A “marathon” story

The Boston Marathon, undoubtedly the world’s most famous running event, is not just a race, it’s a journey. For some it’s more than a journey. For Mike Johnson ’90 it was far more – it was an odyssey.

To get to the start line you have to run a qualifying time in a previous marathon. To get to the finish line 26.2 miles away, well, that’s another story – a trilogy even. Johnson, 47, a philanthropic adviser and a resident of Stillwater, Minn., got to the start line last year but never made it to the finish line. He was about a half mile away in 2013 when the race was stopped after two pressure cooker bombs hidden in backpacks detonated near the finish line. Three people died and more than 200 were injured in the blasts.

Runners refer to the prestigious race as “Boston.” It is held on Patriots’ Day, always the third Monday in April. This year it was April 21, Easter Monday. Johnson, like many of the 37,000 marathoners at the start line, was invited back this year by the race’s governing body, the Boston Athletic Association, to race again – to finish what he had started last year.

Mike Johnson

Mike Johnson ’90 wears the colors and jacket of the Boston Marathon, America’s oldest and most prestigious 26.2-mile race. (File photo by Tom Couillard, 2013)

Of the 37,000 personal stories that can be shared from Boston, Johnson’s went viral. A Washington Post reporter, Wesley Lowery, standing near the finish line on Boylston Street noticed two marathoners struggling to help another marathoner stay on his feet and finish the race. Johnson stepped in to help, as did a fourth runner, and as they carried him toward the finish line the reporter recorded the drama with a sequence of photos taken with his iPhone. A tweet later, the scene began to go viral. The scene also was captured and posted on YouTube by a spectator. (Johnson is wearing the yellow shirt.)

“I don’t know why I stopped,” Johnson said in a recent interview. “It was just a reflex.”

Just past the 26 mile mark and 100-some yards from the finish line, the four strangers struggled to lift and carry a collapsed runner they didn’t know.

“The guy in the middle was trying to move his legs, but his legs were not working. They were absolute noodles,” Johnson recalled. “Both of the guys holding him up looked like they were struggling themselves just to hold this guy up. So I thought – I’ve got to help them. They need help.

“I wasn’t expecting that they were going to pick him up. I was kind of expecting that I was just going to take his right arm and put it over my shoulder, and I would relieve the guy who looked like he was struggling helping him. And he ended up moving forward to grab his ankles, and this woman came up and took the other ankle. And all of a sudden we’re carrying him. I wasn’t expecting that at all.”

 

It talks about the spirit of sportsmanship and caring about other people. There were a lot of people out there who did just as much; they just didn’t happen to get on camera.” ~ Mike Johnson

 

The crowd, deep so close to the finish line, went “nuts.” The four who stopped to help, after running 26 miles and struggling themselves with exhaustion and aching muscles, carried Adam (he had printed his name on his race bib) toward the finish line.

As the group neared the finish line, “He said, ‘I want to get up and walk. I think I can walk.’ That was about 20 yards or so from the finish line,” Johnson said, “and he got up and walked and staggered across the finish line.”

Johnson was physically and emotionally spent as well when he crossed the finish line. He started bawling. The emotion he displayed at the finish line was noticed by reporters; two interviewed him, and neither had seen him help the faltering runner.

“Someone said, ‘Oh, you’re a hero.’ What I did was not heroic. Heroes are what happened last year. They didn’t know what was going to happen and they ran toward the explosions to help people who were seriously hurt – some of them fatally,” Johnson remarked. “I just helped a guy whose legs weren’t working for the last few yards of a race – for something that we do as recreation.”

Mike Johnson ’90, right, running with teammate Mike Brown in a November 1987 cross country meet, earned All-American honors in cross country and track at St. Thomas. (Aquin photo by Patty Varley)

Mike Johnson ’90, right, running with teammate Mike Brown in a November 1987 cross country meet, earned All-American honors in cross country and track at St. Thomas. (Aquin photo by Patty Varley)

What Johnson is, however, is a modern day Ulysses in running shoes. His odyssey to the Boston finish line began in January 2012 when he set a goal of running 12 marathons in 12 months. (See: Mike Johnson ’90 Goes the Distance.) In his first marathon that year, the Houston Marathon, he qualified for Boston 2013. Many of the following 11 marathons in 2012 drained him physically and emotionally. He made it to the Boston 2013 start line only to be stopped a half mile from the finish line after the two bombs exploded. (See: Mike Johnson Survives Boston Marathon to Run Another Day.)

But his journey this year did not end a half mile from the finish line.

This year on Patriots’ Day, back again at the Boston start line, Johnson was about to undergo his 20th marathon. He was full of anticipation and excited, and although he was undertrained for a marathon he felt ready while enjoying the “awesome energy” given off by the throngs of spectators on hand. He had spent the past year thinking about Boston, and at the start line he reminisced about his journey and how he had dedicated each of this race’s 26 miles to a family member or a close friend.

Crossing the odyssey’s finish line, in 4:33:49, he was overwhelmed by emotion. The tears flowed; he had fought the good fight; he had finished his long race.

“It’s an epic saga that just won’t end,” Johnson concluded. “It’s a ‘marathon’ story.”