Followed by an unidentified companion, cross-country runner Paul Johnson flashes a peace sign as he traversed Stark County on April 12 during his LA-to-New York run. Wendy DiAlesandro/The Portager

Portage county runners briefly join cross-country ‘Forrest Gump’

Two Atwater women participated in a real-life Forrest Gump run Friday, April 12, when they joined U.S. Navy lieutenant Paul Johnson on his cross-country run.

Battling the stress of military service, Johnson turned to running in 2022. He found the miles therapeutic and was running 100-mile races by April 2023. He also engaged with Team Red, White and Blue, a community of active and former military personnel, their families and supporters dedicated to helping veterans lead healthier lives through fitness events, training and programs.

To raise awareness – and money – for veterans’ mental health, Johnson decided to embark on what he calls the Transcon: a 3,000-mile run from Los Angeles to New York City. Starting in Los Angeles on March 1, his idea was to reach New York in 40 days: breaking the previous record of just over 42 days.

Weather and other unforeseen delays scratched that goal, but Johnson and his crew soldier on. As of April 13, they anticipated arriving in NYC at 6:29 p.m. April 20, 50 days, 6 hours, and 29 minutes after leaving LA. Along the way, they’ve been joined by any number of co-runners, two of whom are Atwater residents Diana Woods and her daughter Amy Bennett.

Though Johnson’s original route was to conveniently take him through Atwater and Deerfield, a route adjustment had Woods and Bennett meeting him in Louisville Friday evening. Exactly where and when was the question: though Johnson’s website includes a tracker, he does not stop for anyone.

With Woods’ husband Jack driving, the trio headed for Louisville shortly after 5:30 p.m and made it as far as the local car wash when they saw police cars with flashing lights arriving.

“They started coming down the road, so we just joined in with him,” Bennett said. “It was almost emotional at first, all the support this guy has, and everybody that’s been following him, and everything that he’s doing for the veterans.”

Friday’s all-day, all-night driving rain and wind turned out not to be as much of an issue as they’d feared.

“It was windy, but the wind was coming out of the west so it was to our backs. It was pushing us, and it had quit raining, so we didn’t have to run through rain,” Woods said.

For all their training, Woods and Bennett quickly found themselves outpaced and at the rear of the small pack of runners.

“He was going so fast we couldn’t even keep up with him. We ran a few miles, and then we got in our car, and we followed him to see how he was going,” Woods said. “Once in a while he would stop and walk. That’s when the guys from the van behind us would run up with water for him or get him some energy something or other just to keep him going.”

Woods’ experience is even more impressive when her years are taken into account. She’ll say she’s over 70, but won’t get more specific than that.

Despite arthritis that has her wrapping her knee before runs, she’s completed 5Ks and trains two or three days a week. She’d also read the rules Johnson posts on his website and was willing to comply.

Runners must be ready to run whenever Johnson arrives. They may run beside or a half step behind him, but never ahead. He is always to be in the front and on the right side of whatever company he has. He is happy to listen to his companions’ conversations, but they may not speak with him.

“I thought it was very rewarding. It was neat to be able to say we did that with him. It’s amazing he can run from LA to New York City. That’s like 60 miles a day,” Bennett marveled.

Echoing her daughters’ words, Woods said the trek was “really fun.”

“We enjoyed it. It was a privilege to run with him,” she said.

Johnson’s progress is also constantly updated on Strava, a running app that tracks users’ miles, times and paces. That’s how Woods’ granddaughter Emma More, also a runner, found him, and shared Johnson’s story with her family during a recent Easter gathering.

“I’m a runner, and when I saw that he was going to be running, I thought I’ll just go run with him. He’s coming from all the way from California, and I thought that would be something neat to do,” Woods said.

Woods said she has donated funds to help Johnson reach his million dollar goal for Team RWB, As of April 13, according to his website, he’d raised more than $360,000.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.