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October 22, 2009

What a Relief!

The world of marathoning has been getting a lot of press recently – unfortunately, for nearly all the wrong reasons.

Most serious and tragic was the story this month of three runners who died in the same race – a nearly inexplicable occurrence, especially in the absence of severe heat or other extreme conditions. On a more lighthearted note, there was the “scandalous” disqualification of both the first- and second-place women’s winners of a marathon in Milwaukee: the first for drinking from a forbidden water bottle, and the second for wearing an iPod (yes, really).

Somewhere in between these extremes of tragic and ridiculous is one of the better marathon stories I’ve heard in quite a while, about a senior runner from Michigan who dealt with unusual adversity in just about the most admirable way you could imagine … and was almost immediately penalized for it. His tale (which is 100% true) is the subject of our most recent Monterey Herald column, which follows below.

Running Life 10/22/09 “What a Relief!”

When running towards an aid station in the final miles of a marathon, most runners are looking for similar things: fluids, energy gels, some uplifting words from the volunteers, and perhaps a little Vaseline for problem areas.

At this month’s Twin Cities Marathon, Jerry Johncock was looking for a urinary catheter.

According to the Minneapolis-St Paul Star-Tribune (original story is here), Johncock is an 81-year-old who has finished more than 100 marathons since taking up running at age 50. He also suffers periodically from blood clots that block his urinary tract. During the marathon, he recognized the painful condition happening again and stopped to ask for assistance at the mile 22 aid station. He had hydrated well, but his bladder was struggling, and he couldn’t relieve himself. The medical staff at the race told him they didn’t have the necessary equipment to assist him, and recommended that he drop out of the race and go to a hospital for treatment.

Jerry Johncock; photo from Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune

To nearly everyone’s surprise, a spectator in the crowd stepped up to say that he had a catheter in his car that the runner could borrow. The anonymous stranger retrieved it, the first aid worker helped insert it, and … problem solved! Johncock later called the Good Samaritan’s act “a gift from the Lord” in his time of need.

With his bladder freshly drained, Johncock was completely relieved and ready to roll. He ran strong to the finish, and even with the delay was able to win his men’s 80-84 age group (there were only two runners in the category, but still). At the Twin Cities Marathon, that honor carries a cash prize of $225.

Predictably, since nearly no good deed goes unpunished, when race officials heard of the incident they immediately suspended the official race results pending an investigation and consultation with USA Track and Field, the national governing body of road racing. They wanted to determine whether Johncock should be disqualified for violating race rules when he received the assistance.

From Twin Cities Marathon website

According to USATF rules, a competitor who receives assistance from any person aside from official medical staff may be disqualified. There was also a question of whether Johncock re-entered the course at the exact same location where he stepped off the road while using the catheter.

Fortunately, common sense prevailed – although it took four full days to get there – as Johncock’s time was allowed to stand. He collected his money and was declared the official age group winner. When the race director called him with the news, Johncock had no hard feelings – in fact, he said that he plans to return to the race next year.

If that happens, he said he’ll take one additional precaution: "I'll strap a catheter around my waist."

People say that marathon runners have to be tough, and willing to overcome whatever adversity they face on race day - and we've faced enough difficult extremes in marathon racing to appreciate just how challenging those rough moments can be. But in all our years of watching and participating in marathons, the toughness and determination shown by this octogenarian may be one of the most impressive displays we’ve ever heard of.

We know this story reads like satire but it’s absolutely true. It’s also a nice lesson on the positive attributes that years of marathon running can instill in someone. Our congrats go out to Mr Johncock for finishing his race, and we wish him many more in his future - although we hope the next one isn't quite so eventful.


Mark 10/23/09, 4:58 AM  

Great story! Man, that guy is tough!!

Fe-lady 10/23/09, 6:42 AM  

I am glad the race directors came to their senses....

Go Mr. Johncock! (Kinda funny that he has this name...) =)

Rick Gaston 10/23/09, 2:14 PM  

Crazy stuff but I'm glad it all worked out. What were the chances that there was someone right there with a catheter. Almost as incredible as having 3 runners in the 80-84 age group.

I was just going to write a post about the fatalities at the marathons lately. There were even two deaths at the San Jose Half. At Firetrails there was a runner who collapsed shortly after leaving an aid station. This guy was a veteran runner who suffered a heart attack. The next runner behind him was an EMT who started CPR, there was a paramedic who was pacing and another runner who was an EMT. They saved his life. A trail run has got to be one of the worst places to have a medical emergency. You know how it is, sometimes you are out in hard to access areas, even areas where there is no place for a helicopter to land and everything takes much longer.

Dori 10/26/09, 3:22 PM  

That's what's known as "Minnesota Nice."

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