Joy Johnson – a remarkable lady

Like me you perhaps have not heard of Joy Johnson before.  If you are a keen follower of marathon running you possibly/probably know about her.

A friend of mine who lives in California sent me an article about Joy Johnson that appeared in the San Jose (Joy Johnson’s hometown) Mercury News a couple of days ago.  I found the story touching, inspiring, contemporary and bitter sweet.  I think it will move you as it did me.  I sent an email earlier today to Mark Memmons, the journalist who wrote the article and asked if I might post it on our blog.  His reply was prompt and positive and suggested I provide a link to the article.  However, I found the link no longer functions.  I will give you the link nevertheless (it might work for you) but I will also paste in the article:

SAN JOSE — Just like she did every year, Joy Johnson finished the New York City Marathon Sunday (November 3rd 2013). The following morning she stationed herself outside the “Today” show where weatherman Al Roker, as always, looked for her and let the Willow Glen resident display her finisher’s medal to a national audience.

Joy Johnson-1But afterward Johnson, an 86-year-old retired P.E. teacher who was renowned in the worldwide running community for her marathon prowess, became ill at her hotel and was taken to a New York hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

Her daughter, Diana Boydston, said the family is still piecing together the details of Johnson’s last day.

SJMN_NTPHANNON“What’s keeping us going right now is that she was doing what she loved,” Boydston said Tuesday. “She wanted to die with her running shoes on, and she did.”

Boydston said her mother apparently fell and hit her head Sunday around the 20-mile mark of the famous marathon. But she got up and completed the race — for the 25th consecutive time. Then she made sure she was waiting for Roker first thing Monday morning.

Johnson was the oldest female finisher at a race that attracted more than 50,000 entrants. Chris Weiller, spokesman for the New York Road Runners, said Johnson also was a member of the prestigious “streakers” — a tightknit group of runners who have completed 15 or more consecutive New York City Marathons.

“We’re just so sad to hear about her passing,” Weiller added. “She was an inspiration to everyone. We’re really feeling her loss here.”

Johnson, who grew up on a Minnesota dairy farm and landed in San Jose, was a well-liked and recognizable figure among South Bay runners with her bright smile and white hair tied neatly in a bun. She never understood the fuss made over her at races, and was a little star-struck when the media discovered her after she turned 80, highlighting her rare endurance running ability, including in a lengthy 2008 profile in this newspaper.

“So many people work harder than me and are so much better,” Johnson said back then. “I just try to do the best that I can.”

She didn’t begin running until retiring from teaching at age 56. When a friend suggested they attempt the 1988 New York City Marathon, a passion was born.

“When I crossed that finish line in Central Park, I just knew this is what I would do the rest of my life,” Johnson said in 2008. “Running makes you feel good. It’s energizing. You sleep better at night. And the best part for me is you can eat anything you want.”

Still, Boydston sometimes worried about her mother’s love of running the 26.2-mile races.

“I live with her, so I would see the 86-year-old woman who struggled to walk late at night,” she said. “But then in the morning, she would stretch a bit, eat some oatmeal, go to the track and then suddenly she was 32.”

Johnson traveled last week to Minnesota to meet up with her sister, Faith Anderson, 83, before they continued on to New York.

The New York Daily News reported that in a pre-race interview Johnson said she proudly would be running at her own pace.

“I’ll be at the back of the pack, but I don’t mind,” she said. “I just praise the Lord I can get out of bed each morning and run. A lot of people my age are in wheelchairs.”

Boydston said she followed her mother’s progress in the race online and knew that she completed the course in 7 hours, 57 minutes and 41 seconds — a slow time by her standard. It was only later that Boydston learned from her aunt about the fall. Weiller, the race spokesman, said medical personnel examined Johnson after she crossed the finish line.

“She was alert, in good spirits and said a nice person had helped her up,” he said. “She declined to go to the hospital for further evaluation.”

It’s unclear if Johnson’s fall was related to her death.

The next morning, she was well enough for her annual chat with Roker, where she wore a scarf and held a rose. Her medal hung around her neck. There also was a bandage on the right side of her face and head.

Back at their hotel room, Johnson told her sister she wasn’t feeling well and needed to lie down. She never woke up.

Since then, Boydston said she has been fielding calls from around the country, and even further away.

“I had somebody from Paris call, and I don’t think she ever went there,” Boydston said. “But she makes friends wherever she goes.”

Boydston then caught herself speaking about her mother in the present tense, and began to choke up.

“This is how my mother wanted to live her life,” she added. “I think she’s probably looking down now and saying, ‘Yeah, that’s the way I wanted it.’ “

Services are being planned in Minnesota, and a service will be held later in San Jose.

Mark Memmons – San Jose Mercury News.  Material used with permission


About mgouldth

Retired pastor and schoolteacher.
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