Teddy Rosenbluth

SMDP Intern

With his back facing the cameras, Johnnie Jameson began to run his first marathon backwards.

He had not planned to run backwards but then he hadn’t really planned to run a marathon at all— he had never raced competitively and barely trained. So, when the gun fired, he simply turned around and began barreling butt-first through the course.

“This is L.A,” he said. “Why be normal?”

Nine hours and 26.2 miles later, he became the last racer to cross the finish line and the first racer to cross the finish line backwards.

Since then, Jameson has run every Los Angeles Marathon, two of which he ran backwards and five of which he ran while dribbling a basketball. The 2020 Los Angeles Marathon next Sunday, which will stretch from Dodger’s Stadium to Downtown Santa Monica, will be Jameson’s 35th consecutive race.

He belongs to a group called the Legacy Runners, who have completed every L.A marathon since it was created in 1986. They have special bibs, permanent numbers and fans who recognize them year after year.

Jameson said he thinks of them as family.

They go to the movies together, train together, and on the Sunday after the annual marathon, they have dinner to recount each mile of the race.

“I’ve never been in any kind of group in my life,” he said. “We’re never out of touch — it’s just a whole family of us, it’s real tight.”

But his family is dwindling.

The group had more than 700 members years ago. But as members enter their 70s and 80s, only 114 remain — injured backs and knees had kept the number of members steadily declining. Jameson himself just turned 72.

Nowadays, Jameson runs the marathon forward-facing with no basketballs.

He said he likes to focus on running instead of turning to see where he’s going or feeling the weight of the basketball. Without distractions, the running hurts more, but that’s part of the appeal.

Jameson was drafted to Vietnam when he was 20 and has struggled with PTSD and flashbacks since. Running helps focus him towards a goal, he said.

“It just hurts so bad and you just want to keep going back to get that pain again,” he said. “I was running just to keep going in life.”

Jameson’s marathon career was the subject of a ten minute documentary in 2016, which was highlighted in National Geographic’s Short Film Showcase. He occasionally tours with the video to schools across the country to encourage highschoolers to take up running.

Partly, he wants to encourage students to stay active and healthy. He said he also wants students to learn the intangible skills he’s developed from running, like pushing to achieve a difficult goal.

“You have to find out what’s deeply embedded in yourself,” he said. “A lot of times you don’t know what you can do until you’re up for a challenge.”

For Jameson, the physical feat of running is just a small part of why he returns to the Los Angeles Marathon every year.

“I feel this outpouring in my soul to just want the world to be better,” he said. “I get out there and dig in and grind and make myself better. Things are getting better if I’m getting better.”


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