Talk about blossoming late.

Bill Johnston, 51, didn't start running until he was 42. That hasn't hindered his performance at all. The University of Utah psychology professor has become so proficient at his favorite pastime that he was recently named the No. 1 runner in the nation in the 50- to 54-year-old age division by Running Times magazine.Not only did he get the No. 1 ranking for 1988, but he won the overall grand prix race series for his age group with a stellar performance in the final event.

Points are awarded in certain races throughout the United States from March to January. Going into the final race in January, an 8 kilometer run (about 5 miles) in Naples, Fla., Johnston and Bill Ohlrich of Lexington, Ky., were tied for first in the grand prix standings.

And Johnston was ailing, suffering from a chronic injury, an aggravated sciatica nerve. As such, the big point lead he had built up over the first half of the 1988-89 race schedule had evaporated. He had also lost his last four races against Ohlrich.

"I didn't have a lot of confidence going into the race but decided to go for broke," Johnston explained. What broke was Ohlrich. He couldn't keep up with Johnston's pace. The 5-10, 142-pound Johnston stormed over the 8K course in 26 minutes, 50 seconds, about a 5:23 mile pace. Ohlrich finished 53 seconds back.

"It was the biggest thrill of my life. I had never experienced such a high as that," Johnston said. He also managed to edge former Olympian Jim Ryun, who was running in another division with the likes of Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers. The victory not only gave him the grand prix title, but also validated his No. 1 ranking, Johnston feels.

The No. 1 ranking and grand prix titles are highlights of Johnston's brief running career. A friend, who had given up smoking and started running for health and fitness, talked Johnston into joining him nine years ago.

"With that casual running I started taking off some weight," said Johnston, who weighed 180 pounds at the time.

Soon, Johnston became interested in more than just casual running. "After six months I ran in a race and managed to run a respectable time. My basic competitive nature came out and I wondered what I could do if I trained harder."

When he was 44 he improved to where he was coming in second and third in his age division in the various races. Johnston gained national attention when at 45 he ran the St. George Marathon in 2 hours, 26 minutes, which at the time was a national record for ages 45 to 49. While competing in the 45 to 49 age division he set several national records.

Then when he turned 50 the masters grand prix series came into being and gave him some new goals to pursue.

The question remains, how could someone who never ran until he was 42, be so successful competing against former high school and college runners?

"If you're genetically predisposed you can run well. Somehow, I just had the genes and never knew that until I was in my 40s," Johnston said.

Having good genes is just part of the success formula. The other part involves a lot of work. Johnston runs 50 to 100 miles a week, depending on the season. During the winter he runs 50 to 70 miles a week to basically keep in shape and then increases the mileage when the racing season starts.

In addition to the long training runs, Johnston also does a considerable amount of speed work at the track, running intervals ranging from a quarter mile to two miles.

He trains with a group of runners and is amazed at the number of outstanding masters (40 and over) runners Utah has. Steve Lester of Magna, for example, is another Utahn to achieve a No. 1 ranking this year. He did it in the 45-49 division. Another Utahn who ranked high in that division is Robert Nelson of Salt Lake City. And Gaylon Jorgenson of Utah ranked third in the 55 to 59 division.

Running has not only kept him in shape physically but it's helped him mentally, Johnston said. Before he ran, he focused so much energy on his work that some of it was counterproductive, he believes. With his running the quality of his work has improved, he added.

Now that he's No. 1, Johnston gets to defend his title - there will be all the regular rivals plus the ones who just turned 50. "I'm going to have my hands full," Johnston said.