Here is a great article I just read in the wall Street journal
Over 80, It's Anyone's Race
Joy Johnson, 81, aims to break six hours in New York Marathon; 'I want to die running'
For Joy Johnson, winning her age group in last year's ING New York City Marathon was bittersweet. First place was nice, but her time had slipped to seven hours.
"This year I cranked up the training," says Ms. Johnson, a silver-haired, 81-year-old former Minnesota farm girl from San Jose, Calif., competing in her 21st consecutive New York City Marathon. "I want to die running. That's my goal."
Never mind the Kenyans who will battle through Central Park early Sunday afternoon and break the tape of the New York City Marathon in roughly two hours. The most intriguing competition among the 39,000-plus runners should come four hours later in the women's 80-90-year-old division, the oldest group of women competing this year.
Ms. Johnson will try to hold off four others in the race, including Bertha McGruder, who is in the 80-90 division for the first time after completing last year's race in six hours, 15 minutes, good for third place among 75-79-year-old women.
Bring it on, says Ms. Johnson. "I have my stronger leg muscles now," she says, placing her hands just above her knees. "I can feel it in my thighs."
More older Americans are exercising regularly than ever. By 2010, a quarter of the U.S. population will be older than 55, and officials with Running USA say seniors represent the fastest-growing segment of the sport's participants. Since 2003, the number of finishers 80 and above for all road races has risen 23% compared with 16% for all age groups.
Still, Ms. Johnson headlines a tiny segment in road racing's most grueling mass event. Just 26 runners over 80 registered for this year's race, including just three women other than Ms. Johnson and Ms. McGruder, none of whom are expected to win the division.
If history is a guide, roughly six hours after she crosses the Verrazano Narrows Bridge from Staten Island into Brooklyn, Ms. Johnson will trot across the finish line hoping to grab the piece of Tiffany's crystal awarded to the male and female winner in each age group.
It's a goal Ms. Johnson has been working towards for months. Throughout the summer she ran 50 to 55 miles each week instead of 30 to 35. She ran hills and bleachers at the local high-school football field, and she worked to build up her core strength at a running camp in Minnesota.
The hard work has paid off. Four weeks ago, Ms. Johnson finished the Twin Cities Marathon in six hours, six minutes and 48 seconds, nearly an hour faster than her time in New York last year. Since 1997, she has won her age group in New York five times, finished second on five other occasions and came in third once.
Winning her division once more won't be easy, though. Ms. McGruder, who declined to be interviewed for this story, ran the race in five hours, 56 minutes in 2005 and has not finished below third in her age group since 2002.
THE SUNNIEST PEOPLE
Joy Johnson has sturdy, pointed shoulders, smooth, tan skin that resembles soft leather, and a leggy, slim-waisted figure women 50 years her junior would kill for. She rises with a burst in the darkness of 4 a.m. at her 1950s, four-bedroom ranch house on a quiet street in south San Jose, reads her Bible for an hour then sets out into the eucalyptus and citrus tree-scented air on her pre-dawn run.
"When you wake up it can either be a good day or a bad day," Ms. Johnson says. "I always say, 'It's going to be a good day.' "
Mary Wittenberg, chief executive of the New York Road Runners Club, which stages the marathon, said such optimism binds the elderly runners she meets. "These are the sunniest people," Ms. Wittenberg said. "Maybe you have to be that way to run marathons in your 80s, or maybe it's just that running makes you so damn happy."
Like any aging runner, Ms. Johnson faces enormous obstacles. Dr. Alexis Chiang Colvin, a sports-medicine expert at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, said aging affects every system the body uses in long-distance running.
An elderly heart doesn't pump as fast or as hard, so oxygen -- the body's gasoline -- doesn't circulate as efficiently. An average 60-year-old pumps 20% less oxygenated blood than a 20-year-old, Dr. Colvin said. Like all human tissue, the lungs become stiffer and less expansive. Muscles atrophy at an increasing rate and ligaments and tendons grow brittle making injuries far more likely. Muscle strength generally peaks at 30. After 70, it declines 30% per decade.
But Jeff Galloway, the marathon guru whose running camp in Lake Tahoe Ms. Johnson has attended since 1996, said Ms. Johnson knows how to push her body to its limit but not beyond. Even in competitive marathons, she runs two or three miles, usually at a 13-minute pace, then walks for a minute or two.
"She is someone you really can see running when she is 100," said Mr. Galloway, who wrote his most recent book, Running Until You're 100, with Ms. Johnson in mind. "She just has that smile on her face all the time."
She smiles even when Dick Beardsley, a former marathon champion who also coaches Ms. Johnson at his running camp in Minnesota, pushes her through a series of stomach crunches, push-ups and hovers (holding the body in a push-up position) that help Ms. Johnson avoid becoming hunched as her body tires. "She can hover better than I can," said Mr. Beardsley.
Strangely, other than the occasional game of tag with her five brothers and sisters on the family farm in Waconia, Minn., Ms. Johnson never ran growing up. The only hint of the sport was the verse from the Book of Isaiah on the kitchen wall. "But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles. They shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint."
'I DO NOT WANT TO BE REVIVED'
Despite a career as a gym teacher, regular exercise didn't become part of her routine until 1985, when she took a three-mile walk on a lark. The exercise energized her. Soon the walk became a run and before long Ms. Johnson was entering 10-kilometer road races.
By 1988, she and a former teaching colleague some 15 years her junior, Andrea Rugani, were running 12 miles a day between their homes in Los Gatos and San Jose. In August of that year, they mapped out a training regimen for their first marathon in New York and sent it to a local cross-country coach. "He said, 'This is a good plan but you're supposed to have six months to train, not three,'" Ms. Johnson recalls.
Three months later, at 61, she finished in four hours, 22 minutes. Three years later, she finished in three hours, 55 minutes.
Two decades after she became a marathoner, Ms. Johnson still runs 11 races a year, including three marathons, the 12-kilometer Bay to Breakers race through San Francisco, and the 13.1 mile Securian Frozen Half Marathon in St. Paul each January. "It's cold as the dickens but it's so much fun," she says.
Her training each day starts with a block-and-a-half of fast walking. "OK, let's go" she says, and then she is off, trotting a mile loop over and over through her neighborhood or circling the track at Willow Glen High School among her friends.
She has outlasted all of the major characters in her running life. Ms. Rugani, her former training partner, died of complications from Parkinson's disease. Her husband Newell, her biggest fan, died of cancer nine years ago.
The octogenarians she meets at the high-school track at dawn, are all walkers now. One has a heart ailment. Another suffered a stroke last year. A third says her body simply can't take running anymore. "She's going to die doing those marathons," said Pat Dutton, one of those friends.
If that happens, Joy Johnson will end her life a satisfied woman, because she is most happy in motion, alone, planning out her day in her head, or thinking of a dinner to cook for her daughter and granddaughter who live with her. When fatigue sets in, she smiles and flings her arms in the air like an eagle and recites the words from Isaiah, her "running mantra," from the kitchen wall in her childhood home.
"I've told my friends if I die here on this track do not call 911 because I do not want to be revived," she says in the middle of two-hour workout earlier this week. "I say, wait a half an hour, maybe 45 minutes, then call the mortician. That's the way I want to go."