Toshiko Kishimoto d’Elia grew up amid the chaos and ravages of post-war Japan and went on to become a pioneer in women’s running; setting numerous American and World records at every age division and distance. In that journey she touched everyone she met.
Toshi was born in 1930 in Kyoto, into one of Japan’s most powerful families, who started the steel industry in Japan. Coming from wealth in no way deterred her fierce desire to succeed on her own. “After the war, we all starved,” she said. “Toshiko would stand on food lines all day and bring home a cucumber to feed a family of six. She said, “I dreamed of being a bird so I could fly away.”
Away she flew! Against her father’s wishes, who claimed he would rather spend money on a new horse than educating a woman, she came to the United Sates in 1951 accepting a Fulbright Scholarship to study audiology. She went on to teach deaf children at New York School for the Deaf in White Plains, NY for 37 years. In 1960 She married Manfred d’Elia, and with her daughter, Erica, started a long and fulfilling life in the village of Ridgewood, NJ.
The d’Elia family were avid outdoors people and accomplished climbers and hikers. On one climb up Mt Rainier, Toshiko was told by the guide that she wasn’t allowed to summit because of her lack of conditioning, and was ordered to descend. The news, while devastating at the time, was yet another door Toshi flew through to discover a new passion: running. When she returned home from Mt Ranier so dejected, her daughter, Erica, suggested she try jogging to give her a base of fitness. Before long, 1 mile turned into 3, which then turned into 5 and more a day. Erica tricked her mom into her 1st race pleading with her to enter so that her good friend wouldn’t finish last. “Just follow us…you’ll be fine!” Erica won the race, her friend finished 2nd and everyone was shocked to see that Toshi did indeed follow them and finished 3rd, beating hundreds of high school and college female runners. Now she was hooked.
Toshi went on to train seriously and exploded onto the running scene. She qualified for the prestigious Boston Marathon “by accident” accompanying a friend as a training run and deciding halfway to go ahead and finish. She ran her first Boston marathon in 3:15 and followed up that Fall being the 3rd overall woman finisher in New York City Marathon in 3:08. When race director Fred Lebow announced her age of 47 years old, the crowd roared and a masters star was born. In 1980 d’Elia went on to become the first woman over 50 years to break 3 hours in the marathon in Glasgow Scotland with a time of 2:57:25. She was named Runner of the Year by Runner’s World Magazine and honored with the Paavo Nurmi Award. The NY Road Runners Club honored Toshi as the coveted Runner of the Year 27 out of 30 years from the 1970-90’s. She was also the first woman over 65 to run a sub-7:00 mile indoors, following this achievement into her 70’s running 6:47 for 1500 meters, and world records from the 800 meters to the marathon. She was a fixture at The 5th Avenue Mile, was featured in Sports Illustrated, had a book and movie “Running On”, and is the first thing you see when entering the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame. As Mary Wittenburg, President of NYRRC, said “Toshi is our Queen of the Roads..she represents the best of running.”
During this time Toshi and Fred wanted to share their newfound love of running to their Ridgewood friends, and founded the North Jersey Master’s Running Club. Their infectious spirit to be fit and have fun at the same time drew many people to the club and resulted in the start of the Ridgewood Memorial Day Run. RHS’s Dave Marsh was one of those people who caught Toshi’s fever, and introduced the Fitness Center to the high school. Also during that time, Toshi discovered she had cervical cancer, but was fierce in her determination to not allow a disease to define or limit her. Four months after cancer surgery, she finished the Boston Marathon in 3:09.
After every race, the first thing Toshi did was to thank her feet. Then she’d have a beer. She viewed running as a cherished friendship. “I view running as a tool to help me get through life, so I do everything I can to nurture it, take care of it, appreciate it. I want to hold onto my friend for as long as I live.” Toshi continued to do that until one month before she passed away in 2014. She will forever be remembered as an inspiration to those of us who were lucky enough to know her.