More than 20 years ago, Riva Johnson played field hockey and lacrosse at Cherry Hill West High School. In her junior year, Johnson (then Riva Gensib) switched to cross-country and track. With running, she says, "I got out whatever I put into it. I wasn't relying on 10 other teammates to win."
She continued running at the University of Pennsylvania, winning the Ivy League championship in the 5,000 meters her sophomore year. Injuries prevented her from reaching similar heights the remainder of her college career, and once she got married and became a mother, running was relegated to something she used to do.
In 1999, while Johnson was living in Florida, a friend told her about Team in Training, a sports charity program sponsored by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society that enables people to participate in various endurance events in exchange for raising money to combat cancers of the blood. That fall, Johnson ran the Dublin Marathon in Ireland in honor of her mother, who had just been diagnosed with leukemia.
Bitten by the marathon bug, Johnson ran the Disney World Marathon and, the following spring, Boston. Then, she and her husband, Michael, an avid mountain biker, became infatuated with Ironman triathlons. In the summer of 2002, they completed the Lake Placid Ironman. Aiming to tackle the New York City Marathon the following fall, Johnson began focusing again on running.
"I ramped up too much too fast and ended up with a serious stress fracture," she says. "I was out for six months, and from then on, I was leery of running that kind of mileage."
So she cut back, participating in smaller races such as 5Ks and 10Ks from time to time. Three years ago, she learned about the trail runs promoted by Pretzel City Sports, a Reading, Pa., race-consulting group. Johnson tried a few and was hooked. She enjoyed the variety and challenge of the rugged terrain and found that it was easier on her legs than pounding on pavement. A year and a half ago, she signed up for a 25K trail race in Virginia and enjoyed it immensely.
"I figured if I trained smart and stayed off roads as much as I could, maybe I could do it," she says.
By "it" Johnson means the JFK 50 Mile, one of the oldest and most popular ultra events on the East Coast. The race takes place in Washington County, Md., just south of the Pennsylvania border - partly on the rocky Appalachian Trail, partly along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath, which parallels the winding Potomac River, and the remainder on rolling country roads.
When Johnson checked the rules, she was dismayed to learn that iPods are prohibited. She loved listening to music while running, especially the Dave Matthews Band, U2, and the Eagles. The beat helped syncopate her stride, psych her up, distract her from boredom and pain. How would she occupy her mind for 50 long, grueling miles?
Johnson, 48, who lives in Carlisle, Pa., decided to make a list of 50 people and to dedicate a mile to each. Among them were former coaches and mentors; her massage therapist and chiropractor; runners she had trained; athletes and soldiers she knew from her husband's time teaching at West Point; people who had faced and dealt with major setbacks and illnesses, such as her mother, and her father, who overcame prostate cancer; the young man to whom she donated bone marrow; Dick Hoyt, who pushes his son, Rick, in a wheelchair in marathons and triathlons; Wounded Warriors, an organization that supports injured soldiers; her great-aunt Minnie, who died at 103; her grandmother, still alive at 103; and such stellar athletes as Lance Armstrong, Joan Benoit Samuelson, Catherine Ndereba, Dara Torres, Dan Jansen, and Dean Karnazes.
On race day in November 2009, Johnson pinned 10 sheets of paper to the front of her singlet. On each sheet were five names.
"I'd look down and see who I was running for that mile, and then I'd think about that person and what they meant to me, what connection I had with them, what their story was or what obstacles they had overcome," she says.
Every five miles, she would tear off a sheet to reveal the next five names.
"Whenever I started feeling tired or down, I would think of these inspiring people and how small my pain was compared to theirs," she said.
Her mother, Judy, loved the idea.
"She's very appreciative of the people who have helped her," she says of her daughter. "She's very determined, and she admires that in other people."
The list worked. Johnson finished sixth among women (in 7 hours, 38 minutes), 53d overall (of 1,027 runners). In November of 2010, carrying a similar list, she did even better - third female finisher, first female masters runner, 32d overall. Her time, 7:08, was 30 minutes faster.
Once again, Johnson is taking it up a notch. She has signed up for June's Western States 100 in California. iPods are permitted, but Johnson is pondering another list for the second 50 miles.
Contact columnist Art Carey
at 215-854-5606 or email@example.com.