided he wanted to run the marathon . 
He began having problems with his left Achilles’ tendon early this year and took a little time off running.
“My mind was willing, and my lungs were willing, but my body was not willing to advance into that (marathon) distance,” he said, adding he thought he increased his mileage too quickly at the beginning of the year.
He lost a few weeks of training time in January, and he didn’t want to risk making his injury worse by jumping back into marathon training.
“I had a pretty tight time frame to make it work,” he said of preparing for the marathon. “I wouldn’t be able to do all the training. I didn’t think there was any way I was going to be able to get back into a training routine to get to that distance.”
Hillen called his plans to run the marathon “a little ambitious,” but added, “It gives me a goal to work on for next year.
“I want to say I did (a marathon). I don’t have a strong drive to run that much that often. It’s more just a personal achievement, to say I did this,” he said.
Hillen downsized his goals — as he downsized his body — for this spring, and he plans to do the Half I-Challenge: the 5K race the evening of April 26 and the half marathon the next day.
“It’s more of a mental block really. You just don’t think you can do it,” Hillen said of his training for the half marathon. “It’s not so horrible and insurmountable as you make it seem for yourself.”
He started using the Couch to 5K program last summer, with the goal of running for 30 minutes or 3 miles. He accomplished that, took a little time off running, then started running again and increasing his distance. He was running 8 to 9 miles at a time by the end of the year.
Hillen did a lot of treadmill running during the winter. He’s been running 5Ks on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, trying to increase his speed at that distance, and a long run of 6 to 10 miles outdoors on Saturdays, on country roads near his Tolono home.
“I’ve been doing that distance for a while now and it feels good,” he said of his long runs.
It was difficult in some ways to return to training after taking some time off early this year, he said.
“Physically, no. Mentally, yes. It was hard to get motivated to do it again,” Hillen said.
But once he signed up for the race, that gave him the motivation and a solid deadline he needed to prepare for the half marathon.
“I’m really proud. He set himself a goal and he hasn’t quit,” Kristin Hillen said. “He’s worked so hard to do this.”
Hillen acknowledges he doesn’t love running yet.
“I don’t get that runner’s high some people say they do. For me, it’s ‘I need to go do this. It’s good for my body. It’s healthy,’” he said.
And the results go beyond weight loss. Hillen said his pulse rate and endurance are much better since he began running, and he has more energy.
“Shoveling snow, I don’t get exhausted. I don’t get out of breath if I have to run up a couple flights of stairs,” he said. “On the days I run, even though I think I’d be exhausted, I actually feel I have more energy.”
Hillen is focused on completing all his training runs between now and race weekend.
“I definitely feel like it’s crunch time,” he said.
He’s a little nervous about not having run a race before, and he’s worried about making the classic rookie mistake — going out too fast.
“Otherwise, I’m pretty excited and looking forward to it,” he said. “I want to finish before they take down the barricades. That’s my only goal.”
Hillen said he definitely plans to stick with running as a hobby.
“I just know I don’t want to go back to the way I was before,” he said.
Photos: Top, Tony Hillen with his "before" weight loss photo on his iPad. Bottom: Hillen runs down Nevada Street on the University of Illinois campus. Photos by Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette