ENDURANCE

"Joy Johnson crossed the finish line at the New York City Marathon this year nearly eight hours after she began. Of the 50,266 people to finish, she was among the very last — wearing a pair of Nikes and a navy blue bow pinned neatly in her hair, leaning on a stranger for support. Her forehead was bloodied in a fall she took at around Mile 20, where the Willis Avenue Bridge feeds runners into the Bronx. Johnson, who was raised on a Minnesota dairy farm and was given to cheery understatement, waved off any concern. “I wasn’t watching where I was going,” she told her sister shortly after finishing. “It looks just awful, but I’m fine.”

She was 86, competing in the marathon for the 25th consecutive time. Even injured, she abided by one of her enduring rules for any race, which was to smile down the homestretch, aware of the roving race photographers and believing it never served anyone to be caught in a grimace.

Though she had made a career teaching high-school physical education in Northern California, she herself didn’t have an exercise regimen. Until one day in 1985, when she and her husband were newly retired and their four children all grown, Johnson, who was 59, took a three-mile walk and found it energizing. Soon she tried jogging and enjoyed that even more. Within a few years, she was going for regular 12-mile runs and became a fixture at local road races.

Running is a sport that rewards constancy, in both pace and attitude, which may explain why Joy Johnson was so good at it. As a senior citizen, she ran an average of three marathons a year, buttressed by dozens of shorter races, always with a bow in her hair. Her home in San Jose grew so cluttered with running medals and trophies that she began storing some of them in the garage. Over time, as she lost her husband to cancer, as age and injuries claimed even her younger running partners, she stuck to an unwavering daily routine. She awoke at 4 a.m. and fixed herself some coffee and a bowl of oatmeal, taking time to read the Bible before heading out to the nearby track at Willow Glen High School, the same place where she once taught. There, she walked and chatted with a group of regulars known as the “track pack” before accelerating into her own workout.

After her 80th birthday, noticing her race times beginning to slow — it now took around seven hours to complete a marathon — Johnson redoubled her efforts, boosting her training to include bleacher runs and hill repeats. On her annual pilgrimage to New York in the fall of 2008, she reaped the rewards, shaving 51 minutes off the previous year’s time.

As her distinction as an elderly runner grew, reporters sought Johnson out, charmed by her crinkled smile and Lutheran modesty. Her answers about why she ran were simple every time: Running made her happy. It helped her sleep well at night. More than once she remarked that when the time came, she hoped to die in her running shoes.

Were she more focused on the competition, Joy Johnson might have tracked her closest rival in the New York marathon, a fleet-footed Manhattanite named Bertha McGruder, who was twice the top finisher in the women’s 80-89 age group (a field of usually fewer than five contenders), but the truth was, she cared little about her relative standing. Before starting this year’s marathon on a chilly November morning, Johnson told her 83-year-old sister, Faith Anderson, who accompanied her to New York, “I’ll be at the back of the pack, but I don’t mind.”

After she took a tumble that day near Mile 20, a woman — another marathoner — helped her to her feet. The woman urged Johnson to go to the hospital, but the 86-year-old runner said she just wanted to finish her race.

Early the next morning, looking cheery, with her medal around her neck and a blue kerchief over her head, the right side of her face swaddled in bandages, Joy Johnson waited in the crowd outside NBC Studios to say hello, as she did postmarathon every year, to Al Roker (“a nice young man,” she called him) from the “Today” show.

Afterward, back in her Midtown hotel room, she removed her medal and lay down for a nap. Finally finished, she drifted off to sleep, never regaining consciousness. She died later that day." Article written by Sara Corbett from the NY Times

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