March 19, 2019

The Bionic Woman

Manistee's Dr. Christa Johnson took on the toughest tri in the world.
By Clark Miller | Dec. 29, 2018

If a working single mom can make time to train for triathlons — and the most elite tri in the world — you can probably commit to three 30-minute workouts a week. The secret, she says, is small steps and short commitments.
 
by Clark Miller
 
Manistee chiropractor, single mom, and endurance athlete Dr. Christa Johnson doesn’t make New Year’s resolutions. For the past 20 years, the commitment has been the same: Push her body as hard as she can every day.
Johnson started out as a runner. In 2008, she moved up to triathlons, including Ironman races, in which competitors swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and run 26.2 miles.

“Then you get a trophy, and after a day off,” she says, “you start training for the next race.”

Ironman as a Family Sport
Johnson’s first triathlon ago changed her life. “I was never a couch potato. I ran cross-country one year in high school and wasn’t that good. And I was on the equestrian team at Michigan State once year.”

“But by the time I was 26, I was struggling with my health — including a knee injury,” she said.

Instead of giving up, though, she signed up for a triathlon in Louisville, Kentucky. “I hadn’t run for two years, and my family was terrified — especially my dad. But I had fun and finished with a great time.”

That day she realized that racing might be a way to rebuild a family fractured by divorce 34 years earlier.

Her parents showed up (with current spouses in tow) to support her. Since then, her double sets of parents — and now her young son — have become her crew. On race day, they drive her to the swim starting line, usually well before sunrise. They carry her bike to the transition area. They cheer her on. They feed her. 

That day the temperature in Louisville hit 96 degrees. Her confidence waned. Could she make it?

“I ran up to them during that race,” she said. “I was so happy to see them that I jumped up on the curb, patted my mom on the butt, and told her she was going to have to get moving if she wanted to see me at the next point. Then I really started running. At that moment, I realized I was going to finish the race.” 

Even her father, who had misgivings about the safety of endurance sports quickly changed his mind. Johnson can recall the exact moment when that happened.
“He turned to me after Louisville and said, ‘Have you signed up for the next race?’”

Discovering the Inner Beast 
Johnson has gone on to compete in many events, including the Texas Ironman, the Boston and New York marathons, the Kal-Haven 33.5 Ultra Trail Run in Kalamazoo, several races in northern Michigan, the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon, Xterra World Championships, and earlier this year, the famous Ironman World Championships on the Big Island of Hawaii. Kona meant the most to her.

“Very few people even dream of getting into Kona,” she said. “It’s that hard. It’s more exclusive than about any other race, including the Boston Marathon. Only the top one percent of the top one percent get to compete.”

Johnson savored the experience. 

“During my swim, I looked at the fish, the other competitors, and the coral. I felt better than in any other race. The only unexpected thing was a torrential rainstorm for three or four miles during the run.” 

Iron-Man, not Iron Woman
Early on in her sports career, she learned that endurance athletes — especially men — can be tough to win over.  

“It’s an interesting dynamic with MAMILs,” she said. (The acronym stands for middle-aged men in Lycra.)

“They don’t like to be ‘chicked,’ that is, passed by a girl.  But they also kind of look out for me, and now that I have some accolades, they don’t seem to feel as bad when I pass them.”

Safety
There have been moments when Johnson had second thoughts about the costs of always trying to reach higher. She recalls watching a high-performance athlete train years ago.

“I’d see her on an inside bike trainer for hours, sweat flying everywhere,” Johnson said. “She told me some athletes who go to Kona have to get some of their intestines removed afterwards. That was due to the amount of time blood was routed to their big leg muscles while racing 140.6 miles. Parts of their intestine would die. Why would anyone do that?”

Years later, she rethought it all.

“I began wondering if triathlons would help me prove something to myself,” she said.

Overcoming Lethargy
Johnson still trains hard, but she thinks there are sensible, safe ways to help all us get into better shape. 

For many people, getting started is the big problem.

When her chiropractic patients ask her how they can overcome inertia, she’s ready with an answer.

 “I tell them to just commit for a short while,” she said. “Everyday you live, start with little steps. There are lots of ways to be active outdoors or in a gym.”

She continues to train as often as possible. “Sometimes I train with my son,” she said. “Whether it’s five minutes or five hours of working out, it doesn’t matter. The point is to get exercise.”

She knows that’s not always easy. “I understand. In fact, I don’t necessarily want to go out and train when it’s cold and windy.”

But her empathy reaches only so far.

“You have to move to be healthy,” she said. “The obesity rate in Michigan is around 34 percent. I’ve never seen anyone who’s come to my practice with a valid excuse not to exercise.”

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