At 86, distance runner Joy Johnson was a remarkable athlete.
A retired gym teacher from the San Jose area who took up jogging at age 56, Johnson competed in scores of races around the country and amassed a string of 25 consecutive finishes in the New York City Marathon — one of the most legendary streaks in the history of recreational running. Two years ago, at 84, she became the oldest finisher ever in that event, clocking a time of 7:44:45.
But sadly, this year’s appearance in New York on Nov. 3 was Johnson’s final one. According to news accounts, Johnson stumbled and fell somewhere around either the 16-mile or the 20-mile mark, hitting her head. She tenaciously got up and, after being bandaged at a first-aid tent, finished the race in 7:57:41, barely off her usual pace. The next morning, as she customarily did, she joined the post-race crowd at Rockefeller Center, where she was interviewed by the NBC Today show’s Al Roker, wearing a scarf that only partly obscured her bandaged head. Afterward, she returned to the Roosevelt Hotel with her two sisters, and lay down in her bed, complaining of fatigue. When she failed to awaken, she was rushed to Bellevue Hospital, where she was declared dead.
Johnson’s passing stunned and saddened the running world. “She was an inspiration to us all,” the New York Road Runners, the race’s sponsor, said in a statement.
But Johnson, whose ambition was to keep running for as long as she was around, might have been more sanguine. In a 2008 interview, she recalled the thrill of her first NYC race. “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. “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.”
Here’s a 2008 interview with Johnson, who appears at 14:30 in the video.
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