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After year of disappointments, ultrarunner Johnston readies for Iditarod Invitational

Clark Fair
Dave Johnston begins the Susitna 100 Saturday, February 15, 2014.
Mary Steiert
David Johnston Jr. accompanies his dad on the last few yards of the Susitna 100 in 2012. Photo by Yvonne Leutwyler
Yvonne Leutwyler
David Johnston, pictured after completing the Susitna 100 in 2011. Photo courtesy David Johnston
David Johnston on the move in Susitna 100 in 2012. Johnston will take another run at beating the record at 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational this week. Photo by Yvonne Leutwyler
Yvonne Leutwyler

In last year's punishing 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational, ultrarunner David Johnston endured sleep deprivation and hallucinations, nausea and diarrhea, sinus problems and a strained right knee. The soles of his feet were numb when he crossed the finish line, and the numbness persisted for more than a week afterward.

He also won the foot division, finishing in 4 days, 19 hours, 13 minutes -- more than 37 hours ahead of his closest competitor.

"To compete and try to be the best at something -- it's an addiction, a bad drug," Johnston said. "Even when you get an awful dose that right near kills you, you seek more."

Johnston arrived in McGrath 4 hours and 13 minutes short of Steve Reienstuhl's record of 4 days, 15 hours set in 2005. Before Johnston's effort, experts like Juneau ultrarunner Geoff Roes had believed the record was unbreakable -- Roes once assessed Reifenstuhl's winning effort as essentially that of a "maniac," believing that no one "would ever make a serious attempt at doing this race faster."

Reifenstuhl himself, nearly crippled by badly blistered feet when he crossed the finish line in that race, has never come within 20 hours of his record.

But Johnston, powered on the trail by a strangely effective mixture of snack foods (Smarties, Frosted Blueberry Pop Tarts), Budweiser and an occasional checkpoint meal, finished strong. With his waist-length blond ponytail hanging down his back, he was smiling and still energetic when he reached McGrath.

It was only in the months after the race that Johnston began to realize that his feat may have exacted a heavier toll than he had first believed.

In subsequent races, Johnston said, his body failed to respond the way it did before. The 43-year-old Willow runner called his attempts at marathons and other ultraruns "horrible." He clocked almost a minute-per-mile slower in those races, which included his eighth consecutive Boston Marathon and the 40-miler at the Equinox in Fairbanks.

Last summer, he failed to complete the Resurrection Pass 100-miler, a race he had won three consecutive years. And last month he had to drop out at mile 60 of the grueling H.U.R.T. 100-miler in Hawaii when his legs grew wobbly and he nearly passed out.

Fighting back against these disappointing performances, Johnston increased the intensity of his pre-Iditarod Trail training. For the last month, regardless of weather and conditions, he put in 80 miles of trail work a week -- 10 miles per day for six days, plus 20 miles on the seventh -- all while pulling a 35-pound sled. He also ground out 300 sit-ups a day to tighten his core musculature and prepare for tugging the sled harness during the race.

Last weekend, the training paid off. He handily won the Susitna 100-miler, finishing in 18 hours, 22 minutes and smashing Roes' 2007 record of 21 hours, 43 minutes.

On Facebook a few hours after the race, Johnston posted: "I ran as hard as I possibly could and am very beat-up. Still can't hold down food or feel my feet."

Johnston's move to ultra-endurance runs began after his move from North Carolina to Alaska in 1995, but his love of running began in 1976.

"My dad started running when 'Rocky' came out," Johnston said. "He started jogging up and down the neighborhood road. He wore the gray bottoms, the gray top. I always wanted to do what my dad did, so I started tagging along for a little ways."

Johnston was 6 years old at the time. By age 8, he had run his first 5-K. He ran high school track and cross-country, competed in half-marathons, and did 20-mile training runs. At age 22, he entered his first marathon.

Johnston's first ultra-distance effort came in February 2006, about a month before his 36th birthday. He had competed in at least 20 marathons by then. Now, he has completed nine 100-milers. And in 2012, he and wife Andrea Hambach completed the Iditarod Trail Invitational together in miserable weather and difficult trail conditions, crossing the finish line in 8 days, 17 hours, and 47 minutes.

In all but one of these ultra-distance races, Johnston got sick to his stomach. "If it's after 26 miles, my body doesn't like it," he said. In 2012 on the Resurrection Pass 100, he became so ill that he was staggering off the sides of the trail and puked on his shoes.

Johnston's strategy is to simply run through the nausea. "You've just gotta put up with 6 hours or so of being deathly ill," he said. "But it's weird: When you snap out of it, you snap out of it instantly. You feel like a new person."

In addition to queasiness, Johnston has learned to battle pain.

Climbing high on 6,100-foot Mat Peak in January 2011 with his training partner, veteran ultrarunner Jeff Arndt, Johnston slipped, careening down at least a thousand vertical feet of snow and rocks. The steep terrain abraded his skin, especially on his face, hands and hips. His nose was broken. His hat and gloves were torn away. His clothing was ripped open. He wrenched an ankle and twisted his neck.

When Arndt finally reached Johnston, he peered down at his blood-splattered friend and said, "I thought you were dead." Somehow, with Arndt supporting him, Johnston hobbled the rest of the way to the parking lot.

A fast healer, Johnston was running again in about a week. Although his neck injury forced him to turn his entire upper body to see what was behind him, he competed in the Susitna 100-miler a month later.

In last year's Iditarod Trail Invitational, Johnston's experience dealing with discomfort saw him through a demoralizing episode while trying to sleep at the Finger Lake checkpoint.

"I went in and lay down and woke up a couple hours later and was just sick as a dog," he said. "I involuntarily crapped my pants."

After creeping through the sub-zero night to clean up in the outhouse, he nearly gave up.

"This is where I fell apart," he said. "I seriously thought about quitting. When I left Finger Lake, I left as an animal. When I strapped my sled on and headed toward Rainy Pass, I had changed as a person. It was that bad.

"... There were two or three times in the race where I had to tell myself, 'Don't cry, Dave. You can cry at the end.' I would make myself not cry because I knew that if I did, it was over with as far as the intensity."

Yet Johnston did not cry at the end. Not at first.

About four hours later, while he was relaxing with some hot food and a cold beer, Hambach arrived unannounced, and the emotions overwhelmed him. "I see her walk up on the finish-line porch, and that's when I let it all out," he said. "I started bawling. In front of all the people."

In this year's Iditarod Invitational, which starts Sunday, Johnston hopes he is ready for whatever comes his way. Since his last year's race, he and Hambach have had a baby and their Willow Running Company has directed seven races, but he has maintained a focus on his three goals for the race: "Win, course record and live."

Daily News correspondent