NASCAR & Auto Racing

At first, Jimmie Johnson had lofty Boston Marathon goals. Why did he lower the bar?

Jimmie Johnson — pictured at right with his coach, Jamey Yon — is running his first marathon on Monday, in Boston.
Jimmie Johnson — pictured at right with his coach, Jamey Yon — is running his first marathon on Monday, in Boston. Courtesy of Jimmie Johnson Racing

When Jimmie Johnson initially decided to run the Boston Marathon this year, he set the type of goal that you might expect from a guy who has won more NASCAR Cup Series championships than anyone except Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

That is to say: He set an extremely aggressive one.

But with the world’s most famous footrace now just days away and all of his training in the bank, Johnson — who has never run a marathon before, and who will be going pedal to the metal in his Camaro at Richmond Raceway two nights before Boston — is no longer feeling particularly confident about covering the 26.2-mile course in less than three hours.

“I know the chances are very low that I’ll break that sub-3,” says Johnson, who’ll be among approximately 30,000 participants in Monday’s event. “But I personally needed that goal to help me with my commitment to this. ... That’s just the way I’m wired. You know, to put in the speedwork at the effort I needed to, to get up at 5 o’clock to make a 5:30 run session — I have to have something that holds me accountable.”

Now, if you don’t know anything about marathons, your eyes might be glazing over a little; so here’s a succinct way to explain the pursuit of the “sub-3” goal Johnson is referring to, courtesy of a 2012 column by former Runner’s World magazine writer Mark Remy: “Running a marathon is hard. Doing it in less than 3 hours is really hard. No, I mean hard. Like, really freaking hard.”

At the same time, anyone who’s familiar with Johnson probably knows that 1) the No. 48 driver has had a years-long love affair with running (as well as swimming and, particularly, biking — he did his first triathlon in Charleston, S.C., in 2012, and a half Iron-distance event in 2015, among other events); and 2) he’s no slouch as a runner: Johnson ran a half marathon five years ago in 1 hour, 28 minutes and 16 seconds (the third-fastest time out of 79 men aged 35 to 39).

During separate phone calls with the Observer, Johnson and his longtime coach Jamey Yon of Charlotte talked about goal-setting and training regimens, of course. But they also fielded burning questions that running enthusiasts haven’t seen answers to in other interviews with the star driver — everything from how he feels about getting into the prestigious race without qualifying to what brand of shoes he’s planning to wear.

Johnson is suddenly the senior statesman of the Hendrick team

Here are the key things we learned:

1. Johnson has had his eye on Boston since April 2013, just a few months after he completed his first half marathon in Daytona Beach, Fla. (where he finished in 1:29:48). “We raced on a Saturday night in Texas then, and I was sitting there on the couch and the marathon came on, and I thought, ‘Man, I could have made this!’” he says. “Then the bombing happened, and I was hopeful that I could do it that following year and experience the Boston Strong movement. Sadly, the NASCAR schedule shifted and my opportunity wasn’t there, so I’d been looking at it since ... waiting for a Saturday night race leading into Boston.” (The marathon always falls on the third Monday in April, coinciding with Patriots’ Day, a Massachusetts state holiday.) This is the first year since the bombing that NASCAR has not been racing the night before the Boston Marathon; the Toyota Owners 400 starts at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, about 39 hours before the start of the marathon.

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Jimmie Johnson races to the finish line of his first half marathon, in Daytona Beach, Fla., on Feb. 17, 2013. Nigel Cook The AP via the Daytona Beach News-Journal

2. Though he got into the race via an exemption from Gatorade, a longtime personal sponsor, he had a strong desire to qualify for Boston the old-fashioned way. It just wasn’t practical, he says. NASCAR’s season starts in February and ends in November every year, and with a few exceptions, there’s a race every weekend during that long stretch. Most of the races are on Sunday, and drivers have plenty of obligations to keep them busy at the track the day before, making running a marathon tough since virtually all marathons are hosted on Saturdays or Sundays. The one that falls in the sweet spot during the NASCAR offseason, he says — and that might not otherwise interfere with the holidays — is the Kiawah Island Marathon, which falls on the second Saturday of December. Unfortunately, “Kiawah’s on my wedding anniversary (he married his wife Chandra on Dec. 11, 2004), and I’ve not been able to fool my wife or convince her that Kiawah’s where we need to be for her to let me run that to qualify,” Johnson says, chuckling.

“I would love to have the chance to qualify and get a marathon under my belt before going into arguably one of the toughest marathons out there. Like, I’m coming in with zero experience, so I would prefer to go that route. ... I’m sure there are some runners that have heartburn over the sponsor exempts. But it’s the way it is. I mean, they’re all there, somebody’s gonna be in the spot — and I feel like I’m bringing an added twist to the marathon. I’ve made myself available to the AP, to the Boston Globe, to Runner’s World, I’ve been on Bob Babbitt’s podcast ... I feel like I’m doing goodwill for the event as well. And then there’s always that charity piece.” (Gatorade will be making a donation to the Jimmie Johnson Foundation to recognize his efforts in Boston.)

It’s worth noting that, as a 43-year-old man, Johnson would have needed to post a time of 3:10:08 or faster in a Boston-qualifier marathon in order to be eligible for traditional registration this year. It’s also worth noting that there’s a long history of celebrities running Boston; the list of those who ran without qualifying includes actors Will Ferrell, Mario Lopez and Valerie Bertinelli.

3. Running sub-3 wasn’t the only big goal Johnson made public when he announced he would be running Boston — he also initially said he intended to try to run as many as 100 miles a week during peak training. “Just the way my mind works, I’m like, ‘Alright, Jamey’” — again, that’d be his coach, Jamey Yon — “‘what did you do when you were training for your marathons?’ And swimming was kind of a cornerstone as well for him, and then hundred-mile runs. So instantly, in my head, I’m like, ‘Great! I’m gonna swim all the time and I’m gonna try to get to a hundred.’ I realized I just — at least right now — I’m not capable of that,” he says, laughing. “I learned that quick. Down the road, I’d love to run more marathons if the opportunity works out, and maybe I can grow into that. But I did not have that option this go-around.” Johnson concedes, by the way, that a key part of what drives him to set goals that might seem crazy to others is the kind of go-big-or-go-home attitude that got him to the top of the NASCAR heap. “Without a doubt. When I mentally commit to something, I don’t have another way to go about it. I just lock in on it.” Adds Yon: “He likes to put pressure on himself like that, so — which is weird. Ha. I’m a sandbagger. He’s not a sandbagger.”

4. Every time Johnson got up over 80 miles in a single week of training, he says, something went wrong. “I had a calf issue that wasn’t very long-lasting, thankfully. I had an SI joint (issue). Then the one that really slowed me down was my IT band. I finally had some dry-needling done after three weeks of limping around, and shortened runs and slower pace — and the dry-needling cleaned it up instantly. So that was awesome. Then I ran 80 again and I caught a cold out in Las Vegas, and couldn’t do anything for seven days. That one really was hard on me mentally.”

5. He ran a 1:34:18 half marathon in Daytona Beach this past February ... which may have seemed curious to some, considering his sub-3 goal would require him to run at a faster pace for twice as long. But Yon explains that Johnson didn’t taper for that race, and was running on tired legs. According to his activity log on the social fitness network Strava, Johnson ran 54 miles in the seven days before racing at Daytona — and earlier that week, he twice noted his IT band issues.

6. But he says his training has been good overall. According to Strava, he has logged six 20-mile training runs since January. “I love the challenge, and watching my ability change and the mileage and the speed. Then also learning you’re gonna have good days and bad days. You just start your run, you get a couple miles in, and see if you can hit the pace that was desired — and if not, pull it back and just log some miles. So it was an interesting journey. I mean, I’ve certainly learned a lot more about running, and without a doubt have a greater respect for runners and the wear and tear and abuse the body takes.”

Jamey Yon rides alongside Jimmie Johnson at Charlotte’s Freedom Park. Yon has been coaching Johnson since 2012. Courtesy of Jimmie Johnson Racing

7. While most Boston marathoners will be taking it easy this weekend, Johnson has that Saturday-night race in Richmond, Va., to deal with before he can really, fully focus on Monday’s event. “To add to the goal that I have, I’m gonna be in that race car on Saturday night ... at a strong aerobic rate for 3-1/2 hours. I’m not sure what toll that’s gonna have on me going into Boston, and I know no coach would suggest a strong aerobic workout two days prior to the marathon. So we’ll see what that does.” Asked how he typically feels the day after a car race, he says “a lot of it depends on the track, and heat plays a big role. Richmond is probably in the top five for physical exertion. I know the day after I’m usually pretty tight — lower back, my glutes, my hamstrings, some upper-body stuff, which won’t necessarily play a big role. ... I seem to loosen up and feel good on the second day.”

8. So here’s his plan for those 36 hours between the end of the race in Richmond and the beginning of the race in Boston: “If we don’t have weather or any other issues, it should finish 10, 10:30. I’ll travel that night to Boston, so obviously get in late. Sleep the best that I can. And I’ve got a few things to do during the day on Sunday. I might have an opportunity to go drive the course. I’d like to get my eyes on it, if I could, just to know what I’m getting into, and then just get my feet up and hydrate and carb up the rest of the time. ... I’ll spend a lot of time stretching, and try to do some different (recovery methods). I’ll take my NormaTec boots. And I’ve done some research on the hotel I’m staying in — it looks like they have some cold plunge pools, so we can go for a little trot and jump in the cold plunge pool. So I’m gonna work through some tricks that I’m aware of to help flush lactid acid and speed up recovery, and clearly hope for the best.”

9. He’s aware, by the way, that someone in town is hosting a pool on Facebook to see who can come closest to predicting his finish time at Boston. “Ha, it’s hilarious. ... I guess I’m kind of used to it with the car-racing side and betting, and now that betting’s legal and all that stuff. So it’s cool. I’m excited people are interested and paying attention, especially in our Charlotte area.”

10. Johnson is lining up for the Boston Marathon in Wave 2 (out of four), which goes off at 10:25 a.m., and will be wearing Bib No. 4848. (No. 48 was already taken, by elite runner Jonathan Mott.) He’ll also be wearing a pair of Adidas Tempos, in case you were wondering about his shoe of choice. Once the starting gun goes off, it’ll become evident over the course of a few short hours how well it all came together in the planning, and how well it played out in the execution. “I think he’s OK with not hitting that (sub-3) goal,” says his coach, Yon. “I’d love for him to not make any huge mistakes and crash and burn. So I’d love to see him go under 3:10. I’d be happy with that. I don’t know if he’ll be happy with that. I mean, ultimately, there’s that 3-hour barrier that just sounds good. But you’ve gotta be fit enough, and you have to have the right course to do the best that you can do. So I’m not sure he can get that close with this course, and it being his first marathon. I just don’t know. ... My prayer is that he doesn’t go the 9-minute pace the last six miles and just crawl home.”

Can the athlete heed the coach’s warnings? Johnson says yes. “I’m trying to tell myself, mentally, to be sure to enjoy the day. I don’t want to get caught up in the excitement early. I think we’ve all heard about all the Boston stories of going out too hot, with the downhill start and all that kind of stuff. So I want to run conservative, run smart in the beginning, and then really try to have a strong finish and empty the tank at the finish.” Ultimately, he says, “I feel like a good goal for me would be to average a 7-minute mile.” (If he could do that, he’d finish in the vicinity of 3:04.) Then again — and here comes that go-big-or-go-home part of his personality: “If I have the perfect day, maybe I can break that sub-3...”

Johnson says he already wants to run the marathon again. Next year is out, though, because NASCAR’s 2020 schedule calls for a race the night before Boston. His contract with Hendrick Motorsports has him locked in for two more years, and it’s possible he’ll re-up.

“So I don’t know when I’ll be able to run a marathon again,” he says. “And a lot of that led to the mindset of, ‘I don’t see it in the immediate future, so hell, I’m all in.’

“We’ll see what the clock says.”

Théoden Janes has spent 12 years covering entertainment and pop culture for the Observer. He also thrives on telling emotive long-form stories about extraordinary Charlotteans and — as a veteran of 20-plus marathons and two Ironman triathlons — occasionally writes about endurance and other sports.