Mike Johnson Survives Boston Marathon to Run Another Day

A baker's dozen marathons

The Boston Marathon, America’s oldest and most prestigious 26.2-mile race, will never be the same. Exactly one week ago, on Monday, April 15 – Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts – the 117th running of the Boston Marathon was halted by the explosion of two homemade bombs placed near the finish line. Three people died in the blasts, and news reports say that more than 170 others were injured.

Mike Johnson ’90, who was featured in the Newsroom in February for running 12 marathons in 12 months, was at Boston running. He was just a short jog from the finish line when the bombs went off.

“There’s 27,000 people who ran Boston,” Johnson said in an interview Saturday.” There’s 27,000 stories of what happened to them on that day. Some of them are really tragic, and some of them are amazing.”

Telling his personal story, Johnson, a Stillwater resident, recalled the emotion of the day and the emotion he feels now talking about the race, what happened, and what could have happened.

The morning of the race he posted via telephone this Facebook note: “I’ll be happy if I finish, and I know I’m going to finish.”

He didn’t realize, of course, what the day held in store, but he knew this: He wasn’t going to run fast. Not fully recovered from his 12-marathon trek, he knew he wouldn’t record a fast time, so his mind-set was to just enjoy the spectacle and finish what would be his baker’s dozen marathons.

Weather that morning was “perfect,” Johnson recalled. “Beautiful day. No wind. Sunny. Cool. Forty degrees. It was a little bit cool but not too bad.” Among the 27,000 runners in the race, he was seeded 9,300, based on his qualifying time of 3:19:45 recorded at the Houston Marathon in January 2012.

Mike Johnson at Cheers

Two iconic images of Boston ... the "Cheers" bar and a Boston Marathon running jacket, and Mike Johnson on a happier day before the Boston Marathon. The "Cheers" bar, formerly the Bull & Finch Pub and now Cheers Beacon Hill, is well-known as the exterior of the bar in the television sitcom "Cheers," which ran from 1982 to 1993.

He never made it to the finish line. Johnson estimated that over the last 10K, he probably walked half of it, and if he had walked a quarter of it instead, he would have been near the finish line when the bombs went off

“I was at about the 25.7- or 25.8-mile mark – not quite to 26 miles. I had gone through the 40K mark, so I ended up being stopped about a half mile before the finish line,” Johnson said.

Runners about 100 yards in front of him had been stopped by a race official and were milling around. He didn’t know why.

“But there was conversation on the side,” Johnson said. “People who were cheering said they heard two explosions. It was a road similar to Summit Avenue, where we were running on one side of the road, and there’s a big middle boulevard with trees, and on the other side was another part of the road. There were police and ambulances and sheriffs and all these big cars – big black Suburbans with sirens – going down the road 70 miles an hour, sirens blaring.”

He did not hear the explosions, and he could not see the finish line. He borrowed a phone and called his wife, Zanny, to let her know he was safe. She was home in Stillwater and had not heard about the bomb blasts.

The scene a half mile from the finish line was chaotic and emotional. “I was around a lot of people who were bawling – that were just hysterical, because they were about to finish a marathon and their families were there waiting at the finish line. And they couldn’t get a hold of them. That unknown, really, was the most horrifying part for us, where we were at,” Johnson said.

“I got emotional thinking that this person who is sitting right next to me – that her family is not OK,” he added. “And they were just there to watch somebody run a race. You know, this isn’t a political thing. It isn’t military at all. They were just there watching an event.”

With the race stopped and no race official or police officer nearby, the runners talked to each other, wondering what to do. No one had an answer.

“The more time went by the more I realized that we’re not going to get close to the finish line. It wasn’t a pause in the race. The race was done,” said Johnson, who has run 20 marathons. It was the first one that he started that he did not finish.

Cold now, with no phone and no warm clothes to put on, he decided to walk back to his hotel. It took 40 minutes.

The ensuing manhunt for the bombers ended late last week with the death of one of the suspected bombers and the capture of the second suspected bomber. “I’m glad they caught him alive,” Johnson commented. “I hope there is some closure around why. I don’t know if they will actually get to that point. Whatever the answer is, I don’t think it’ll make sense.”

“I found myself being extremely emotional when I would watch television,” he added. “Again, I wasn’t at the finish line. I didn’t see the explosions. I don’t know anybody personally who was injured. … But I was part of the event, so it has a different pull on my heart than if I wasn’t there.”

Johnson has been amazed at the outpouring of support and caring he has received, especially on Facebook and through text messages and voice mail.

“It’s been kind of overwhelming,” Johnson remarked. “I feel like I’m treated like a hero, but I didn’t do anything. Really, I didn’t do a thing.”

But survive … to run another day.