Runners cross the Verrazano Narrows Bridge at the start of the ING New York City Marathon.
Runners cross the Verrazano Narrows Bridge at the start of the ING New York City Marathon. (Photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The Joy of Running

86-Year-Old Marathoner Had Lessons for Athletes of all Ages

Runners cross the Verrazano Narrows Bridge at the start of the ING New York City Marathon.

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Last winter, my four-year-old daughter and I were in line for the chairlift at our local ski mountain when we noticed an older woman swoosh to a graceful stop nearby, spraying a rooster tail of fresh snow. She was thin and spry, with wispy gray-blonde hair. She didn’t look old enough for the sticker displayed on her helmet:  80+ Skier.

Joy Johnson, 86, holds her New York City Marathon bib. Joy Johnson, 86, holds her New York City Marathon bib.

We slid over to her, so I could ask her about it. 

“I’m 88!” she told me proudly.

I was dumbfounded. She wore slim black ski pants, a warm parka, and up close she didn’t look a minute over 70. She explained she lived at sea level in Massachusetts and came out to Santa Fe every winter to ski. Her skiing partner had stopped skiing that year—at age 92—so she’d come out alone, anyway! We were at 10,000 feet, the trails were coated in a few inches of fresh powder, she’d just skied a black diamond, and she wasn’t even breathing hard. Oh, and it was nearly 4 p.m., and she was going back for one last run.

I wish I’d gotten her name because I’ve thought about her often ever since—especially this week, when I heard the news about the 86-year-old runner from California named Joy Johnson, who on Sunday became the oldest female finisher of the 2013 New York City Marathon.

As has now been widely reported, Joy fell and hit her head on the ground somewhere around mile 20, but got up and, after being bandaged in the medical tent, kept going. Determined to complete the race, she crossed the finish line in 7:57:41. She declined to seek further medical treatment for the cut on her head. The next morning, she gave an interview to the Today Show, went back to her hotel, lay down for a nap, and never woke up. Reports have cited blood thinning medication she’d been taking for her heart.

Two weeks ago I wrote about a six-year-old girl who recently ran her first half marathon. The story prompted widespread speculation about why young children feel compelled to run such long distances, and whether it’s healthy. Joy was on the absolute other end of the spectrum, but invariably some of the same questions crop up. What’s an 86-year-old doing running 26.2 miles anyway? If only she’d gone to the hospital. What if she hadn’t finished the race? Would she still be alive? 

Or, perhaps more pointedly: Did running kill Joy? Or did running help her live a long, full, healthy life? 

We’re all seeking the magic fix. How can we stay alive and strong and happy for as long as possible? Maybe it’s riding your bike or gardening or tai chi or walking in the mountains or swimming 20 laps every day at dawn. The thing that makes us feel most alive is different for everyone. For Joy it was running. 

Fast or slow, road or trail, city or wilderness, running give us structure and ritual, solitude and companionship. If we are as lucky as Joy, we will run long and strong, with joy, guts, and dedication. Year in, year out. Because of the way it makes us feel inside.

Joy was on a streak: She’d finished the New York City Marathon 25 times since she took up running at 59, after retiring from her job as a gym teacher. For the past three  years, she’d been the marathon’s oldest female competitor. She told reporters that she trained for this race by running eight miles every morning.

When I think about the importance of raising adventurous, outdoor children, who are at home in wild places and fresh air, it’s not about ego or bragging rights or winning the day.  It’s about inspiring in these little creatures a lifelong love of nature and sport, to live big everyday, to discover what they love to do, and to do it. It’s about the long haul. We have a motto in our family, when the kids are lagging on the trail, or wanting to quit and go home. Finish strong.

Joy died doing what she loved—she’d been quoted saying she hoped to leave this world in her running sneakers—but, even more importantly, she lived doing what she loved. We should all be so lucky to live fully every day, to push ourselves beyond what we think is possible, and to find inspiration in moving with heart and grace and awareness through the world.

You couldn’t ask for a better role model than Joy.