My Biggest Fan


Guest Blogger Charlie Johnston

Simply put, my mom is the reason I started running marathons. And no, I don’t mean in some intangible sense, either; she literally told me I should run a marathon. It was February 2008, and I had been casually running for several months when, quite accidentally, I ran 20 miles for no particular reason. I just laced up for a morning run and kept going until I felt like stopping. When I finished, it dawned on me that I had been running for quite a while, so I mapped the run, calculated the distance, and promptly informed Mom of the unexpected feat. She casually responded something along the lines of “That’s only six [point two] miles short of a marathon—you should run a marathon, Charlie.” I wondered if she had lost her mind. Never in my wildest dreams had I considered running a marathon. Marathons were superhuman accomplishments, the realm of serious athletes, and well beyond my comprehension. But, as plainly and matter-of-factly as she would have announced that the sky is blue, Mom said I should run one.

I took her suggestion to heart, and three weeks later, on a cold and dark spring morning at Napa’s Vintage High School, she wished me luck as she dropped me off to catch the bus to the Calistoga start line of the 2008 Napa Valley Marathon. Mom still muses about how, after the race, she assumed I would just check “marathon” off of whatever bucket list I might have lying around and move on. It didn’t quite turn out that way. Something profound happened to me in those 26.2 miles; something that, to this day, I still can’t fully put into words. It felt like a part of me that I didn’t even know had been missing was somehow restored. Something about the competitive camaraderie, the pain-tempered joy, and pushing myself harder than I thought possible, made me feel whole. I was hooked. And I have mom to thank for it.

Mom knows a thing or two about hard work, so much so, in fact, as to make marathon running and training look ridiculously easy by comparison. After years of shielding her children from an abusive alcoholic father, she finally mustered the strength to tell him to get the hell out in 1988. Raising four children on her own wasn’t much of an adjustment from raising us with him around and doing little to help, but it did require that she work two fulltime jobs, oftentimes still barely managing to pay the bills. It was another fulltime job coping with and trying to counter the hateful, racist, and all-around wrongheaded rhetoric my twin brother and I spouted like trained parrots following our weekends with dad. She knew the words where not the true feelings of her eight-year-old boys, but I cannot imagine how it must have hurt her to hear them. Such endless labor and tumult would have crushed a lesser person, but mom quietly and gracefully weathered the storm. In 1992 she was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer and given a 20-percent chance of surviving, she told the doctor she had four kids to raise, and that dying wasn’t an option. Like the day she told me I should run a marathon, she was right. Through everything, my sisters, brother, and I never went without, our Christmas tree was always miraculously surrounded by an army of presents, home-cooked meals constantly graced our table, and she was at every last Boy Scout meeting and camping trip my brother and I attended. I am humbled by the strength I saw in my mother while growing up, and awed by the thought of everything she went through that I didn’t see. To think that such a woman admires and respects what I have done as a runner is almost overwhelming.

Everyone’s mom tells them they are the most handsome boy in school, but not my mom. Well, okay, so far as I know, Mom does think I’m pretty handsome. What I mean to say is, if she didn’t, she certainly wouldn’t say or indicate otherwise. Mom is a straight shooter, and while she might come off as soft spoken and occasionally timid, she always gets her point across and rarely mixes words in doing so. When I succeed in setting a race goal, she is the first to congratulate me, and when a race doesn’t go as planned, she calmly says that she is still very proud of me and promptly leaves me alone to stew for a few minutes. She patiently listens to my obsessive post-race assessments and offers insight based on what she saw me doing right and what she saw me doing wrong during the race, whether my stride looked efficient, and whether I seemed to be hydrating properly. She doesn’t just stand on the curb jingling cowbells and cheering—she does, and it would perfectly fine if that were all she did—but she actually pays attention to the race and knows better than anyone else on earth just what I put into running and racing. Mom’s support means so much because it is so genuine.

As anyone who has followed my contributions to the San Francisco Marathon’s blog knows, I have occasionally made efforts to show my biggest fans how much I cherish their support, but no amount of Boston Marathon medals or flattering blog posts could possibly do justice to my level of gratitude. In three weeks, I will run my 35th marathon at the 2012 San Francisco Marathon, and, as she has been for every marathon and nearly every race since that March morning in Napa more than four years ago, Mom will be there. She is the reason I started running marathons, and is every bit as much the reason that I continue to do so today. Every time I lace up for a run, Mom’s words echo in my mind: “You should run a marathon, Charlie.” There wasn’t the slightest hint of doubt in her words, she seemed to just know that I could, and her confidence has given me strength for every race and every workout since.

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