Minnesota marathoner: 'I'm going to die in my tennis shoes'

  • Article by: JEREMY OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 6, 2013 - 11:12 PM

Joy Johnson, an 86-year-old Minnesota native, passed away a day after her 25th New York City Marathon.

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Joy Johnson

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The oldest finisher of the New York City Marathon, 86-year-old Joy Johnson, will be remembered at a funeral near her childhood home of Cologne, Minn., as a marvel of endurance and an inspiration to other runners.

Johnson died on Monday — one day after completing her 25th New York marathon and hours after her annual post-race “Today Show” interview with Al Roker.

“Her first name, Joy — there couldn’t be a more perfect name,” said Dick Beardsley, the famed Minnesota runner who befriended Johnson at races and at his training camp near Detroit Lakes. “She was so exuberant about life, about people.”

The retired gym teacher didn’t take up running until her mid-50s, but within a few years was running as many as a dozen events each year.

“I always say I’m going to run until I drop,” she told the New York Daily News in an interview before her final marathon. “I’m going to die in my tennis shoes. I just don’t know when I’m going to quit.”

Johnson finished Sunday’s marathon in 7 hours, 57 minutes, despite a fall that left cuts on her face and other injuries. Pictures from her stop at the “Today Show” Monday showed bandages on the right side of her face and the marathon medal around her neck.

Johnson died at a New York hospital after she was found unresponsive in her hotel room. Funeral arrangements by the Johnson Funeral Home in Waconia are pending.

Her surviving relatives took some comfort in the fact that she lived a happy, healthy life and ran until the end.

“She was quite clear about” her love of distance running, said her daughter, Diana Boydston, who lived with her mother in San Jose. “It wasn’t the competition. She was always thrilled when she got first place [in her age group] but it wasn’t about that. She just really enjoyed the fact that it made her feel so good about life. That was her whole thing; she was a nice, positive person.”

Johnson was a teacher in Duluth before moving to California, but kept close ties to Minnesota and her family, and returned for numerous running events.

Her last recorded finish in the Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth was in June 2011 when, at age 84, she finished in 7 hours, 5 minutes. On many Januarys, she ran the Securian Frozen Half Marathon in St. Paul.

“It’s cold as the dickens, but it’s so much fun,” she told the Wall Street Journal in a 2008 interview.

Johnson’s personal best in a marathon was 3 hours, 55 minutes, which she earned when running Grandma’s at age 65 in 1992.

Beardsley praised her easy stride, which spared wear and tear on her joints.

She was equally fond of running with friends at a track near her home in San Jose or in the early morning on her own. Beardsley said she often talked about getting up at 4 a.m. to read the Bible for an hour before a solo morning run.

“It just gives you that time to reflect,” he said. “It’s kind of that one-on-one time with God. For her, I think that was a big part of it.”

Boydston was a little worried about her mother before she left for New York this time, and encouraged her to stop and take a race trolley to the finish if she wore down in the middle of the run. Her mother replied that she would just keep to her own pace and be fine. But then Johnson told her daughter that in the future she might just cut back down to half marathons.

“Oh, ok,” her daughter responded. “Just half marathons.”

Johnson inspired others to run and keep running.

Cindy Deuser of Fargo, N.D., recalled that Johnson always finished 26.2 miles with perfect hair and grace.

“Whenever I saw her (and we often ran in the same finishing time group) I would tell myself, ‘That’s who I want to be. That’s what I want to do,’ ” she wrote in a tribute on Johnson’s obituary on the San Jose Mercury News website.

Judy Tollefson, 52, worked at the Rainbow Resort in Waubun, Minn., where Beardsley held his camps. She always complained that her bad knees would prevent her from running — until she served food to Johnson and talked with her. Tollefson later ran a half-marathon herself.

“Joy was a sweet little lady with a great smile,” she said. “I said, ‘If she can do it, I should be able to do it, too. What was my excuse? I’m too old?’ ”

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744

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