Joy Johnson, the oldest woman to run the 2013 New York City Marathon, died on Monday, a day after completing the race for the 25th time. She was 86.
According to the San Jose Mercury News, Johnson was a retired physical education teacher with a hard-won reputation in the running community. Officials believe that her death resulted from complications of falling and hitting her head during the race, and taking medication prescribed for a heart flutter that thinned her blood.
Her daughter, Diana Boydston, said on Tuesday that the family was still searching for answers, but drew consolation from the fact that Johnson died the way she always said she hoped to: running.
"What's keeping us going right now is that she was doing what she loved," Boydston said on Tuesday. "She wanted to die with her running shoes on, and she did."
Boydston, who tracked her mother’s progress throughout the 26.2-mile race online, said that Johnson lost her footing around the 20-mile mark and hit her head. But she apparently got up and made it to the finish line, reportedly dismissing medical advice to get her head looked at by a doctor.
Johnson finished the race with a final time of 7 hours, 57 minutes, and 41 seconds.
In a televised post-race interview with “Today” show weatherman Al Roker on Monday, Johnson wore her medal around her neck and sported bandages on the right side of her face. After the interview, Johnson returned with her sister, Faith Anderson, to the Roosevelt Hotel in Midtown complaining of being tired, the Daily News reported.
She lay down to rest but never woke up, Anderson said.
According to the Wall Street Journal, which profiled Johnson in the leadup to the 2008 NYC Marathon, the octogenarian didn’t begin running until she was in her mid-50s. In 1988, at the urging of a friend, she completed her first NYC Marathon. From then on, she was hooked.
"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 an interview 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."
While Johnson embarked on her marathon career late in life, she was always active. After relocating to the Bay Area from her home state of Minnesota, Johnson taught gym, volleyball, swimming and track at San Jose and Willow Glen high schools, NBC reported.
"We're just so sad to hear about her passing," Chris Weiller, a spokesman for the New York Road Runners, said. "She was an inspiration to everyone. We're really feeling her loss here."
Weiller added that Johnson also belonged to a prestigious group of marathoners known as “streakers” – runners who have completed upwards of 15 marathons.
But despite an intense regimen that included 8-mile daily runs, and on some days, 150 pushups, Johnson had complained in recent years about her pace slowing down.
“I’ll be at the back of the pack, but I don’t mind,” she told a reporter before Sunday’s race. “I just praise the Lord I can get out of bed each morning and run. A lot of people my age are in wheelchairs.”
"This is how my mother wanted to live her life," Boydston said. "I think she's probably looking down now and saying, 'Yeah, that's the way I wanted it.' " Boydston said that services for her mother were being planned in Minnesota, and that another service would be held in San Jose.
View Johnson’s interview with the Wall Street Journal in 2008 below.