The weekend of April 13-15 will present one of the most challenging physical feats ever achieved by NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.
On Saturday, April 13, Johnson will race the Toyota Owners 400 at the Richmond Raceway with a 7:30 p.m. start. Less than 48 hours later, the seven-time NASCAR champion will compete in an entirely different challenge when he lines up for his first 26.2-mile race at the Boston Marathon.
Inspired by the cityâs âBoston Strongâ response to the 2013 bombings at the finish line, Johnson knew on the day of the tragedy that he wanted to complete the oldest annual marathon at some point. One snag from making this happen is the typical NASCAR racing schedule. Knowing the rigors a NASCAR race has on his bodyâmost of them taking place on Sundaysâhe knew at minimum he would need 24 hours of recovery time before he could really compete on Patriotsâ Day (the third Monday of April in Massachusetts). But this year, the NASCAR schedule lined up perfectly with its Saturday-night race to allow him the chance to finally run Boston.
While April 15 will mark Johnsonâs debut over 26.2, the race is far from his first endurance test. As Johnson continues to dominate on the race track, he also pushes his physical limits as an avid triathlete, cyclist, and runner. He regularly competes in Ironman triathlonsâin 2015 he finished 15th overall at the HITS Naples half-iron distance triathlon despite getting lost. He is an ambassador for PeopleForBikes, an advocacy organization that raises awareness for cycling safety. And he has competed in several half marathons over the years, including his most recent performance at the Daytona Beach Half Marathon in February. (He ran a 1:34, which was good enough for 15th place.)
With the same committed enthusiasm that earned him legendary status on the race track, Johnson, 43, has devoted himself to the goal of running under three hours for his first marathon. In a conversation with Runnerâs World about two weeks before the Boston Marathon, Johnson outlined his training for the distance, how he manages his NASCAR racing schedule with 80-mile running weeks, and the hill workout that he loves to hate during his prep for 26.2 miles.
Runnerâs World: You have a great endurance base with driving, cycling, and triathlon experience. How has the transition to marathon training been so far?
Jimmie Johnson: It went well. I sensed that I could do the marathon at the end of last season. In the back of my mind, before I engaged with my coach and fully committed to it mentally, I just started to pick up some more running miles and less bike miles. I feel that was a nice way to take the pressure off and get my legs switched into running. As the volume did pick up, I ran into some issues along the way and I realized how difficult running isâthe injuries, the recovery side, physical therapy. Thereâs a lot that goes into getting ready for a marathon, so my eyes are wide open in a sense. Iâm so impressed with what people are doing at an elite level, what the weekend warriors do. Itâs been quite a challenge.
What injuries have you experienced in your build-up?
I had a calf issue that set me back a handful of days. I had an SI (sacroiliac) joint issue and then I had a lingering IT (iliotibial) band issue that took about three weeks to clean up and make go away. Then I caught a cold probably two weeks ago and was out, so that was hard on the brain. At least with the other issues I could swim, I could pedal, do something to stay active, but the cold really wore on me mentally.
Are you feeling healthy now?
I feel really good, yes. I came off that cold and got an 80-mile week in last week and then a 65-mile week in this week. My speed and tempo runs have all been showing some pace, which is very encouraging. I ran 20 [miles] yesterday and finished really strong with it, so things are going the right way. Now that weâre pulling miles out this week, I can see that my body is responding well and feeling better. The pace is there, so Iâm excited. Iâm really looking forward to April 15.
Who is your coach?
Iâve been using a coach by the name of Jamey Yon. He is a former pro triathlete and pretty strong marathoner. I met him in the 2008 timeframe. I swam in high school, got into cycling, and ran a little here and there. Iâve always had an interest in triathlon. I did my first event, and the swim/bike went really well. The run went terrible, and I started looking for a coach. Thatâs when I found Jamey and started working with him.
I enjoy the structure of having a coach. Heâs been a great person for me to work with. Iâve been getting ready for various distance triathlons, and really itâs just the accountability that a coach brings. I love it for my schedule and making sure that Iâm as sharp as I can be for the car and when I gear up for an event, I have his knowledge to pull from as well.
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When did your training build-up begin?
I would say mid-November was when I put on my shoes and thought I could run Boston this year. I ran through some of November and December, and then in January I went to Jamey and said, âAlright, buddy, I think I can do Boston.â I think I returned from vacation on January 4 or 5 and thatâs when I was full-time Boston focused. I think Iâve only been on my bike twice since then, so itâs been very much a running-focused start to the year.
What is your weekly mileage?
The most Iâve been able to do is 80, but each time Iâve been to 80, Iâve had an injury or my cold. My body and just where Iâm at out on the journey, I think 80 is kind of my max. I was hopeful to get up to 100, but I just donât have it this go around. I think we started with 50 mile weeks pretty early in the scheme of things and moved up to 80.
What does your daily routine look like?
Some weeks flow well, others not so much. First off, running in general has been much easier to prep for than needing to find a pool or needing to get on the bike and ride. So as Just taking a pair of shoes makes life so much easier. And in not much time, you can get a strong workout in, so traveling coast to coast at the start of our season, just up early, getting runs in.
On a typical week, I travel Thursday, Friday and Saturday weâre at the track, race Sunday, come home. Iâll usually use Monday as a recovery run. Iâve been on the longer side with mileage, low and slow with the heart rate and everything. Tuesday is a pretty tough day for me schedule-wise, so Iâve been doing some shorter runs and higher intensity runs on Tuesday mornings before the kids get dropped off at school, and then Iâm at the shop all day on Tuesday. Thatâs my work day of the week. Wednesdays are pretty open, so usually do some speedwork. Thursdays go long, and then I travel and any time we get, we keep the miles coming in. Maybe a tempo run on Saturday if my legs are back, and then the car race on Sunday is some form of recovery as well for the legs.
We just cram it in when we can. Oftentimes, Iâll leave for a run and just know that if I donât have it, itâs going to be a lower heart rate, and if I feel something in there, I have a couple options of how I can do tempo or work on some true speedwork.
Whatâs been the best workout and the toughest workout that youâve done so far?
I think they kind of go hand in hand. We have an area in Charlotte, the road is called Tranquil, and itâs this steep hill, and weâll go over there and hit 10-12 repeats. I just did it on Wednesday. I have a time I have to achieve and hold that pace up, and it is painful. I ran it Wednesday and had my highest heart rate to date with my fastest times and most pain, but left the run session with the most gratifying moment. Like, âWow that really hurt!â [laughs] But it was one of my best runs. I was really proud of it as well.
How long is the repeat and what were the times you hit?
I think itâs about a quarter of a mile. I was trying to stay under 90 seconds getting up it, and I ran it two weeks ago and I was averaging 92 seconds up it and I just averaged 88 seconds up it. So I was really happy to shave off a few seconds over those 10 repeats.
Whatâs been the biggest challenge in training?
Honestly for me, itâs been the energy. I can find little windows of time. You know, those 20 mile runs are tough and I have to plan them out, but if I get up early I can squeeze in an hour and I can usually find another hour during the day if needed, so getting the majority of the miles in isnât the problem. Itâs just wearing the body down and needing more sleep. And the end of the week, Iâve got to go to the race track and be at my best, and I show up here and the first night I arrive, I knock out probably a 10 or 11 hour night [sleep] just to recharge the batteries.
Nutrition and hydration Iâve been able to dial that in. We have great resources like Gatorade to help me, an experienced coach to help me eat right, fuel right, and all that stuff, so that stuff has gone pretty well for me, and while Iâm in the race car too, which is nice. But energy is hard to come by.
When you hit challenges in training, what is your biggest motivation to move forward?
For me, itâs really committing to an event. Iâll sign up for a turkey trot, and Iâll start cramming stuff. Itâs just a turkey trot, itâs for fun you know? But as soon as I fully commit and punch in my credit card number, it holds me accountable. Itâs one of the biggest motivators for me, and I tell that to friends, to just sign up for something. Itâll motivate you.
Another one thatâs motivated me for this experience is David Goggins. He came and spoke at a kick-off event. Heâs a former Navy Seal, an Army air ranger, and an endurance super star. I usually donât listen to anything when I run, but I got into his audiobook in Houston on one of my longest runs. His story and his mindset is very motivating when you just donât feel like doing it.
Whatâs the longest run youâve done in this build-up?
Twenty-one miles. Iâve been to 20 I think five times, and I actually ran 21 miles with David Goggins when he was in town. We went for a run, which was really cool.
Is sub-3 hours still what youâre aiming for?
Yeah, itâs an aggressive goal. Just the way my mind works, I need something to go chase. My first full, and on such a challenging course… who knows what sorts of elements weâre going to be dealing with, but I know itâs a very aggressive goal to set.
Are you feeling confident that you can break it right now?
Iâve lost four weeks of training since January with my issues and the cold, so I donât know. I feel like Iâm behind. I lost a quarter of my training in a sense, so I would assume the odds are stacked pretty heavily against me, but I really have no idea. I ran 12 [miles] the other day and I ran at race pace, which would have put me in the window to do it, and I knocked out 12 pretty easily so that made me think, wow, maybe I can. Iâve never been in a 26.2-mile race. I havenât been through the hills, the headwind, the torrential rain, or whatever weather is thrown at me so I donât know.
How does the demand on your body compare in both sports? Race car driving and long distance running?
From a sweat-loss standpoint, I think itâs really similar. The way we sweat or reason we sweat is different. Running is much more physical. In a race car, youâre sitting inside of a sauna. On top of that, I have four layers of fireproof protective clothing on so you end up having the depletion that you would running a tempo pace. Thatâs been probably the most surprising thing to me, is the heart rate and sweat loss in the car is close to what I see running or cycling. Thatâs the part where I learned so much about myself through. Iâve been able to learn from being on foot and carry that knowledge to the car, and visa versa, so itâs been an interesting parallel.
Watch: How running keeps NASCAR drivers on track.
I wouldnât have thought of the layers you have to wear as well, especially in that tight space of a car.
Yeah in the summers, youâre seeing cockpit temps of 140 degrees inside the car, and Iâm in there for 3.5-4 hours. Youâre cooking. Itâs a rough environment.
I know you have the Richmond Raceway on Saturday night before the Boston Marathon. Whatâs the plan for recovery and travel leading up to the starting line on Monday?
When I think about my goal of three hours, I was imagining that Iâd be fully recovered, have my feet up, no lactic acid and stay hydrated, but a car race is a pretty difficult event and in Richmond, Virginia, we have a 400-lap race that is probably top five in physical exertion. Iâll run the race, Iâll make sure that Iâm high on fluid volume in the car, carbs up, salts up, all the stuff that I need to do and honestly just keep carrying that into getting out of the car, which is a night race.
The race will finish late, travel to Boston that evening and hopefully sleep in and really just try to keep my feet up throughout the day and replace, replenish, hydrate, fuel up, stretch and really just kind of spend the day trying to stay loose and stretch and literally just try to keep my feet elevated and try to get all that bad blood out and filtered. I have some NormaTec Recovery boots that Iâll probably take with me and spend some time in those.
Ultimately, what do you hope to accomplish with the marathon on April 15?
Thereâs clearly this experience Iâm living firsthand and preparing for and a personal challenge that Iâve gone through. My head has really just been in that space, so I guess I look forward to finishing what I started in a sense.
I have a lot of respect for runners in general. I started my racing life on two wheels racing motocross when I was a kid. I started at 5 years old. All of the training that Iâve done, I mean I swam in high school, but everything else has really been mountain bike, BMX bike, cycling. Iâve always been on two wheels. Thatâs been my passion and outlet, but to really commit to running for this, I just have so much respect for people who continue to pursue it. Itâs a lot of work, you put the body through a ton, and I just admire the commitment that the elites and the weekend warriors have and using running as a way to stay healthy. Itâs much more difficult than I thought going into it.