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Johan Otter, a physical therapist at Scripps Memorial Hospital, urges patients to set small daily goals to help them heal physically and psychologically: Don’t overwhelm yourself with long-term aims.

But he may not always practice what he preaches. The only item on his bucket list, he says, is running the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in San Diego when he is 100.

That isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem. Otter, 61, completed his 66th marathon (and 25th Rock ‘n’ Roll) on Sunday in 4 hours, 15 minutes, 20 seconds.

And you may not be aware of his mountainous determination.

You see, he’s been through a lot worse than a marathon. A grizzly bear removed part of his scalp in 2005 and left him with bite marks across his body.

His daughter was 18 at the time. She was bitten in the face and shoulder by the 400-pound creature and broke her back in a fall.

Preparing for marathons not only probably saved his life that day, but also motivated him to endure afterwards.

Johan Otter finishes race in 4 hours, 15 minutes.
Johan Otter says he returns to the scene of Montana bear attack annually with helicopter pilot who saved him. Photo by Chris Stone

First, the medic that treated Otter after the mauling said if he hadn’t been in marathon-running shape he may not have survived the bear bites, broken neck, head injuries and broken ribs. It took six hours to get him and his daughter off the mountain in Glacier National Park in Montana.

“That I will always remember.” said Otter, who oversees laboratory and rehabilitation services for the physical therapy unit at Scripps, “so in a way, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon started something that saved my life as well.”

After the bear attack, his blood pressure dropped to the point a pulse couldn’t be found. He’d fallen down a 70-foot cliff — “lots of stuff that potentially could have killed us besides the bear.”

The bear mauled his daughter but left when she played dead.

They were in the middle of nowhere, with no cell service. They were found after about 45 minutes by other hikers and were airlifted to a hospital.

Otter and his daughter had gone around a blind corner on a trail and encountered a mother bear with two cubs. Otter got in front of his daughter, and it was a match of parental instincts as he tried to protect Jenna while the bear shielded her cubs.

Ordeal Inspired Goals

In the intervening years came the lengthy recovery. And his motivation saved him psychologically and helped him chart the rest of his life.

While he began running four months after the attack, it was 3 1/2 years before he again reached Boston Marathon qualifying times of under 3 1/2 hours for his age group.

“Running really, really helped to get you back again with a goal, with the motivation,” said Otter, born in the Netherlands. “But then also psychologically being able to deal with what had just happened to you. That took a while.”

Otter doffed his legacy cap after finishing his 66th marathon.
Otter doffed his legacy cap after finishing his 66th marathon. Photo by Chris Stone

On Sunday, he joked that running Rock ‘n’ Roll “gets cheaper by the minute.”

He pronounced the overcast weather as perfect.

“You didn’t have any winds — except to cool you off. … So many people said something (about being a legacy runner). I was passing a legacy runner: ‘Oh! You too! Yay!'”

Otter’s running routine starts well before the break of dawn. He rises between 2 a.m. and 2:30 a.m. and hits the pavement between 3 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. He runs 30 to 40 miles a week.

“I’m Neighborhood Watch for a big swatch of Escondido,” he jokes about his residential runs, which are problem-solving sessions.

While he runs, he thinks about his work day, and said if he hasn’t come up with a solution to a problem, he will keep running for another mile.

With regard to helping his patients, being upbeat and setting goals are key to his approach.

“Positivity is what keeps you going,” said Otter, who qualified for the Boston Marathon 10 times. “No one wants to hang out with negative people anyway. You can give yourself the positive energy and first look at things with a short-term goal perspective.

“Don’t worry about the long-term things. When you go through the bad things, just make it through tomorrow. Maybe you can get out of bed. Maybe you can walk or move this or that. I have to make very tiny goals.”

“And then be really happy about it,” Otter recommends. “Don’t think about ‘Oh, my God, I can’t do (something).’ That’s irrelevant at that point. … No, that’s it for the moment. You are OK. And the next day, you can set a different goal.” 

Faced Two Choices

Otter said it’s really about setting goals in a way that you can achieve them.

After his serious injuries, he said he faced two choices. The first was to say, “OK this is it. I’m never going to be normal again. I’m going to miss my hair.”

“Or I can see it is what it is, and let’s make the best out of it, and let’s see what we can do in order to get myself better, but also to help other people,” he concluded.

He even earned a doctorate in physical therapy while healing.

“When you go through something like this, you kind of reset your life,” he said. “What did I always want to do? And just do it.”

After the bear attack injuries, “slowly and surely, I just sort of pushed myself because in my mind, I had this goal of I just cannot lose my streak that I have going with the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon. He has run in all 25 years of the race and also in two ultra-marathons.

Otter praised the scenery and overcast weather and called this marathon relatively easy.
Otter praised the scenery and overcast weather and called this marathon relatively easy. Photo by Chris Stone

“My therapy with myself happened while training for marathons, so it was incredibly healing,” he said.

Sometimes during his running therapy, he would face the realities of his traumatic injuries. He has thought about how his daughter could have died when she fell 50 feet and was attacked by the bear.

“She can really relate to patients coming through the emergency room. Having been through a traumatic situation like that yourself, it gives you an extra level of understanding,” the physical therapist said. 

Otter believes running has helped him in many facets of his life: “It’s a feeling, ‘Yeah I am capable of something.’ It’s a very positive feeling.”

“It gives you a more positive outlook on life as well. You deal with so many other issues in a more positive way. It kinds of helps you out with everything,” he added.

And the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon has a special place in his heart. He appreciates the supportive fans along the way and going through different neighborhoods along the 26.2 miles, he gets to do some sightseeing.

Otter also enjoys the music, especially the percussion sounds that have a good rhythm for running.

Not all marathons are the same, of course. His best time is 3:14 and his worst was 4:20 in Rotterdam when the conditions were hot and humid, and there were only three water stations along the route (as opposed to numerous ones in San Diego). 

“It was miserable,” he said. “My worse marathon experience ever.”

Some runs have been smooth. In others, he’s been surprised to notice he was only at the halfway point, with many miles to go.

Growing up in Europe, he had no interest in sports. He ran a few half-marathons after he came to the U.S. and co-workers at Scripps encouraged him to try the first Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon.

So he set his mind to it.

“I never thought I could run a marathon,” he said. “There’s probably a sport out there for everyone that you are actually pretty good at it.”

“Everything has healed, and I have no long-lasting neurological complications,” Otter said. “It’s been miraculous, quite honestly.”