Toshiko d’Elia, who emerged from the destitution of postwar Japan to achieve renown in the United States as a marathon runner, taking up the sport at age 44 in the 1970s when few older women were doing so, died on Wednesday in Allendale, N.J. She was 84.
The cause was brain cancer, which was detected two months ago, her daughter, Erica Diestel, said. D’Elia, who died at her daughter’s home, lived in Ridgewood, N.J.
At 100 pounds and a little over 5 feet tall, d’Elia was a powerful runner, and a resilient one. At 49, she completed the Boston Marathon in 2 hours 58 minutes 11 seconds, shortly before she was found to have cervical cancer. Eight months later she resumed training, and eight months after that, in the world masters championship in Scotland, she ran 2:57:20, the first time a woman 50 or older had bettered three hours.
Over the years she broke many age-group records. Mary Wittenberg, the president of New York Road Runners, called her “our queen of the roads.”
D’Elia was born Toshiko Kishimoto on Jan. 2, 1930, in Kyoto, Japan. Gail Kislevitz, a friend, said she spoke of difficult times after World War II, her country defeated and largely in ruins. Ms. Kislevitz quoted her as saying: “We starved. My mother would stand on food lines all day and come home with a cucumber to feed a family of six. I dreamed of being a bird so I could fly away.”
Her path to the United States began with an accident at a Roman Catholic convent, where she was helping out as an interpreter. As she told The New York Times in 1977, one day an 18-year-old deaf youth who did odd jobs for the nuns fell from a ladder and began screaming in pain. Suddenly she realized he had a voice and took an interest in teaching the deaf.
She went on to study special education for the deaf in Tokyo at Tsuda College, an institution for women, and won a Fulbright scholarship to study at Syracuse University, accepting the invitation despite her tradition-bound father’s refusal to help pay her way to the United States. As she recalled, he said he would rather spend money on a new automobile than a daughter’s education.
She earned a master’s degree in audiology at Syracuse, married and had her daughter in the United States.
Her husband soon left her, however, and she returned to Japan with the child, then 6 months old. Her father said her failed marriage had disgraced the family and told her to put her daughter up for adoption, but her mother gave her money to return to the United States with the baby.
D’Elia went on to teach for many years at the New York School for the Deaf in White Plains.
For years, d’Elia and her second husband, Manfred d’Elia, climbed mountains in the United States and around the world, including Fujiyama in Japan, Damavand in Iran and the Matterhorn in Switzerland. While climbing Monte Rosa in Switzerland, she tumbled into a crevasse, was hauled out by her fellow climbers and finished the ascent.
She and her husband took up running to build climbing strength and endurance: for her, it was a mile every morning at 5 o’clock.
Her serious running career also began by accident. The Ridgewood High School girls’ track team was preparing for a spring cross-country meet, and her daughter, Erica, the team’s captain, did not want any Ridgewood High runners to finish last.
“So my daughter tricked me into running it,” d’Elia told an interviewer. “The kids took off real fast from the start. I paced myself, and I came in third. Erica, who finished first, was standing there, and I could hear her screaming, ‘Oh, my God, that’s my mother.’ ”
Her first marathon was in 1976, in ice and snow in New Jersey. She had planned to run only the first half of the race; a friend’s husband was to pick her up at that point and give her a ride home. When he failed to show, she decided to finish the race, and she did so in 3:25, qualifying her for the Boston Marathon. By 1977, she was running 90 miles a week and winning long-distance races as well as sprinting events in 40-years-and-over competitions.
Manfred d’Elia, a classical pianist and piano teacher, was an accomplished runner himself as well as a prominent conservationist in New Jersey and a founder of hiking groups and the Opera Society of Northern New Jersey. He died in 2000.
Besides her daughter, d’Elia is survived by three grandsons, two stepdaughters and four step-grandchildren.
Despite having open-heart surgery when she was 78, d’Elia kept running, until December, around when her brain cancer was diagnosed.
“She was in the pool every day at 7 a.m.,” her daughter said on Wednesday. “She swam a mile and ran in the water for 45 minutes. Then there was a yoga class. Then she came home for lunch and a nap. Then, in the afternoon, she ran three to five miles. That was her day, until the day she couldn’t.”'