Mike Johnson: On the Run

What do you get when you run 12 marathons in 12 months? For starters, you get 12 T-shirts, 12 medals, 314.4 miles of mostly pain and agony (but with some joy, too), new friends, the satisfaction of a goal achieved and a renewed respect for marathoners, not that you would need it after having run so many.

And if you are a runner the caliber of Mike Johnson ’90, you also might get a qualifying time for the Boston Marathon – which he did.

Johnson, 45, has been running since the sixth grade. He ran cross country and track at Osseo High School, Class of 1985, and also at St. Thomas for four years. During his senior year (1988-89) in MIAC conference meets he was runner-up in cross country, and indoor track champion in the 3,200-meter run and the outdoor track champion in the  3,000-meter steeplechase; he also earned All-America honors in both cross country and outdoor track. Those titles did not come easily, but he persevered.

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Twelve marathons and 12 medals for Mike Johnson in 2012 (and a wee bit of January 2013). (Photo by Mike Ekern)

“I think I may have a record for the number of times I was runner-up. I took second place in like 10 different things,” he laughed in an interview Feb. 13. That perseverance, that dedication, still keeps him running nearly a quarter century after leaving St. Thomas.

In 2011 he set a goal – run 12 marathons in 12 months, and also raise some scholarship money for Lake Wapogasset Lutheran Bible Camp in Amery, Wis., where he is director of development.

Inspired by a runner who ran 50 marathons in 50 days in 50 states, he thought, “If he can do 50 in 50 days, I could do one a month.”

“It wasn’t a brilliant thought process,” he laughed. “It was scary. I’ve never been a good marathoner. Running five miles fast is a lot different from running 26.2 miles fast. I’m not an ideal marathoner, but I liked the challenge. I wasn’t trying to go fast.”

Johnson’s original plan was to run, basically, one marathon a month in 2012, on a budget that kept him close to home in Stillwater for all but three of the races – two in Houston, Texas, and one in Chicago, Ill. His schedule originally did not include races in February and December, but he had two planned for both May and October.

The marathons took a toll physically and emotionally, and sometimes the drives home were “almost more brutal than the actual races.” He would have to stop every few miles and walk around to work out the kinks.

An injury in March altered his timetable. “I did the March one, but I didn’t do April and I missed the first one in May, so it kind of put me behind,” he said. “And the weather was weird for the July one, so I didn’t do that. So I had to squish a bunch in September and October, which wasn’t good. It was very painful.”

His first race went fast – a personal best of 3:19, which qualified him to run the Boston Marathon this year. His second fastest was 3:53:37. One was over five hours, and four others approached the five-hour mark.

In all, Johnson has run 18 marathons, and previously he also completed some 25 triathlons.

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Mike Johnson paces the Tommie pack in a 1989 cross country meet. Running in the pack with him are Marty Urick ’90, behind, and Paul Hathaway ’91, right. (Aquinas yearbook photo by Pat Seliner)

Why? “I like the way I feel when I’m in good shape,” he said. I’ve shared this a few times. It’s really a matter of stewardship. This is all God gave us. And if we don’t take care of it no one else will. I would like to hit 100 years old healthy. I’d like to be able to still climb the stairs when I’m 100. And if I don’t take care of myself when I’m 45, I’m not going to make it there. That’s been an important part of running.”

That, and toeing the starting line at a marathon is “pretty cool.”

“Anybody who does a marathon is amazing,” he said. “Even just thinking in your head, I’m going to start training for one. Then you get to the point where you are actually toeing the start line – just to get to that point – not even running any of the race yet – that’s a big deal.”

“But I’m never running 12 marathons in a year again,” he laughed. “I really feel much more now than even before that anybody who even thinks about doing a marathon and starts training for it is pretty awesome. Just to get to the start line is pretty amazing. And all shapes and sizes come to the start line. It’s pretty neat. And every single one of them has a story.”

This is Mike Johnson’s story – much of it in his own words.

Race No. 1: Houston Marathon / Houston, Texas
Jan. 15, 2012
Time: 3:19:45

Johnson’s first marathon of 2012 was his best and qualified him for the Boston Marathon. “I felt really good, and 3:19 is my PR. I had run six marathons before that, and that was my best time by about five minutes.” He had no races scheduled for February.

Race No. 2: The Trailbreaker Marathon / Waukesha, Wis.
March 31, 2012
Time: 4:40:31

The signature element of this run on an asphalt railroad bed trail and another eight miles on the Ice Age Trail, dodging roots and rocks, is climbing to the top of a 45-foot tower at Lapham Peak, the highest point in Waukesha County at 1,233 feet, and ringing a bell.

“My calf was hurting at mile two, and I remember this: ‘There’s a fine line between being tough and being stupid,’ because at mile two I’m like, ‘OK, I can just turn around and go back,’ because it was an out and back, or ‘I’ve got to see if I can do this.’ I just kept going and going and doing it for almost another five hours. That was brutal. It was cold. That was a tough race.”

It was a cold day, 45 degrees, overcast, with a biting wind. “When you are out there for five hours you just get miserable. … I was dreaming about hot coffee at about mile 12, and it stayed with me the whole time.”

Race No. 3: Med-City Marathon / Rochester, Minn.
May 27, 2012
Time: 4:46:04

Johnson missed his April race, and an earlier race in May that he had planned to run, because of a calf strain, so he didn’t have much in the way of expectations for the Med-City Marathon other than he figured he could finish. This race was as hot – upper 80s – as the Trailbreaker was cold.

On the course past noon, he was drained by the heat. “I had a calf strain, so I couldn’t do much mileage. I was doing quite a bit of biking. Biking didn’t hurt it at all, but biking isn’t the same. … I tried to do some longer rides just to exercise for a longer period, but it didn’t make me ready to run a marathon. But I did finish. Every single one I started I finished. But I probably walked over half of the Rochester race.”

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Mike Brown, left, and Mike Johnson lead the Tommies’ cross country charge in this November 1987 Aquin photo. (Photo by Patty Varley)

Race No 4: Grandma’s Marathon / Duluth, Minn.
June 16, 2012
Time: 4:12:20

Mid-June weather in Duluth is unpredictable, but it was “fine” in  2012. “I kind of pooped out at about mile 20 and struggled to get home, but I actually got some mileage in before the race and it felt like I was kind of back on track. I wasn’t fully recovered, but I felt like I was in good shape for it.”

Afterward, he wondered if he could manage eight more marathons in six months. The schedule tightened further in July. He didn’t run a marathon in July and, in fact, he didn’t run much at all; it was hot and he was recovering from the first four marathons.

Race No. 5: Paavo Nurmi Marathon / Hurley, Wis.
August 11, 2012
Time: 3:53:37

Known for its “ugly” T-shirts, Paavo Nurmi is a “great race” and provided cool weather in 2012. “People actually came to Hurley with no cold-weather clothing, and they were sitting at the start line in their warm-ups, or their jeans. They weren’t expecting to need a pair of tights or anything. … Once you got running it was absolutely beautiful.” Johnson was happy with his 3:53, especially considering that he had logged so little training before the race.

But, with four months remaining, he still had seven marathons to run and thought: “This is nuts.”

“Actually, what helped was that I ran a 3:53 at Paavo Nurmi. If I wouldn’t have run that well I probably would have said ‘bag this.’” He didn’t, however, and when a friend suggested running the Houston Marathon again in January 2013, because it fell two days earlier on the calendar than it did in 2012, he was on his way. Over the next three months he ran six marathons.

Race No. 6: Lapham Peak Trail Marathon  / Waukesha, Wis.
Sept. 8, 2012
Time: 4:50:22

Back in Waukesha again, this race featured a six-plus-mile loop “on the hilliest cross country ski trails I’ve ever been on. Even if you wanted to run up a couple of the hills, you didn’t. It was ridiculous, and we did this loop four times.” How difficult was this race? He placed third in his age group despite finishing just 10 minutes under five hours. “That puts it in perspective a little bit. It was a very tough race.” One week later he ran again.

Race No. 7: North Country Trail Marathon / Walker, Minn.
Sept.  15, 2012
Time: 5:06:10

Most of the race is on the North Country Hiking Trail, which Johnson described as a “very difficult, very technical trail” cut through grass and hillsides. “It was a very beautiful course but it was very tough, and I struggled on that one.” Still, one week later he ran again.

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Mike Johnson, third from the left, won the MIAC steeplechase title in 1989. (Aquin 1989 photo by John McCormick)

Race No. 8: Birkebeiner Trail Marathon / Hayward to Cable, Wis.
Sept. 22, 2012
Time: 4:55:03

Johnson thought the Lapham Peak Trail was hilly – then he got on the Birke trail. “It’s a 20-foot wide trail cut into the forest that goes on for 30-plus miles. It’s just beautiful. The colors are awesome.” After running three marathons in three weeks, he was surprised to feel “pretty good” after the Birke despite the hills. “After the first marathon in September I felt like crap. After the second second marathon in September I felt pretty bad. But after the Birke I actually thought, ‘I think my body is adjusting.’ I felt better after my third one than I did after my first two. So that was good.” It provided a psychological boost. “That was the race that I realized that if I can do three in a row, I’m going to finish this thing.” Two weeks later he was running again.

No. 9: Chicago Marathon / Chicago, Ill.
Oct. 7, 2012
Time: 4:17:56

Chicago is one of the nation’s largest marathons, but “You didn’t feel like you were running with 45,000 people. … Even from the gun I always had my own space.” The start featured chutes and waves. Chutes were based on time, and four or five chutes were in each wave. Waves went out 30 minutes apart. His chute had 3,000 runners, with pacers well spread out. The race was his fourth in five weeks. “I was happy with it but sore from all the running.” Two weeks later he ran his fifth marathon in seven weeks.

No. 10: Mankato Marathon / Mankato, Minn.
Oct. 21, 2012
Time: 4:31:10

Johnson ran a personal best 3:25:27 in Mankato in 2011, but he knew that record would be safe in 2012. The first 16 miles were very windy and he began to struggle around mile 17. He walked and jogged to about mile 22, where he encountered Laura Kohler, from Marshall, Minn., lying on the ground. Johnson asked if she was OK. She answered, “No.”

“That’s really unusual. Almost everyone, even if they are in pain, will say, ‘Yeah, I’m OK, don’t worry about me.’ She just couldn’t go any farther.” It was her first marathon and she had hit “The Wall.”

He helped her up and got her walking slowly; about 200 yards farther they started to jog and Johnson promised he wouldn’t leave her. Jogging a half mile and then walking a half mile, they managed to keep going and finished the race together.

“Her Facebook page has me and her high-fiving at the finish line of the marathon. We became Facebook friends. I end up becoming Facebook friends with a lot of the people I meet on the trail.”

Two weeks later, Race No. 11, “a tough one.”

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Mike Johnson credits Jacob, 13, with helping him finish the Rails to Trails Marathon.

No. 11: Rails to Trails Marathon / Norwalk, Wis.
Nov. 4, 2012
Time: 4:51:02

Running his sixth marathon in 60 days, Johnson began to struggle at 18 miles, walking and jogging, and then he met Jacob, 13, “just the nicest kid,” who also was struggling after running the first half of the race in 1:45.

“I have an 11 year old and a 14 year old, and I couldn’t imagine either one of them thinking about running a marathon, and this kid is doing it! I think that Jacob probably helped me run 10 minutes faster just because he took my mind off of my pain. I’m sure I slowed him down by 10 minutes.” They finished together.

Afterward, “Emotionally I felt really good. I knew I would finish the whole 12. Physically, I was hurting. I didn’t run for a week after that, and usually I try to do something. I didn’t do much the next week either. I took almost a month off. I think it was all the way through Thanksgiving before I really started running again.”

He felt better in December, but his longest run before Race No. 12, the Houston Marathon in January 2013, was eight miles.

Race No. 12: Houston Marathon / Houston, Texas
Jan. 13, 2013
Time: 4:17:21

Johnson knew that the Houston Marathon was not just another 26.2 mile race, it was the end of a yearlong journey. But a memorable finale – windy, cold and downpouring rain.

“We’re just drenched, and it’s 40-plus degrees, and it’s windy. It was horrible! … It was the coldest race that I had all year. My hands were cramping up. My forearms were just frozen.”

He warmed up five miles into the race, but he “pooped out” again at mile 17. “At mile 22 I started thinking that this isn’t the last couple of miles of a 26-mile race, this is the last couple of miles of a 314-mile event that I’ve been doing for an entire year.” Spurred on by the emotional tug of completing his journey, he began taking shorter, quicker steps, and caught up to and passed the 4:15-paced marathon group.

It was an emotional finish when his eyes met those of Zanny, his wife, who was there for his final race. “She went through a lot. I was gone for 12 races. None of them were in the Twin Cities. I stayed overnight at a lot of those.  … She had a big commitment, too, to make this thing happen.”

“I was really happy when I was done.”

*  *  *

Done? Well, almost. One more race is on the schedule – make it a baker’s dozen – the Boston Marathon on Patriots’ Day – Monday, April 15.  He qualified for the race with his 3:19:45 at the Houston Marathon back on Jan. 15, 2012.

4 Responses

  1. Uncle Dick

    Great job Mike! It takes real dedication, like you have for The Lord. The Arizona/Washington contingent of the family are all your fans.

    If you ever want to come down to Phoenix to run (or whatever) you have a place to stay.

    Love, Dick & Jodi

  2. Aunt Mary

    Congratulations! Impressive! Loved reading about your running
    adventures. But don’t do that again, will you. Save some of your energy til your older.
    Fantastic job, Mike.