MANHATTAN (PIX11) — The 2013 NYC Marathon for me just turned from a joyous celebration of personal achievement to a poignant and bittersweet tale of accomplishment and demise.
You see, I crossed the finish line holding the left hand of the oldest woman to run the 26.2 mile course through the five boroughs. And then she died the next day.
It was dark and cold. We were both limping to the finish line close to eight hours after we started running on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
86-year-old Joy Johnson of San Jose, Calif. had a bloody forehead as she neared the conclusion of her journey. She was being held up by a woman on her right side.
That woman, whose name I didn’t get, told me that Joy had run a total of 65 marathons across the country in her life and that she had fallen a few miles back and hit her forehead.
The woman said she wanted Joy to go to the hospital, but she refused, saying she wanted to cross the NYC Marathon finish line one more time.
I asked if I could hold her hand as we crossed the finish line together. I said it would be an honor for me to have traveled the very last leg of this very difficult journey with her.
Joy smiled a sly smile and said, “Yes, you can hold my hand.”
Right before we crossed the finish line, I asked if she could give me a few seconds to pull out my iPhone from my armband holder and take a picture of us together. My hands were numb and I was shaking and moving very slowly.
Joy seemed a bit confused, but mumbled that she wanted to keep moving forward, she was worried about her time this year. She wanted to cross that finish line as soon as possible.
I told her I wasn’t worried about time because this was my first marathon and my goal was just to cross the finish line as part of the DetermiNation Team of the American Cancer Society. I told her I was raising money for cancer research because I am a cancer survivor and I had lost my wonderful mother to colon cancer.
I remembered thinking I am not sure she heard or understood everything I said. But as I crossed the finish line, I thought she could be my mother, who, had she lived as long, would have been 90 years old this year.
After we crossed the finish line, her helper said Joy needed to go have that bleeding cut on her forehead looked at. And she was whisked away.
But seconds before, I gave Joy a quick hug and told her I would never forget that I crossed the finish line with such a brave, incredible and determined person. I know I told her I hoped I could run a marathon when I am her age.
Then I met my two daughters on Central Park West and told them I had just met the most incredible older woman, crossing the finish line with me, at age 86.
Little did I know she would pass away while napping after a TV interview less than 24 hours later.
I did not know at the time that she was the oldest woman to finish the marathon, or that this was her 25th NYC Marathon.
But I take comfort in what her daughter told the Daily News after her passing: “At least she was running the way she wanted to go.”
Joy Johnson, I will never forget my first marathon or your last.