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An 86-year-old marathon runner from the South Bay died a day after finishing the New York Marathon for the 25th year in a row. Christie Smith reports.
As she did for a quarter-century, Joy Johnson ran the New York City Marathon on Sunday. And, as was her annual ritual for at least a decade, after the run, Johnson stood in line outside the Today show to shake hands with weatherman Al Roker and show off her medal.
This week, she did both those things for the last time.
The 86-year-old retired physical education teacher from San Jose, Calif., died Monday after meeting Roker outside 30 Rockefeller Center.
Johnson's daughter, Diana Boydston, who lives in San Jose’s Willow Glen neighborhood, told NBC Bay Area on Tuesday that her mother had fallen during the marathon near mile 20. Daughter had been tracking Mom mile by mile on the computer.
But Johnson waved away advice to have her head checked out after the spill, even meeting Roker with two white bandages on her face. The injury, however, likely did affect her. Johnson died at 3:35 p.m. EST Monday at Bellevue Hospital Center in New York.
“She wanted to die with her track shoes on,” Boydston said. “And she did. Literally."
She was the oldest “streaker” – a laudatory nickname for marathon runners who compete in 15 or more straight races – this year in the New York City marathon. The octogenarian, who had completed 25 NYC marathons - finished in just under eight hours, according to New York Road Runners Club spokesman Chris Weiller.
“She was amazing,” Weiller told NBC Bay Area by phone.
Johnson traveled from San Jose to pick up her 83-year-old sister, Faith, in her home state of Minnesota before heading to New York for the annual run. As was her routine, Johnson packed lightly in a carry-on bag, too frugal to pay the airline fee, her daughter said. But she always found room for her Bible.
Johnson had moved the Bay Area to get away from the freezing cold winters, and ended up teaching gym, volleyball, swimming and track at San Jose and Willow Glen high schools. She was married to the late Dr. Newell Johnson and had four children and seven grandchildren. She would have turned 87 on Christmas Day - hence her first name of "Joy."
She only started running in her late 50s, after a friend suggested they enter the 1988 New York City Marathon.
The rest is history.
“She was so special,” friend Will Sanchez, 63, said of Johnson in a phone interview from New York. Sanchez met Johnson in 2008 at a summer retreat in Lake Tahoe run by Jeff Galloway, the 1972 Olympian and marathon guru, and “we just hit it off very well.” Typically, Sanchez would have lunch with Johnson in New York when she was in for the marathon. His voice choked with emotion as he said he didn't get a chance to do that this year.
Rachael Levy, 25, a journalism student at CUNY in Manhattan, was the last reporter to interview and photograph Johnson on Saturday.
"She was so happy, she was laughing, " said Levy, who met Johnson in her hotel room before the run. "She was so passionate about running. I left the interview thinking that I better get in better shape."
While she made headlines in the Wall Street Journal, CBS and the Mercury News for running in the NYC marathon, Johnson ran elsewhere, too. She regularly ran the Bay to Breakers race through San Francisco and the Securian Frozen Half Marathon in St. Paul.
Her daughter said that her mother often woke up at 4:30 a.m. to train on the Willow Glen High School track in San Jose with other die-hard running buddies, self-described as the "Track Pack."
Johnson had told friends and strangers that her goal was to die running. A 2008 Wall Street Journal article recounted Johnson saying: "I've told my friends if I die here on this track do not call 911 because I do not want to be revived. I say, wait a half an hour, maybe 45 minutes, then call the mortician. That's the way I want to go."
If there is any solace to Johnson’s friends and family, it’s that she died pursuing her passion.
"Faith and family were important to her," Boydston said. "But running....well, that's what she loved to do."
Funeral services, most likely in Minnesota, are pending.
NBC Bay Area's Christie Smith and Shelby Hansen contributed to this report.