Columbia man matching years with milestones

Monday, September 1, 2008 | 9:50 p.m. CDT
Don Johnson at the 1986 Heart of America Marathon. He won first in his age group.

COLUMBIA — For his 80th birthday, Don Johnson decided to take "a holiday, if you will," traveling the 25 miles from his Centralia home to Columbia to participate in Monday's 49th annual Heart of America marathon. On his holiday, he became the oldest person to ever participate in the infamous marathon. And though the race fell just two days short of Johnson's actual birthday on Sept. 3, the self-proclaimed fitness freak decided the date of the race was, "close enough for another crazy physical endeavor."

Johnson has biked, golfed and ran his way from one birthday milestone to the next for the past 30 years.

"I've done the golfing bit on birthdays, playing the number of holes per the birthday years - 50, 55, 60, 65, 70 and 75 - each in one day," Johnson said.

A man clearly fond of combining celebrations with competition, the fierce athlete celebrated the United States' Bicentennial in 1976 with one of his characteristic personal challenges. He ran 76 laps around the track at Centralia High School for a total of 19 miles.

With a decline in the number of friends capable of keeping up with his blistering athletic pace this year, Johnson decided to celebrate going "over the hill" with a monumental hill of a different kind. The notorious Easley Hill awaits runners at the halfway point of the Heart of America racecourse, eager to destroy any runner who dares to overcome its three-quarter of a mile climb.

"The plan is to do half marathon; collapse or conquer Easley Hill. I will then call Margaret on my cell and have her pick me up," Johnson said about his undertaking before the marathon.

Running has always been a way of life for the Johnson family. The sport has helped Don Johnson and his wife, Margaret, surmount many difficult times over the years. Johnson has undergone two hip replacements, knee surgery and a bout with cancer.

"The doctors say you're not supposed to run with a hip replacement. I wore out the first one competing in a marathon. Now, I will probably need a third one," Don Johnson said. "I just wanted to do the 13 miles. I was not racing."

With his wife driving along side him, Johnson achieved his birthday goal. He completed the 13.1 miles in 3 hours, 22 minutes and some odd seconds.

"I used to run a complete marathon in that time," he caustically added. In fact, Johnson won his age group with that exact time in the 1978 Heart of America marathon.

His birthday holiday this year was his 17th time competing in the Columbia race and his 37th marathon overall.

"You only go around once," Johnson said, shrugging his shoulders. "You might as well be active."


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