At ages 61 to 83, the four runners have reached the phase of life when the joints get creakier, the injuries take longer to heal, and the heart does not pump with the elastic vigor of youth.

Yet all four have staved off decline better than most, regularly running races with the fastest times in their age groups — and beating plenty of younger runners along the way.

In this year’s Broad Street Run, the speedy quartet of Gene Dykes, Rick Lee, Nancy Smith, and Sandy Folzer truly turned back the clock, an Inquirer analysis has found.

Using an “age-grading” algorithm endorsed by USA Track & Field, we estimated how fast each person would’ve run had they been in their 20s — the decade of peak performance potential. The analysis reviewed the results for all 20,000-plus runners who finished the 10-mile course.

By that measure, Dykes, 74; Lee, 61; Smith, 65; and Folzer, now 83, all finished among the top 10 runners for their genders.

And despite winning a race against time, each also saw room for improvement. Folzer — a retired psychologist from Chestnut Hill who started running in her mid-30s, nearly 50 years ago — vows to return to Broad Street next year.

“As usual,” she said, “I think I could’ve been faster.”

The concept of age-grading has been around for several decades, fueled by increased participation by older racers. Statisticians have developed several methods for making these calculations, but generally they are based on how much elite athletes slow down with age, as measured by the fastest known times for each age at a particular distance.

Regular runners are assumed to slow down at the same rate — roughly, 1% each year after age 40, provided they stay in peak shape, said Ray Fair, a Yale University economics professor who has studied the effects of aging.

“You’re basically assuming that in percentage terms, an average runner is declining at the same percentage rate as an elite runner,” he said.

The end result is a series of “age factors” that can be used to grade any runner on a curve, said Tom Bernhard, who helps gather data for the age tables used by USA Track & Field.

“It’s a nice way of saying who really had the best performance,” he said. “The 40-year-old guy who ran this, or the 65-year-old guy who ran this.”

Behind the numbers

For example, consider Smith, a New Britain, Bucks County resident who finished Broad Street in one hour, 16 minutes, and 17 seconds. With an average pace of 7:37 per mile, that’s a respectable time at any age.

But when multiplying her time by 0.7295 — the age factor for a 65-year-old woman in a 10-mile race — Smith’s performance was the equivalent of a woman in her 20s running the race in 55 minutes, 39 seconds. That was the 8th-fastest age-graded time of the 10,600 women who finished the May 1 race, the Inquirer analysis found.

Smith, who coaches triathletes, likes the concept of grading race results on an age-based curve because as she gets older, there are fewer people for her to match up against in her own age group.

“It is fun to compare myself,” she said.

(Try it yourself, using this online calculator at distances from 1 mile up to 200 kilometers.)

On the men’s side, the two Broad Street standouts over age 60 were Dykes, a retired computer programmer from Bala Cynwyd, and Lee, the owner of an engineering firm who lives in Bayville, N.J.

Dykes is a well-known figure in the Philadelphia running community, having broken three hours in the marathon at age 70 — an unofficial world record for men 70 to 74. (That’s because the Florida race was not sanctioned by USA Track & Field.)

His Broad Street time this year was 1:07:12 — equivalent to an age-adjusted time of 47:07, good for sixth among the 9,800 male finishers. It was not his fastest race in recent memory, in part because he is still building back his strength after a series of injuries toward the end of 2021. What’s more, Dykes ran marathons on each of the two weekends before Broad Street, so he may not have been in peak form.

“I hate to make excuses, though,” he said. “I am determined to do better next year.”

Dykes ran track in college, then dropped the sport until resuming in his mid-50s. Lee, on the other hand, had no experience running until several years ago.

He knew he was in decent shape from windsurfing, in-line skating, and backpacking, but had no idea how he’d match up as a runner. He got his first pair of running shoes at age 57, and was dismayed by his performance in a 5K race after several months of training.

“I got my butt whipped by a bunch of middle school kids,” he said.

These days, Lee is beating most of the boys and men of any age. In May, he flew down Broad Street in under an hour — good for 171st out of all male finishers, and 7th when accounting for age.

Staving off decline

There isn’t an age-grading calculator for nonbinary runners, but in this year’s Broad Street Run, there were plenty of speedsters in that category, too, ranging in age from 13 to 50 — led by Josh Fernandez, 34, of Philadelphia, who finished in 1 hour and 9 minutes.

Yet no matter a runner’s identity, time eventually will catch up with them all.

For a distance runner, the keys are the heart’s ability to deliver oxygen and the muscles’ ability to make use of it, said James Smoliga, a professor of physiology at High Point University, in High Point, N.C.

Every year, starting in a person’s mid- to late-30s, the heart becomes a bit less adept at pumping and the blood vessels become less elastic. Muscles become less powerful and springy, especially for those who do not exercise.

Still, with continued training, the decline from year to year is slight, said Smoliga, who earned a Ph.D. in sports medicine and nutrition from the University of Pittsburgh.

“We can still be pretty good,” he said. “It’s just not what we used to be when we were younger.”

Folzer, a faculty member for more than 30 years at Community College of Philadelphia, has long urged others to keep moving. In 2019, she wrote a book on the subject, titled Don’t Just Sit There!

Besides running for the health benefits, she runs because it is fun — both the camaraderie and the competition.

Folzer’s first race was the 1976 Philadelphia Marathon, and she is a regular in the Broad Street Run. A breast cancer survivor, she ran for many years in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, winning the survivor category 10 years’ running.

Now a bit slower than her peak, she waxes philosophical about the inevitable.

“Clearly age takes its toll,” she said, “and no matter how hard you work, it’s like you’re on a treadmill where it keeps slowing down no matter what you do.”

But she keeps at it no matter what.

“Sometimes when I’m running in the park and somebody passes me, I think ‘Boy, I wish I were faster,’” she said. “And then I remember I’m 83.”