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Goal for dentist: Run marathon in all 50 states

June 13, 2017

By David Burger

Piscataway, N.J. — Dr. Fotinos Panagakos, Ph.D., has three children. His two oldest — Andreas, 24, and Alexandra, 22 — have run in some local races with him.

But the dentist's youngest, Mikos, 17, ran one 5K with his dad, and that was it for him.

Mikos might not be interested in running, but his father certainly is.

Dr. Panagakos, 53, has run a total of 140 races of different distances, 42 of which have been marathons, ever since he began running races in 2009 and subsequently running his first marathon in 2011. And he has set another goal for himself.


Shadow of Liberty: Dr. Fotinos Panagakos runs in the Newport Half Marathon in September 2016 alongside the New York Harbor in Liberty State Park, N.J.
"I am currently trying to complete a marathon in each state," said Dr. Panagakos, who is global director for scientific affairs and research for Colgate-Palmolive in Piscataway, New Jersey, as well as a board member of the ADA Foundation. "I have run in 17 states so far."

His wife, Judy, has also gotten into the act. After cheering on her husband for years, she started running as well, and ran her first marathon in March in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Dr. Panagakos ran regularly in high school, then attended Lehigh University on an Army ROTC scholarship. "We had to run regularly as part of the physical fitness program," he said. "We all took the Army PT (physical training) test every six months, which includes at two-mile run. Following college, I did not run regularly until around 2009, when I took it up as part of getting back into shape and losing some weight."

After starting to run again, Dr. Panagakos began entering races as a way to keep himself interested. "I have always required some type of goal to get and stay motivated, whether at work or life in general," he said. "A race seemed like a great goal to keep running and training. So I ran my first official race in 2009, which was a 5K at the Academy of General Dentistry meeting that year."

Even though he began racing as a way to improve his physical health, he soon found other advantages to rising early every day to run and entering races. "Beyond the physical benefits, there is an emotional/mental benefit," Dr. Panagakos said. "It helps clear my mind and work on any issues or challenges I may be dealing with. It also allows me some alone time as I run by myself. It is good to disconnect every day even for a short amount of time."

Dr. Panagakos has led a busy life. But eventually running became just as natural to him as eating meals, and he has always found time to run — even if it's 4 a.m.

He was commissioned in 1986 as a second lieutenant and served for 13 years in the New Jersey National Guard and Army Reserve, leaving service as a major. He received his dental degree from the New Jersey Dental School of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (now the Rutgers University School of Dental Medicine) holds a Ph.D. and two master's degrees.

Dr. Panagakos served for 13 years as a full-time faculty member at the New Jersey Dental School, while also maintaining a private dental practice in Westfield and Newark, New Jersey. In 2005, he joined the Colgate-Palmolive oral care clinical research department, and in his current position is based at the Global Research and Development Center in Piscataway, New Jersey.


Couch to 5K: Dr. Fotinos Panagakos, sixth from left, wearing the red hat, poses with his running mates at the Colgate-Palmolive Global Research and Development Center in Piscataway, New Jersey. He and a few of his colleagues initiated the Couch to 5K Program, with more than 50 people signing up for the program and almost all of them running a 5K race in May 2017.
On top of being the co-author of more than 70 peer-reviewed scientific research articles and three dental science textbooks, Dr. Panagakos is on the ADA Foundation's board of directors, serving on the finance committee and the strategic planning committee.

"I feel that running, and belonging to the running community, has made me a better person," Dr. Panagakos said. "Having served in the military, I am very familiar and partial to structure and discipline. Taking up marathon racing, with a focus on completing the 50-state challenge, fits well into this mindset. I also feel that it has allowed me to excel in my role at Colgate, especially when I engage with the outside dental community, such as the ADA and the ADA Foundation, American Dental Hygienists' Association, Oral Health America and other organizations."

Besides his 50-state challenge, one of his most memorable experiences was in 2014, when he ran in the Classic Athens Marathon. "This race follows the course of the original first Olympic marathon from 1896," he said. "Being Greek made this a very special race."

Helping others begin running treks of their own is another passion of Dr. Panagakos. "One nice story in all of this is recently, four colleagues at Colgate (who are also avid runners) and I put on the Couch to 5K Program for folks who worked at our research and development center," he said. "Over 50 people signed up for the program and almost     all of them ran in a local 5K race in mid May. Many had never run before and this was their first race. Colgate provided team T-shirts and also covered the registration fee for the race. It was so personally fulfilling to see them all train and then run in the race. It was an honor to be part of it, to give back to others what running has done for me."

Dr. Panagakos' running coach, Angie Spencer of the Marathon Training Academy, believes that the dentist's goal of running 50 marathons in 50 states is attainable. "He is a strong and determined marathoner," she said.

After a Minnesota marathon in mid-June, he will consider a trail marathon in upstate New York, then he has a series of races through November planned, including the Lehigh Valley Health Network Via Marathon in Pennsylvania, the Morgantown Marathon in West Virginia, Hartford Marathon in Connecticut, the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington and one of his favorite races, the New York City Marathon. "Sounds crazy, but this has been my schedule the past few years, running a race every three to five weeks," he said.