Mike Johnson and Anna Francisco

It was quite the birthday present for Mike Johnson last year when he (above right) and daughter Anna Francisco crossed the finish line of the first Running the Rapids Half Marathon together on his birthday. They plan to run again this year in the relay portion of the event.

GRAND RAPIDS — It was quite the 62nd birthday present for Mike Johnson last year in a lot of ways.

That’s because Johnson was able to achieve a number of things on that day. First, he was able to say he completed the first Running the Rapids Half Marathon which was conducted in his hometown of Grand Rapids. Secondly, even though he is an extremely experienced distance runner, he proved to himself that he could still run long distances after overcoming a serious injury.

But what was most important for him was the fact that the was able to train for the half marathon, and then complete it hand-in-hand as he and daughter Anna Francisco, 30, completed the 13.1-mile run together.

The duo planned to run initially in the Sour Grapes Marathon in Brainerd in 2017, which is for runners who did not get to run in Grandma’s Half Marathon. The two started training in March until Johnson suffered an accident when putting his dock in at his cabin which laid him up for almost a year.

Then, with him almost healed, Francisco – a faculty member at Itasca Community College – suggested that the two run the first Running the Rapids Half Marathon together. Johnson didn’t know if he could run a half marathon coming off his calf injury, but he was willing to find out.

“We went to see if we could go two miles, then three and then four and then we will go from there,” Johnson said. “She said, ‘Dad, we have to do this together. We were going to do it, plus it is on your birthday (Aug. 25) and it is the first Running the Rapids so you have to do it.’ So we did it; we didn’t set any record times but we finished it. It was a lot of fun.”

Francisco said it was a really special way to celebrate her dad’s birthday by participating in the race which she said brought the community together and allowed her to see a lot of people.

“Through 13 miles we got to have a good talk for two-and-a-half hours which was fun and then we went out on the boat to celebrate his birthday the rest of the day and we will probably do something similar this year,” Francisco said. “I think that bringing a race to Grand Rapids – and there certainly is a strong running community in Grand Rapids – and also bringing a lot of people from out of town in August is a great idea as well.

“It was a great opportunity to run with my dad and I think Running the Rapids is an excellent idea and I hope it continues far into the future. I plan to be a part of it every year in one way or another, whether it be the relay, the half or the 5K.”

The father-daughter combination plans to make it two Running the Rapids in a row this year when it is conducted on Saturday, Aug. 24. The race will start and finish at Portage Park in Cohasset with starting time set for 7 a.m. The duo will run the relay portion of the race this year.

Johnson said running throughout the years with Francisco and his other daughter, Olivia Downing, has been special for him. He said the race and the people are fun, and you feel good when you are done, but he added that the most special thing is being able to do it with family.

“The training is what is really fun because when you start running six-, eight-, 10-mile training runs, it takes time,” Johnson explained. “You have to plan it, schedule it, and that’s just time that you are with your daughter all alone. We have great discussions about everything.”

He added that he has run two half marathons with Olivia, and that she is not as avid a runner as Francisco.

Francisco – who was a distance runner in high school – said she has run multiple half marathons with her father and she remembers him running both full and half marathons while she was growing up.

“My sister and I have actually never run together which is kind of funny,” Francisco laughed. “It has been kind of a dad/daughter time where that is where our alone time with our dad is running. We both have kids now so Olivia has a baby and she hasn’t run for awhile and I couldn’t run for awhile because I have kids.

“But it is something we have been able to do throughout the last 10 years with our dad. It is really fun to get that alone time and of course when you are running you chat about things, you talk and it’s good bonding time.”

Johnson said being able to run in the first race was great and he added that he liked the course.

“I think the course is really nice. It will be interesting this year with all the construction where the elementary school is, but I think they did a very good job,” he explained. “It takes a lot of work to put that together and I think it will get bigger and bigger as they keep building on it.”

Added Francisco about the course, “The course is right by my house off of Isleview Road and it is a path that I run all the time. I wouldn’t say it is an extremely challenging course, but there is definitely a few hills throughout. It is a very safe course and it’s on trails a lot of the time. Everybody was coming out of their house and cheering for you which was exciting.”

One thing that bothers Francisco is the fact that her father has run in pain recently due to a spur in his foot. But she said being the former athlete he is, he is able to fight through the pain.

Johnson laughed and said he had a bone spur removed from his foot maybe 20 years ago. He said the doctor thinks it may have been the result of taking too many foul balls off his foot during his days as a catcher at the high school, college and professional levels. He also served as the manager of the Itasca Community College baseball team for many years.

“It’s fine, it’s just fine,” he laughed.

Johnson will turn 63 a day after the race, and he said he feels fortunate to be as healthy as he is. After many years of crouching as a catcher, he said his knees are just fine. He runs while training for the race and he does other work three days a week including stretching, which he said is extremely beneficial.

“Everybody tells me my knees must be horrible and all that and the reality is that I have been so fortunate,” said Johnson. “I don’t have any issues, knock on wood. I am really pretty happy and running helps me keep my weight down and I can pretty much eat and drink what I want as long as I keep exercising.

“I have aches and pains like everybody else as you get older, but mentally for me, the endorphins (endorphins are morphine-like chemicals produced by the body that help diminish pain while triggering positive feelings) for me is almost like a mental health thing. I might be a little tired but I always seem to have a really happy attitude when I run or exercise and those endorphins kick in. It has been a really good thing to do.”

Francisco agrees that running and staying active is incredibly important for being healthy. She said she runs more in the summer and then takes the winter off where she then exercises mostly at the Itasca County Family YMCA.

“I think having the opportunity to be healthy with my dad has been a pretty good opportunity to do that,” Francisco explained. “This year we are doing the relay so we are not going to be running together as he will run the first half and I will run the second half.”

With a number of grandchildren, Johnson was asked if there is a possibility one day of three generations crossing the finish line in tandem.

“That would be fun,” Johnson smiled. “The oldest one is a four-year-old so we’ll see.”

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