The Story Behind The 86-Year-Old Woman Who Ran 25 NYC Marathons
When 50,000-plus runners cross the starting line of the New York City Marathon on Nov. 1, one runner will be noticeably absent: Joy Johnson, a former physical education teacher who took up running at age 59, then proceeded to run the New York City Marathon 25 consecutive times.
In 2013, at age 86, Johnson took her final 26.2-mile tour of the five boroughs. She stumbled around mile 20 and fell down, but went on to finish the race in less than eight hours. The following morning, she set about the post-race-day ritual she'd performed for 17 straight years. Medal around her neck, she headed down to the "Today" show to chat for a minute on air with Al Roker. After he congratulated her, she returned to her hotel room. She died that day.
Filmmaker Gabe Spitzer captured Johnson's story in "Every Day," a 30 for 30 short, and we recently caught up with him to hear the backstory of the film:
espnW: How did you learn about Joy Johnson?
Gabe Spitzer: I watched the 2013 New York City Marathon in person, but I didn't know about Joy then. I love watching the race, but it's really not about that day. It's about the incredible amount of training runners do prior to the race, and all the individual stories they have to tell. I wanted to tell a story. When my producer sent me a posthumous article about her, I knew she'd have a great one to tell.
espnW: What was it about her story that drew you?
Spitzer: I love that she found a passion for running so late in life. At age 59, most people are thinking about retiring and sitting on a beach. She started running and fell in love with something brand new, which is so cool. Most 30-year-olds feel lost if they aren't on the "right" path. She taught us it's never too late to try -- or fall in love with -- a new direction.
espnW: The short has some amazing photos and shots of her life. Did she document every race?
Spitzer: Yes. Joy lived with her daughter and granddaughter in San Jose, California, and when I reached out to her daughter, it was just a few months after her death. Joy's bedroom was just as she left it. She had twenty photo albums full of running memories: she had her race bib and photo for every race, not just her marathons. I don't know how many races of all distances she did; she was always training for something. And although she's known for running the New York City Marathon for 25 consecutive years, she actually ran about 70 marathons: almost three a year between the ages of 61 and 86.
espnW: How did you pull together the short's perspective for the first-person narrative?
Spitzer: We used speeches that she gave at elementary schools and running camps. Her daughter had a bunch of VHS tapes. Plus, a young writer at Columbia interviewed her two days before the 2013 marathon, and we were able to use the audiotape from that in pieces of the short.
espnW: Were her medals hung up on her wall?
Spitzer: Her 2013 New York City Marathon medal was on her dresser -- it was sent to her family after her death. The rest of her medals were in her closet, and she had a ton of trophies in the garage. Her husband always wanted to put them on display, but she didn't want too much attention.
espnW: What do you think Joy got from running?
Spitzer: Most of all, she got a community she loved. She just retired when she started running, and, as she says in the short, she didn't want to be an old lady pushing a vacuum cleaner around. She ran every morning at the same track with a group called the Track Pack, and the members became her close friends. She also loved the sense of accomplishment.
espnW: What do you make of her passing away the day after she ran her final NYC Marathon?
Spitzer: She didn't want to go to the hospital after she fell; she didn't like inconveniencing people, and she was a little stubborn. She told her Track Pack, if I collapse at the track, don't call 911. She wanted to die running. She basically did that, which is pretty poetic.
espnW: One of the things Joy believed was that when you start the day with a run, you start the day with possibilities. Do you believe that too?
Spitzer: Totally. Every day, she got up at 4 a.m., started the day with coffee and read some Bible verses and then hit the track, open to what the day would bring. Her consistency and discipline are inspiring. I'm not a marathon runner, but I run regularly, and know that everybody feels a small, personal victory after going out for a run.