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Sports Saturday - Gearing up to make a run Down Under

February 13, 1999|By KRIS GILLASPY / Staff Correspondent

Feet hitting the pavement make a steady sound as they trot out the miles of a daily training run along the C&O Canal towpath.

These feet are not only pounding out miles for the day's run, but are preparing for a journey many miles longer - 9,726 miles ... to Sydney, Australia.

It's a long road for Kristy Johnston. Getting this far has not always been a direct route, but a path with detours along the way.

Johnston is ranked first among American women in the marathon with a time of 2 hours, 33 minutes, 30 seconds. Her personal record is even faster - 2 hours, 29 minutes, 5 seconds. Johnston, 33, hopes to qualify for the women's marathon team for the 2000 Olympics.

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It's a journey she has taken before, in 1996. Going to the Olympic Trials, expecting that a first-place finish would give her a ticket to Atlanta, Johnston faced a bump in the road. She finished fifth, two places shy of an Olympic position. And that put her in the midst of her first detour.

But perseverance is a long-distance runner's fruit of the spirit. It grows out of the fertile soil of failure, from the seed of a dream and into the hopes of a runner's high.

The longer she's on the road, the more perseverance Johnston harvests to share with others.

"I'll tell you like I told my kids today," Johnston, an English teacher at Martinsburg South Middle School, said after a recent training run. "When I didn't reach that goal ('96 Olympics), I didn't pack up my stuff and say, 'I'm not going to play anymore.' Within minutes after the race, I reset my goals."

It would be easy to reset her goals just enough to get her through another few years of racing ... waiting, training, hoping to travel the Olympic road. That's the big dream, right? The ultimate destination. Johnston's vision, however, is more pure than gold.

"If I said five or six great races filled my whole running life, in 20 years that's a lot of down time,'' she said. "Sure, ultimately I see myself in Sydney. I see myself in the Olympics. I see myself wearing the uniform. But more important than the end result is the great things I get to do along the way. Everything is exciting to me."

Along the way, Johnston has picked up a degree from the University of Portland, as well as five NAIA All-American awards. She also earned a teaching degree from the University of Oregon.

Since then, her life has been filled with running.

The training demands have taken their toll on her body in various ways - through stress fractures in her feet, asthma and back strains. But these detours that sidetracked her training brought Johnston to a new plateau.

After she moved from Oregon to Shepherdstown, W.Va., Johnston decided it was time for a change.

"Running is a selfish sport. I felt it was time to give something back to people," she said.

Last September, Johnston rounded the bend in the road. While still training intensely for the marathon, Johnston began her first year of teaching.

Most mornings, she rises before dawn to run. Johnston then works a full day with rambunctious pubescent middle school kids, which is enough to send anyone running after a high of some kind. After school, she arrives home and is greeted by her husband and coach, Chris Fox, who welcomes her with a cup of coffee in one hand and her running shoes in the other. Soon after, they venture off to a second session of running, rain or shine.

Married for a little over a month, Fox and Johnston possess the rare chemistry that it takes to make the spouse-coach relationship work.

"For some people, it could be a strain,'' Johnston said. "We get along really well as friends. We both have the same philosophies about running and view it the same way. We know it's a gift ... and we try not to be obsessive about it."

Fox has had his time to be consumed with running. The six-time All-American is a graduate of Auburn University. He has competed on the national distance-running circuit, participating in the Olympic Trials at every opportunity.

Fox, 40, continues to compete in the master's division of distance races, although now he has put his own running secondary.

"Her running is first now,'' he said. "A few years ago, maybe mine was, but now she has a chance for the Olympics."

Fox is a source of inspiration for Johnston now, but there was another man who inspired her to give birth to her running dream - former Olympian and Oregon alumni Steve Prefontaine.

"I was in fourth grade when he died,'' she said. "From there, I just joined running clubs in the summer that were free and around where I lived."

Johnston will run this summer, on the roads of Shepherdstown. She will run with Fox. She will run with memories of telling her students to never give up. She will run with visions of Prefontaine's victories.

And she will run with perseverance, the only ticket that can take her to Sydney.

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