Part 1: Interview With The Fastest 70-year-old Marathoner of All-Time

On December 15th 2018 in Jacksonville, Florida, Gene Dykes ran a 2:54:23 marathon. At age 70. Let that sink in for a moment.

My goodness, that is amazing.

Not only is Mr. Dykes a tremendous athlete, he is also very funny and full of great advice for runners of all levels. We are honored that he took the time to answer some questions.

Here is part one of a two-part interview SeePhillyRun conducted with Mr. Dykes this week.

SeePhillyRun: We read you started marathon training at 58. Why did you suddenly start then? Who or what really influenced you to start?  

Gene Dykes: I ran my first marathon at age 58, so I guess I would consider age 57 to be when I started marathon training.I had been a jogger most of my adult life following a lackluster track career in high school and college.  I ran when I felt like it, sometimes in shape, sometimes not, but it never occurred to me to run races.  When I was 50, I sprinted in to finish a workout, tore my hamstring, and I was unable to run for six years.  When I was finally able to run again at age 56, I joined a group that ran together once or twice on weekends.  They pestered me to join them at their favorite races, so my first road race was the Caesar Rodney half marathon in Wilmington, DE.  My finish time was good enough to bypass the NYC lottery, so they convinced me to run that with them as well.  That was marathon #1.  This year, I will run NYC for the second time, but this time it will be marathon (or ultra) number 124!

SPR: We read that you don’t keep a strict regimented diet to complement your running. Would you call this part of your style? By that we mean by doing it your way and eating junk food sometimes, you’re somehow maintaining control of it all – not letting it consume you. By doing that, does it keep your mind clear, reduce pressure and allow you to perform better? Walk us through this…

GD: Whoa!  You are way overthinking this!  I’ll eat anything in moderation.  Fortunately, I mainly eat healthy food, but it’s basically a “See Food” diet.  Put food in front of me and it’s down the hatch.  Alas, when chasing records, weight assumes more importance than it ought to for more casual running and racing.  Keeping my weight down for an important race is the hardest part of training.  Every excess pound is a 52 seconds slower marathon time.

SPR: Do you have any quirky running habits? Any rituals? Anything really unique that you like to eat, drink or wear?

GD: The most unique thing about my eating habits I suppose is that I DON’T eat.  I run in the morning before breakfast, so I’m always training on an empty stomach.  I can do a vigorous 25 mile workout without bonking. Drink? Coca Cola!  I try to hide a bottle of coke out on a marathon course that I can pick up around mile 20 for the sugar/caffeine boost it gives me.  It also provides a lot of my calories during an ultramarathon.  Instead of water, I carry a 50/50 mix of water/coke in my water bottles. For some marathons and  ultramarathons, I’ll wear a shirt that my daughter designed for me.  It’s a bright neon pink.  The lettering has #UltraGeezer at the top, and underneath it tells my age and what number marathon/ultra the race is.  So, for instance, at next week’s 218 mile race in Australia, it would look like:

                #UltraGeezer
                Age: 70
                Marathon/Ultra #114

SPR: What runner do you most look up to and why?

GD: I admire the back of the packers at marathons, ultramarathons, and stage races.  They’re often suffering just as much as I am, but they are doing it for far longer.  I have a good shot at winning my age group at most races, but these folks have no chance of ever winning anything – they are out there giving their all strictly for the love of running.

SPR: At what point in your training did you start to believe you had a chance to break the record for the best marathon time ever for 70+ year old runner? During the race when it happened, did you believe you could break it the whole time? Or did it suddenly become clear? Walk us through your head that day…

GD: It was three years ago that I looked at my improvement trajectory and realized that if I could just keep improving for three more years that I had a chance to break Ed Whitlock’s single age 70 record of 3:00:23.  Even as late as early last year, I still considered the age group record of 2:54:48 to be way out of reach.  It wasn’t until I shattered the age 70 record with a 2:57:43 that I realized I was within range of the age group record. I was pretty sure on race day that it was going to happen.  Some people think records are set when a runner somehow plumbs up the needed energy by sheer willpower, but in reality, you can only run what you are trained for.  My training indicated that I had the fitness to beat the record, so I just had to go out and do it.  That said, something can always go wrong, and after mile 20 is usually when that happens.  I kept pounding out the needed pace for miles 20-23, and then something happened that had never occurred before – I started getting cramps in my left calf.  It started out as an occasional twinge, but the twinges started coming more and more often.  Yes, I was pretty scared heading into the last mile, knowing that a full scale cramp could happen at any moment.  With just a quarter mile to go, it did happen.  Within sight of the finish line, my calf totally seized up, and I was brought to a dead halt.  I knew I was about 40 seconds ahead of record pace, so I had some time to get it under control.  After about 20 seconds, the pain let up, and I was able to finish 25 seconds ahead of the record.

—————

Join us next time for part 2 of our interview with Gene Dykes!

All the best,

SeePhillyRun