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Oldest woman in New York City Marathon dies hours after crossing finish line

By Lorenzo Ferrigno, CNN
November 6, 2013 -- Updated 1138 GMT (1938 HKT)
The start of the ING New York City Marathon on November 3, 2013 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.
The start of the ING New York City Marathon on November 3, 2013 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "This is the way she wanted to go," says the daughter of 86-year-old Joy Johnson
  • Sunday was her 25th appearance in the 26-mile New York Marathon
  • Johnson fell about six miles from the end race, but she kept going to finish
  • She appeared Monday on the "Today" show and was resting in her hotel when she died

New York (CNN) -- The oldest female contestant in the 2013 ING New York City Marathon died just hours after completing her 25th consecutive appearance at the race, her daughter says.

Eighty-six-year-old California resident Joy Johnson completed Sunday's race in just under eight hours. The following afternoon she was resting in her New York City hotel room and never woke up, her daughter Donna Graffis told CNN.

READ: New York City Marathon returns -- with revamped security

Around mile 20 of the 26.2-mile marathon, at close to 5 p.m., Johnson fell and hit her head, Graffis said. She was brought to the first aid tent, where responders suggested that she go to the hospital.

Graffis said that her mother -- who was able to speak coherently and with a clear head -- continued on, more determined than ever to finish the run.

Marathon dream interrupted by Sandy

Johnson finished with a time of 07:57:41, according to Chris Weiller, a spokesman for the New York Road Runners, the organization that puts on the marathon.

The following morning she ventured to NBC's "Today Show" with her sister, Faith Anderson, to talk to Al Roker, whom she called "her buddy" after more than a decade of yearly appearances on the show.

After her visit to the Rockefeller Center, Johnson headed back to the Roosevelt Hotel to rest. Around 3 p.m., her sister was not able to wake her up.

It is unclear what the exact cause of death was.

Though 2013 was not her best time, and nearly three hours more than the first time she ran the race in 1988 with a time of 4:22:59, she was very happy to have finished, Graffis says.

She was one of 18 octogenarians in this year's race, and one of only four women in that age group, according to Weiller. Johnson was also the oldest female in the 2011 marathon, and won her age group a total of six times over the past quarter century.

"We are going to miss her and she was an inspiration," Weiller said. "For 25 years she has been lining up and finishing, and in 2014 it won't be the same without her."

Johnson, who was born in Minnesota, moved in her 20s to California, where she became a physical education teacher and track and volleyball coach, Graffis said. It was not until after retiring in her mid-50s that she picked up distance running. Graffis called her mother "an inspiration to everyone that you can start something at that point in your life."

At home, Johnson ran with what she called the "Willow Glen Track Pack," her daughter said. The group is named after the neighborhood she lived in in San Jose, California.

She liked to jokingly call the other octogenarians in her age group "whipper-snappers."

Graffis said that Johnson loved running, her family and her faith.

"We're all stunned and sad but in a way, when you talk to a lot of people who knew her, this is the way she wanted to go," Graffis said. "A little bit of us is smiling, because we know she is very happy. The only thing is, she would have liked to keep running, pass her running shoes on."

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