An Ode to the Marathoner

There can be something perverse about perseverance. Take the first marathon: Legend, by way of Lucian, has it that Pheidippides, an Athenian herald, ran 25 miles from the battlefield in Marathon to Athens to report the victory over the Persians. “Joy,” he said, “we’ve won!” With those words, and with that joy, he died.

Nearly 2,400 years later, Robert Browning wrote a poem about Pheidippides. “‘Rejoice, we conquer!’ Like wine thro’ clay, / Joy in his blood bursting his heart, he died — the bliss!” The poem, predictably, appealed to those who dreamed of halcyon days, the mythic past when heroes lived and died, nobly, for not much more than nothing. It was that poem that inspired the makers of the modern Olympics to create a race the length of the course that Pheidippides might have run.

At that first Olympic marathon, in the 1896 Games in Athens, a Frenchman led the field for much of the way before quitting with about eight kilometers to go. An Australian overtook him, but soon collapsed. Word reached the stadium, where 100,000 people waited to watch the winner cross the finish line, that a Greek was in the lead. “Hellene,” the crowd cried. “Hellene” — Greece, Greece!

The man’s name was Spyridon Louis. He had a narrow face, a thick brow, and dark hooded eyes. There are pictures of him in traditional dress, with full sleeves and a flaring skirt, his mustache pulled to points, but in others he appears more like the 23-year-old water carrier from Marousi that he was.

When he entered the stadium, two Greek princes ran down to the track to join him for the final lap. People threw flowers, their hats in the air. Joy, we’ve won!

Joy Johnson never won a marathon. But it is as true to say she never lost.

She ran 25 New York City Marathons and dozens of others around the country — all after the age of 60. Running for her began as something to do after her four children were grown, and it became a ritual, a daily devotion. As the new 30 for 30 short, Every Day, chronicles, every morning she rose before dawn, drank her coffee, read the Bible. But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint. And then, every day, she ran.

After Louis’s victory, the King of Greece is said to have offered him any present he wanted. Imagine what he, poor as he was, might have asked for! But what he requested was a donkey-drawn carriage, to help him with his work delivering mineral water, because being a water carrier was hard.

He was not an aristocrat, as the founder of the modern games, Pierre de Coubertin, surely wished he were — a man with so much money (or access to lenders) that he could pretend there was no such thing. He did not celebrate the virtue of difficulty for difficulty’s sake; work may have given him dignity; it was certainly a means to an end.

Later, he would recall the euphoria as he entered the stadium, the people calling his name, as if it were a dream; he had been part of something so much bigger than himself.

He never raced again.

Johnson knew that the 2013 New York City Marathon would be her last. Every athlete has to quit at some point, however much she might wish to deny it. She was often asked when she would stop, and she always answered the same way: when she died. In fact, she liked to say she wanted to die in her running shoes. If she collapsed on the track, she told her friends, she did not want them to call 911; she did not want to be revived.

She said this so often when interviewed, and with such conviction, that one starts to hear behind it some measure of intent. A runner, after all, has goals.

Joy Johnson was born in 1926, on a dairy farm, more than 40 years before the first woman officially entered a sanctioned marathon. For half her life, it was thought that running a marathon would irreparably damage a woman’s health.

In 2013, she was 86 years old, among the back of the pack. She hit her head at Mile 20, got up, and kept going. She crossed the finish line. She would reach her goal.

Filed Under: 30 For 30, 30 for 30 Shorts, New York City Marathon

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Louisa Thomas is a Grantland staff writer and editor.

Archive @ louisahthomas