Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Thu, 28 Mar 2013 06:59:54 -0400

R.K.

RUNNING COMMENTARY 982

(The latest, and probably last, home for my magazine column was Marathon & Beyond. That seven-year stay ended in 2011. Now I have permission to republish those pieces. This one comes from the July 2009 issue.)

Dave “Roadkill” Johnson picked up that nickname early in his career with the U.S. Forest Service, where he worked as a wildlife specialist. One of his tasks was postmortem exams of highway casualties within the forests. To ease confusion in an office with two Dave Johnsons, one became Roadkill. He kept the name, even after the other Dave moved on.

R.K., as I always called our Dave, became a friend 20 years ago when he first invited me to the Walker North Country Marathon in northern Minnesota. He had founded this race, setting a pattern of bringing events to unlikely places. This one resided in a town of 1100 within the Chippewa National Forest.

The next assignment took R.K. and his family to the Tongass Forest on Prince of Wales Island, Alaska. You couldn’t find a spot much more remote for a marathon than the town of Craig, population 1200. To reach it from the Lower 48, you first must fly to Ketchikan and then catch a ferry or a single-engine float plane to the island.

When he first told me, “I want to start a marathon here,” I stopped just short of saying: Yeah, right. Do you think runners will travel here? I didn’t say it but thought it.

Doubters didn’t deter him. In 2002, I was one of the travelers to the Prince of Wales Marathon. About 40 marathoners ran that year, including R.K. himself. He admittedly hadn’t trained enough for it. But he showed the same confidence that he would finish this race, running, as he’d demonstrated in starting it as an organizer. He finished.

He invited me back for the next year, when megamarathoner Bob Dolphin and his wife Lenore were the special guests. Each year thereafter the POW race flew in a speaker from the Lower 48 – including Dick Beardsley and Priscilla Welch. I’m sure that R.K. picked up much of the cost himself, since sponsorship is scarce on the island.

A few more years passed when we seldom saw each other but connected often by phone and e-mail. By now he had taken to calling me “Coach,” as in his coach. Never have I had less success getting a runner to follow a program.

He downplayed a big life-event, his small stroke a few years ago. He said nothing about it unless asked. When he wasn’t talking about ideas to “make Prince of Wales bigger and better,” he was promising to “get more serious about my own running again.” He never quite kept that promise to himself, but running was always about more than himself.

He ran two Marine Corps Marathons, still undertrained, as a way of honoring his father. The elder Johnson, now in his mid-80s, had served in the World War II Marines. At his first DC race he was greeted as a returning hero. The next year R.K. arranged a family reunion there. Both of his and Pauline’s sons and their wives are long-distance runners.

In 2007, I was with R.K. at Dick Beardsley’s marathon camp in Minnesota. When he heard about Dick’s other camp venture, in Iowa for high school runners, he said, “We need to do that in Craig.” We knew better by now than to say, or think: Yeah, right.

He pulled off such a camp in grand style the next summer, drawing about 50 kids to his hometown (some traveling as long as 18 hours by ferry). He planned to make of “bigger and better” next time – also longer, with two extra days. Kids from the Iowa camp even plotted a trip to Alaska.

The god that R.K Dave was devoted to had other plans for him. In January, I heard from Jan Seeley of Marathon & Beyond that “R.K. Johnson passed away this morning.” He was only 59.

This news hit me hard, and left me searching for the few visible mementos of him. One was his final e-mail, sent within the past two weeks. He started by reporting, “Our younger son and daughter-in-law let us know they are expecting, after seven years of marriage and being told they never could have children. What do doctors know?”

He ended by saying he’d taken “a little time off from running, but I’m starting again with the new year. Now I have to start planning for running camp.”

My reply that day was too hasty. I thought we’d talk again soon, but you can never count on that. Now I’m left with the memories of this good friend, of mine and of the sport.

On our final visit he had handed me a photo that showed both of us at the start of his Prince of Wales Marathon. With it came a handwritten note that read, “This is one of my most prized possessions. I’m entrusting you to keep it for me until I finish my next Boston Marathon. Then and only then do you have to give it back.”

I can’t do that now. All I can do is tell his story here.

UPDATE: The Prince of Wales Marathon continues as a living tribute to its founder. A profile of that and other rural races will appear in RC 983.


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from Amazon.com; (2) as e-books from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; (3) as printable and shareable PDFs from Lulu.com. Just released was Learning to Walk. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]
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