Full Cycle - Larry Johnson, 94, Albuquerque, New Mexico
When he turned 90, Larry Johnson's grandson challenged him to ride his bike 90 miles to celebrate. Not only did he accept the challenge, he made it an even 100 miles and staged the ride on a spin cycle at his gym in Albuquerque. Now 94, the gregarious National Senior Games medalist has duplicated the feat annually, and has inspired others to fill all the cycles at the gym and pedal along for his "birthday spin."
It's hard to believe his grandson would even think of such a proposition, but Larry has maintained his health and fitness in a methodical manner for most of his life. He's proud he takes no medications and still retains all of his teeth. Considering he was a mechanics instructor and a flight engineer during World War II and then pursued a 38 year career as an Atomic Age mechanical engineer designing, building and testing nuclear bomb casings and components, it's easy to understand his fastidious attention to detail.
While he counts his blessings for avoiding major health issues, Larry has not been without obstacles in recent years, including the loss of his wife of 68 years, and suffering a hip fracture that kept him from going to the 2013 National Senior Games Presented by Humana. Having grown up on a farm just outside of Cleveland where the games were hosted, not competing in his birth state was a bitter pill to swallow.
Either of these events might have derailed him. However, Larry Johnson possesses a Personal Best attitude to overcome and persevere. He continues to do the things that have helped him stay healthy, and he derives energy and support from the social connections his fitness and sport activities bring to him. We have little doubt he will be cycling 100 miles on his 100th birthday.
So, let's start by asking about that 100 mile birthday ride you do every year.
As my 90th birthday approached, one of my grandsons suggested that I ride 90 miles on my bike. I was hesitant to make that ride outdoors in the unpredictable early spring New Mexico weather, so I spoke with one of my spin instructors at the gym who is also a longtime family friend, and we decided to do a 90 mile ride in the spin room. We set aside four hours for it and I finished early. I thought “well heck, we have 30 minutes, let’s just go to 100”. It’s now an annual event in early April where other members of our spin class join me to do the 100 mile birthday spin. There’s 35 bikes in that room and we actually have a waiting list now for people of all ages to get in. Many of them haven't gone for that long before and say they are amazed they can do it.
Perhaps they know how embarrassed they will be if they can’t keep up with the old man.
(Hearty laughter) That might be the motivation for some, but I’ve built such lasting friendships in this class. They have supported me on so many levels, and their presence each year at this event means a lot to me.
Let's go all the way back. Have you always been athletic?
I grew up as a farm boy near Litchfield Ohio, about 20 miles outside of Cleveland. My parents had a strong work ethic.
During the Depression we were poor but we didn’t know it. We raised our own animals and had a garden. We ate fresh foods in season and mom canned stuff for wintertime. Talk about an active and organic life, that’s what my first 21 years were like.
I went to a small rural school and I played some baseball -- we didn’t have football, cross country or a track team. When I enlisted into the armed forces, I was stationed in Texas and played some handball. After that, I was a bit of a gym rat as an adult. As I approached my 50th birthday I thought I was getting a little out of shape. The city had begun constructing an extensive network of shared biking and walking trails, and one was very near our home. So I started running and I clicked on that pretty good.
Shortly thereafter, Frank Shorter won the Olympic marathon in 1972 in Munich. The running boom really took off in this country and it was a big inspiration for me. Frank lived up in Taos and I got to know him a bit. My first marathon was a local one in 1973. I’ve done about 24 of them. Some of the early local ones were very low key and unofficial – we just got some folks together and did it. We called ourselves the Albuquerque Road Runners. After my youngest son Phil married in 1981, his wife Janelle would travel with my wife Billie and me to run the Fiesta Bowl Marathon, which we did together for three or four years. In 1989, we ran the Boston Marathon. Janelle’s brother, who was friends with one of the promoters, arranged for me to meet Johnny Kelly and his wife. Johnny was still running the full marathon at 82 – what a motivator he was for so many of us who were senior athletes. My fondest marathon memories, however, were fostered right here in Albuquerque at the annual Duke City Marathon & Half Marathon event. There are far too many memories to share here, but my favorite was in the fall of 2000 when I crossed the finished line with Janelle and my youngest grandson Jay Kory, who was 12 years old.
Another inspiration has been Dr. Walter Bortz. He’s a cardiologist out of Stanford Medical Center and a big advocate for senior fitness. A couple of his books I like are “We Live Too Short and Die Too Long” and “Dare To Be 100.” He used to do a 50 plus 8K run around the Stanford campus each year. I ran with him in that for about three years in a row. Then I got focused on New Mexico Senior Olympics and going to the National Senior Games.
Around that time I started doing triathlons and enjoyed the cycling phase. A few years later, I underwent ACL surgery and it took me off running for six months, so that was when I really got serious about cycling. I found that cycling was just more fun. Sometimes running feels like I'm slogging along. On a bike I really feel like I’m moving and I get zoned in and enjoy it greatly.
Being in New Mexico it must be a bonus to create a breeze for yourself too!
When the humidity is below 10 percent, you can sweat a lot and dry off fast. It’s like an air conditioner keeping you cool.
We hear you have been going to the National Senior Games since they started.
In 1987 I was curious, so I drove to St. Louis to find out what it was all about. I didn’t compete but I was there, and came back two years later as a runner. It was a rewarding experience, but the 5K & 10K distances were a challenge as my long distance pace was a consistent 8-minute mile, whether I was competing in a marathon or a 5K. I don’t have those fast twitch muscles. I got place ribbons but not many medals in running.
I won my first Gold Medal in triathlon in Baton Rouge in 1993. I won two Gold and one Silver in cycling in the same year. Overall in National Senior Games competition I’ve been fortunate to earn 24 Gold, four Silver and two Bronze. I'm most proud of the early ones because there was a lot of talented competitors in the lower age levels. So, I’ve gone to every Nationals except the one that was near my home town just outside of Cleveland!
We were wondering what happened to you last year.
I had hotel reservations and paid my registration. But three weeks before I was to leave I fell off my damn bicycle. I went over the handlebars on a training ride and fractured my right hip. The ball and femur were good, but there were two cracks between the pelvis and the socket. When I did it I wasn’t too far from home and thought I could get back on and punch it through with one leg but I couldn’t swing it over the seat. (Pause) It was a real disappointment, as I had some family members still in the Cleveland area who were all planning to attend.
Was there a point where you thought “That’s it. I’m done”?
No. My first thought was maybe I can get back up and make it to Cleveland. But when it hurt so bad I couldn’t even put my toe on the ground, well that convinced me this was serious. But I am so blessed to have all four of our children living near me, and their collective care and good cheer never allowed me to experience doubt. I was back in spin class in six weeks, and my fellow spinners dropped in to check on me frequently during my recovery. I survived, and I'm planning on seeing everyone at the next one.
Sounds like you enjoy the company of others in your activities.
Oh yes. The social aspect of life helps get me up every day. I was married for 68 years and lost my dear wife and "pit crew" four years ago. My oldest daughter Jerri lost her husband the same year, and later came to live with me in our four bedroom home where she grew up. That's worked out pretty good for both of us. I’m very grateful for her steadfast love and care.
I have forged many close friendships at National Senior Games. There’s a fella I know well named John Taylor from Georgia who's a pretty good talker. I think he was a preacher once. (Laughs) I spoke to him after I missed last year and he joked he was happy that I didn’t go to Cleveland. He told me “I’ve been hoping you’d break your leg, but I didn’t have anything to do with you fracturing your hip.” (Laughs)
My daughter Judy has accompanied her mother and me to several state and national games through the years, and she's really looking forward to joining me next year at the national games – she’s a tremendous support during my competitions and enjoys the social side of the games as well.
Also, when I go to the gym there’s all these ladies who think I’m a ‘chick magnet’ and they’re always wondering what I’m doing. Everybody cheers me on. I gotta keep that social part of it going for me. It's a motivating factor to keep at it.
Of course, the bottom line is that this is really about keeping fit and healthy, isn’t it?
Absolutely. We all need to practice wellness – keep moving, keep stretching and stay limber.
One other activity I still enjoy is alpine skiing. I’ve skied all around Colorado and northern New Mexico, and served thirty years on the Sandia Peak Ski Patrol, which is a volunteer organization. I still enjoy skiing with my son Phil and his family at Sandia Peak. My great-grandson Louis will be two this winter and I’m hoping that maybe we’ll soon have four generations together on the slopes. At present, Phil is the only runner among my four children. He’s run a couple of marathons in recent years, but his passion is snow and water skiing.
What is your exercise routine now?
I engage in some form of physical activity six days a week. On Mondays and Wednesdays, I work out my upper body, and then I’ll go out and walk on a trail for a couple miles. When the weather’s nice I don’t see any point in using a treadmill. On Fridays I am at the gym, participating in either a program called Body Pump, and sometimes I do Pilates or yoga. Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday I have my spin classes. Weather permitting, I sometimes go cycling outside. But I’ve found I can train nearly as well indoors at spin class, working up a good sweat and enjoying the fun and fellowship with the friends I’ve made there. Riding on a spin cycle doesn’t help with keeping my balance, but at the same time I don’t have to worry about watching out for traffic. While there is an abundance of good cycling trails in Albuquerque, there are still some very busy intersections to cross.
What about your nutrition?
I’ve always eaten well. I can’t remember the last time I ate at a fast food joint. I don’t eat any processed meat, mostly chicken and fish. Every once in awhile I’ll eat a steak if someone’s having a cookout. I do like my New Mexican food though - chicken enchiladas and lots of green chile.
I’ve been doing more blender concoctions the past few years. For breakfast I’ll combine a cup of kefir or rice milk, a banana, some flax seed and maybe some sliced pineapple, berries or watermelon with a dollop of honey. I’ll drink three quarters of that and then for lunch I’ll add some veggies to it- kale, spinach, mushrooms and the like. We fix something warm for the evening meal or eat out.
So, what would your advice be to people to get up off the couch?
A lot of it is a mindset. You’ve got to appreciate your body for the wonderful machine that it is and you just gotta keep it working. I like to tell people to compare it to your car. You have to take care of it to keep it going. You change the oil, get new tires and a battery, you clean the upholstery if you spill something on it. It’s the same way with your body. You’ve got to feed it well, exercise it, work up a sweat and get your heart rate up. Keep your mind going. If you park your car in the garage and don’t run it the first thing you know the tires go flat and the battery is dead. You have high tech parts, so get some high tech things for your body. Get on the Internet, your email, your cell phone. Find solutions, put a smile on your face and have a social life.
That is spoken like a true mechanical engineer.
I guess that’s right! (Extended laughter)