FOREST HILLS, Mich. — Josh Johnson was supposed to be running in the Boston Marathon on Monday, April 20. But as coronavirus spread, the race was postponed until the fall.
Because Johnson trained for years to qualify in the world-renowned marathon, he decided to put those 2,000 miles of practice to good use. On Saturday, he ran 26 one-mile laps around his Grand Rapids-area neighborhood.
Johnson started conceiving of running the marathon in 2017; in order to qualify for the Boston Marathon, runners need to have already run a marathon. So, Johnson ran the Grand Rapids marathon in 2018, then decided to race in Boston in 2020.
At first, Johnson said he was disappointed, but then he got an idea.
"As time got closer, we just started talking about what we could do to stay positive and one of the ideas I had was just getting out and just running 26 miles anyway just for the fun of it," Johnson said.
Nearly 30,000 people participate in the Boston Marathon every year, and the event brings out thousands of onlookers to the city streets. However, in its 123-year history, it has never been canceled. While people who were planning on running in the race are understandably disappointed, the Boston Marathon has been vocal about people staying home on Monday.
"For the first time, we are urging anyone considering running the course this week to stay home, follow social distancing & flatten the curve. Groups of runners would divert valuable, urgent resources from the cities & towns along the course," the marathon posted on Twitter.
Johnson, and his wife Angela, started planning: How could he still run a marathon without a prescribed course?
They thought, maybe he could be dropped of 26 miles out of town, "forcing" him to run 26 miles back home. Or they thought about replicating the Boston course, by running up the Medical Mile hill in downtown Grand Rapids, similar to Boston's Heartbreak hill. But finally, Johnson decided to do 26 laps in his neighborhood.
Saturday morning at 10 a.m., Johnson saw his chance: the sun was shining and the day was warming up. He gobbled down some oatmeal grabbed some supplies, and was out there within an hour.
"I just thought, well, it'd be kind of absurd if you're a neighbor in my neighborhood and to see some guy going past your house, over and over again," Johnson said. "And because we know a lot of our neighbors, it was a good chance to also have people come out and wave. Everybody's all walking now, so it was a good chance to say hi to some people as I ran around at a safe distance."
This ended up helping Johnson more than he realized.
"There were a couple times where I said this was the stupidest thing," he said. "I wanted to quit, I really wanted to quit badly."
Around his neighborhood, there were probably 20 different people watching from their respective yards. For Johnson, they provided the support and accountability he needed to finish the run.
"It made it really easy to keep going," he said. "That's the beauty of a race. When you're out in a race, you've got people with cowbells and people cheering you on. That's why people love to do races and why it's easier to finish in those instances."
Throughout the repetitive 26 laps, Johnson also said seeing the people in his neighborhood providing a distraction for him. He said for two and half hours, he ran past two kids playing on swings, then around mile 23 they noticed and started cheering. At one point, he heard the theme from Rocky behind him: one of his friends was riding his bike behind him with a speaker.
"It was really fun just to see people kind of come out and kind of cheer me along," he said.
In the last stretch, Angela Johnson said a set of their neighbors pulled a finish line across the road. In an apropos decision, she said, the finish line was made out of toilet paper.
As he crossed the homemade finish line, Johnson saw his time for the race: 3 hours, 19 minutes and 53 seconds, which is a qualifying time for the Boston Marathon in his age group.
Even though Johnson missed out on this opportunity to run in the famous event, he managed to turn the situation around. His wife says she is proud of him for remaining so positive about it.
"Well, you know, frankly, everyone has lost something, has had something canceled, has lost a job," Angela Johnson said. "There are a lot of people hurting right now. So this feels, maybe more minor comparatively to what a lot of people are experiencing. But he worked so hard for this for so long; it was a huge dream. So, that was hard to lose. I'm really proud of him for just the work that he's done he's such a hard worker."
Johnson also works in health care at a radiology outpatient facility within Butterworth Hospital.
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