“I can’t pee in the backyard anymore,” David Johnston quipped, and then after a moment of reflection, “I can’t pee in the front yard anymore either. We used to have a house in the middle of 40 acres.” Johnston, his wife Andrea, and youngest son Miles moved from Willow, Alaska to Warrenton, Missouri in May of 2020. I’m enamored with Alaska and Johnston really carried the image of Alaska for me. I tell him that his move broke my heart, and he’s quick with a “broke mine, too” in return.
Family comes first though, and Johnston’s wife wanted to relocate closer to her aging parents. He shares that it was particularly hard for him. “I was petrified. In May, June, and July, I was pretty depressed. A new job in a new town, during COVID-19. I lost all of my running friends. I was drinking too much. I gained 20 pounds and got up to 195. Beer, I’m a beer drinker, just a whole lot of them. But I’ve lost 15 of those pounds. I got my act together this fall,” his voice tone picking up at the change. “I’m 50 years old now. I can’t be living like that at 50. I never stopped running though. I was always doing 30 to 40 miles a week.”
Johnston worked in pharmaceutical sales in Alaska and knowing the territory for years, he fostered relationships that made the job easy. “Computer work, account management,” he said of his current role. “I’m lucky to have a job [during the pandemic] and be able to work from home. I help people over the phone. I’m not especially computer savvy and sometimes I have to call other people, but I had the social account-management skills, the customer service. I’m pretty gregarious, no enemies.” I quickly interject with a friendly, “Hey, I remember that one year at Six Days at the Dome,” and Johnston spins me to the positive outcome. “Yeah, but we’re best friends now, talk often, best buds.”
“Twenty-five years,” he answers of his Alaska duration, explaining that he moved there from Wilmington, North Carolina. “I was a beach bum, and I mean a real beach bum. I went the farthest place away from the beach. I’d been to Alaska a few times before too though. I froze for a few years before I got used to it.” He must’ve done more than just get used to it. Johnston won the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350-mile race six years in a row from 2013 through 2018, and he frequently competed in some of Alaska’s most adventurous–and coldest–races. He raced with wildly long hair, and when pressed, guesses that it dates to 1992. “As long as the top keeps growing, I’m going to keep it going. You don’t see much long hair around Missouri. It’s about four inches past my belt buckle,” he said, and I gasp aloud.
Alaska must be a lot different than the rest of the U.S., and Johnston explains some of it in runner’s terms. “It’s totally different. In Alaska you don’t get caught up in the rat race of society. If you don’t watch TV for a month, it makes no difference. Here if you don’t watch TV, you miss something. I’ve got to look before I cross the road too, make sure I’m not getting run over. It was dog teams up there, cars down here.”
“I’m a road runner now. I was used to leaving the back door and being on trails. Now it’s all sidewalks and pavement. I’ve got to drive 30 minutes to get to trails. I’ve got road shoes. I never really owned road shoes before, some are pretty comfortable,” he said with a wry smile. “It’s a city here, but we bought a brand-new house a block from downtown Warrenton and we’ve got good neighbors. I do have more appreciation for the woods now though, and it has its plusses. My wife is very happy, that’s a huge plus. I’d never lived in a brand-new house. I don’t have to fix things. The house is all clean, the heat works all the time, the air conditioner–our power bill was pretty high this summer. I’d never had air conditioning before!”
His oldest son, also named David, stayed in Alaska, and has flown to Missouri to visit. Johnston though hasn’t yet returned to Alaska. “I ripped it off like a band aid. There’s no in between with me. I won’t go back for a while, will try to become part of this society,” he said. Miles, age seven, has taken the move very well though. “He’s an old seven,” Johnston beamed. “He collects vinyl records, goes in vintage stores to buy rock albums. He’s trying to get all of the original Beatles albums. He saves his money for it, and my wife and I are learning a lot about collecting vinyl records.”
“He’s a little runner. He’ll go on 10-mile runs and he just ran a 23-minute 5k,” Johnston said. I kid, “That’s faster than you, right?” Johnston agrees, “He’s getting there. We do a Sunday track workout and he leads it. We were stalking people jogging down the road to run with us.”
It might’ve been a rough start, but Johnston’s now building his community, and racing again too. He was seventh a few days earlier at David’s Trail Endurance Run 50k in Arkansas, a four-hour drive away. “It was crazy not running trails for three-fourths of a year,” he said of the experience. “I held my own, only fell once, and it had about 5,000 feet of elevation change, just these short 200-foot ups and downs constantly. I’ve got the Ohio Backyard Ultra in March. I still haven’t given up on running.”
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