Tom Johnson can lay claim to the most unusual athletic background of any elite American ultrarunner–perhaps any American ultrarunner, period. In college at the University of California at Davis, he was a member of the championship polo team. No, not the kind you play in the water. The kind you play astride a horse, wielding a mallet. And his eventual evolution into an ultrarunner came by way of equestrianism. His gateway sport was Ride & Tie, a somewhat esoteric event in which two teammates share one horse while racing, on trails, from point A to point B. But only one rider at a time, so while one teammate rides ahead, the other runs to catch up. Then the humans switch positions on hoof and foot. In the 1980’s, Johnson became one of the most successful Ride & Tie athletes in the Northern California hotbed of the sport. Then he heard about and fell under the spell of the Western States 100 Mile, at that time the country’s most celebrated ultramarathon. It’s aura captured him. Within half a decade, he would capture it.
Tom Johnson’s route to the pinnacle of the sport was, to put it mildly, unusual. He didn’t bother with track, cross-country, road racing, or marathoning. Once he left his horse behind, he just went straight into ultrarunning. His beginning ultra efforts were impressive for a novice, but gave no indication of what he would eventually achieve. In his first year of racing ultras he finished in 26th place in the 1987 Western States 100, 4 hours behind the winner and a half hour behind the first woman. He spent the next three years mostly training and learning the sport, but staying well below the radar of the sport’s top tier. Then, in 1990, the unheralded former horseman exploded into that top tier. After a third place eye-opening finish among a stellar field at the Way Too Cool 50K trail race, followed by a second place at the Quicksilver 50 Mile, he was no longer an unknown. Returning to Western States, he won by almost a half-hour, missing the course record by 14 minutes. The following year he ran the same three races, winning each and setting a new Western States course record by a half-hour. Then, intrigued by the prospect of recently instituted National and World Championship Ultra races, he turned his attention to the roads.
The 1991 World 100Km Championship had been held on the hilly (and notoriously slow) course of the legendary Del Passatore course in Italy. In late 1992 Johnson traveled to the east coast, where he ran and won his first road ultra, a small 100Km in Washington, DC in the modest time of 7:30:49. But it won him an expenses paid trip to Italy to run the 1993 version of the Del Passatore race. He finished 5th there, in 7:11:50, a time which would have put him in the top 10 of that same race two years earlier, when it hosted the World Championship. Only a month later he returned to win Western States for the third time. Now indisputably the king of the California trails, he was determined to make an equal mark on the roads. Conveniently, the 1994 U.S. National 100Km Championship was held in Sacramento CA, his home turf, in February. It would serve as the qualifying race for the 100Km World Championship in Japan, 4 months later. Johnson ran well, notching a personal best of 7:08:10, but there were four Americans in front of him, and he barely qualified for the national team. But he was about to make the same meteoric leap in road racing that he had made 4 years before on the trails.
A month before the 1994 100Km World Championship Johnson (now a marquee name by virtue of his successes at Western States) was the subject of a full page feature in Runner’s World magazine. He had just won the American River 50 Mile in a course record 5:33:31 (a record which still stands today, over 20 years later). The Runner’s World piece detailed his weekly training schedule, which was astonishing in its volume and intensity. One of his U.S. teammates, who had beaten him in the national championship, commented, “Either he’s exaggerating those workouts, or he’s going to run under 6:45 and finish in the top 10 in the Worlds.” A month later Tom Johnson ran 6:41:40 and finished 9th in the World Championship, leading the U.S. men to the team bronze medal. But it wasn’t enough for him. He stated his goal of standing on he individual awards podium (top 3 men) at the following year’s World title race in The Netherlands. And one year later he did exactly that, improving his time by over 10 minutes, running 6:30:11 to break Bernd Heinrich’s 14-year old American Record, and leading the U.S. Men to the team silver medal. In taking the individual World title bronze medal, Johnson passed 24 men in the second half of the race and put on a furious final 400 meter sprint to nip Comrades Marathon champion Shaun Meiklejohn on the finish line.
The following year Johnson set his sights on the largest, oldest, most prestigious, and most competitive ultramarathon in the world, the Comrades “Marathon” in South Africa. He ran 5:41:57 for the 54+ mile point-to-point uphill course to finish 7th, the second best performance ever by a American in the event, bettered only by Alberto Salazar’s Comrades victory two years earlier, and only 3 minutes behind Salazar’s winning 1994 time. Later in 1996 he won the first-ever USA National Trail Ultra Championship, the Sunmart Texas Trail Run 50 Mile, in course record time. Johnson continued his winning ways in the 1997 Way Too Cool and Skyline 50k races.
After a decade in the sport, Tom Johnson began to curtail his ultra racing in 1998, but still continued to race well, and still notch occasional victories, in the big California trail ultras through the turn of the century. His American 100km record lasted for 19 years, until it was finally broken (by less then 3 minutes) by Max King in 2014.
(Note: In order to become eligible for induction into the American Ultrarunning Hall of Fame, an athlete must have been retired from ultramarathon competition for 10 years or have reached the age of 60).