Toshiko d’Elia dies at 84; Hall of Famer among distance giants

Winner Susie Buchanan lifts  runner-up Toshi after the W40 5000 at the first world masters championships — 1975 in Toronto.

Winner Susie Buchanan lifts runner-up Toshi after the W40 5000 at the first world masters championships in 1975.

“Queen of the Roads” Toshiko “Toshi” d’Elia, considered one of the greatest masters distance runners of all time, died Wednesday at age 84 of a brain tumor, according to reports in her home state of New Jersey and around the world. A pioneer on the track who was part of the first Masters Hall of Fame class in 1996, Toshi competed in the first world masters track championships (Toronto 1975) and survived cervical cancer in her 40s. She was honored by an obituary in The New York Times by legendary track writer Frank Litsky. New Jersey papers added wonderful lookbacks as well. Runner’s World covered her passing, as well as USATF. She competed last year, but hasn’t been on the track for a while. Her presence at races was hailed. See some of her marks. I wrote about her last in 2006. This video captures her essence:

One New Jersey story recalled how she overcame hardships.

During her 70s, with more than 50 marathons to her credit, many of which she won or placed in the top five, d’Elia suffered some medical setbacks which put her racing form on hold. In 2005, she broke her arm halfway through a 12-mile race in New Haven after being pushed down. Not one to give up, she cradled her bruised arm and finished the race, setting a course record for her age division. In 2008, she underwent open heart surgery at age 78 to repair an aneurism and heart arrhythmia. She returned to racing but felt frail and worried about the crowds at the large events she used to love.
Returning to the Mini 10K this year was the elixir that d’Elia was looking for. Mary Wittenberg, president of New York Road Runners said, “It was just so great to see Toshi again. When I started running, she was the queen of the roads. She was a standout at many NYRR races, someone that represents the best of running.”

She made Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” in 1979. Seven years ago, she was profiled in The Japan Times.

USATF named her an age-group runner of the year at least nine times.

“The goal should be to enjoy running for a lifetime,” she told The [Bergen] Record four years ago.

Other highlights from a obituary:

“Toshi gave us inspiration and hope,” said Gail Kislevitz, a board member of North Jersey Masters, which Toshiko and Fred d’Elia founded in 1976. The group sponsors the Fred d’Elia Memorial Day Ridgewood Run.

My shot of Toshi at 2000 Eugene masters nationals, where she won the W70 5K and 10K.

“Toshi made me a better runner because she made me believe I could be a better runner, and sometimes that’s all you need,” Kislevitz said. “She encouraged everyone to just go out and have fun. The thing I loved about her, she’d never ask someone who finished a race, ‘What was your time?’ Instead, she’d say, ‘Did you have a good time?’ She instilled that spirit of running for fun.”

Mrs. d’Elia was a familiar and vigorous presence at the Ridgewood YMCA, where she swam a mile each morning and then did yoga. Afternoons would find her jogging in her neighborhood. She kept up that routine until December, when she fell in her kitchen, her daughter said. Subsequent tests revealed the brain tumor.

Mrs. d’Elia’s ashes will be spread at the grave of her mother in Japan and in the Adirondacks, where she loved running, her daughter said.

“My mom wasn’t particularly religious, but she was very spiritual and what she wanted was a memorial service, which we will have in the springtime along with a walk, run and a big old party to celebrate her life,” Erica Diestel added.

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February 21, 2014

8 Responses

  1. Peter Taylor - February 21, 2014

    Toshi was a wonderful person, a terrific athlete, and very popular among her fellow runners. And why would she not be? An engaging smile, a warm demeanor, an appealing modesty about her numerous achievements … it was easy to see why so many people liked and admired her.

    Thanks, Toshi, for running with us and showing us how to do things the right way.

  2. Mary Harada - February 21, 2014

    I had the privilege of meeting Toshi at a National Masters Track Meet in Eugene some years ago. We had long conversations about her life in Japan before she came to the states. Our common interest was that she had been a student at Tsuda College in Tokyo and I was doing research there about the founder of that college. It was at Tsuda College that Toshi studied English and that enabled her to win a scholarship to come to the US for further study. While in the US – I believe at Cornell – she met Fred d’Elia. Because of our shared interest in Tsuda College as well as our shared interest in running (and the fact that I am married to a native of Japan) Toshi and I came to talk frequently at other track meets. She was one of the most gracious person I have had the pleasure of knowing.
    The last time I saw her was at a National Masters Track meet in Orono when Fred was with her – and he was seriously ill. The loving care she gave him stays in my mind and heart and I try to model that as I care for my very ill husband now.
    My condolences to her family – may they treasure the many wonderful memories they must have of this remarkable woman. She was a fine athlete but more than that she was a remarkable woman who represented the best of Japanese and American culture.

  3. Peter Taylor - February 21, 2014

    Runner’s World (see the link above) has done a wonderful story on Toshi; it will make you love her. Everyone should read the story, especially those not privileged to have known Toshi.

  4. Ocean Eversley - February 22, 2014

    Thank you for writing this inspiring story about this gracious and amazing woman.

  5. Joan Tanzillo Jones - February 23, 2014

    My dear favorite teacher Toshiko D’Elia,

    I was shocked to hear that she passed away. I was sad and missed her so much. Fortunate in 2009 my family visited her at last. She hugged me. We spent with her a whole day and she told us a history story of her life. It’s never bored story. I know she was a good runner. She had in her faith to keep running all her life. I wrote the letters to her and back to me, too.

    I was only 2 half [almost] 3 years old to meet her in lower school and taught me how to speak. She was a very good speech therapy. She still remembers me. I always remember her. Peace with her.

    Always Love Joan Tanzillo Jones

  6. Art Healy - February 25, 2014

    Through my father, I was so fortunate to meet Toshi a few times at meets and road races such as her hometown Ridgewood Run. To echo my dad’s mantra -“Toshi is just THE most wonderful person.” And so she was. A superb masters athlete and runner. Looking back at those dominating age group performances of her era- they are truly some of the greatest ever. More than inspirational. Someone truly unforgettable in this world.

  7. Hank Ketels - March 1, 2014

    I do believe Ken Stone competed in several distances runs i conducted at Aviation High School. Redondo Beach, CA. 1959-1965

  8. Patti Dillon - February 20, 2015

    The running world lost a shining star. As many races as you have raced and the many people whom have met you, it was not enough.

    You were the most gracious ambassador for the Running World. Welcoming everybody with your ever present smile. Always having a kind word to say to those around you.

    You, Tosh, were the most wonderfully, wonder woman, I have ever met. And the most remarkable woman I have ever known.

    May you rest in peace.

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