Gene Dykes was lost in the wilderness of southwestern Australia in February, well off the trail of a 218-mile ultramarathon.
Or so it seemed to those tracking him on the race website. Some concern was justified, as he was 70, the oldest of 35 entrants by more than a decade.
In fact, the retired computer programmer from Bala Cynwyd was just fine, his whereabouts unclear simply due to a faulty electronic tracking device. Sure, he faced giant spiders, venomous snakes, and hallucinations brought on by running for four days with little sleep, but such obstacles are no sweat for the man who playfully calls himself the Ultrageezer.
“I just run,” he likes to say when fans ask his secret.
This is not the story of a fading older athlete who’s still pretty good for his age. This is about a lean whipcord of energy who keeps getting better, churning past runners decades his junior.
In 2018 — 14 years after he took up running again in earnest, having mostly given it up since college — he scored his best year yet. Ten national championships at distances ranging from 1,500 meters to 100 miles, eight national age-group records, and then the capper in December:
On a gray, drizzly day in Jacksonville, Fla., Dykes ran the fastest-ever marathon for the 70-74 age group: 2 hours, 54 minutes, 23 seconds. It does not count as an official world record, because the race was not sanctioned by USA Track & Field, but the running community has hailed his feat nonetheless.
“He’s bloody inspirational to watch,” said Shaun Kaesler, who organized the ultramarathon in Australia.
That Jacksonville time works out to 6 minutes and 39 seconds per mile. Most people would be hard-pressed to run even one mile at that clip, yet Dykes cranked out 26 of them in a row. He placed 18th overall out of 674 finishers, with a time that would have been the second-fastest among men aged 40 to 44.
Now 71, Dykes is running in Monday’s storied Boston Marathon, followed two weeks later by the Big Sur Marathon in California and Philadelphia’s 10-mile Broad Street Run the week after that.
Though he “just runs,” Dykes follows a strict training schedule, logging each mile and how fast he runs it. For the last five years, he has done so with guidance from a coach.
But how to explain this success at an age when most are slowing down, many of them grappling with infirmity? Part of it is natural ability, certainly, though Dykes was not an elite athlete in his younger years. Durability is key — he does not get injured much — but Dykes says his joints may be more durable because of the running, not the other way around.
“My knees are better now than they were 12 years ago,” he said.
His success is so startling that it was featured this month in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers from the University of Delaware and the Mayo Clinic conducted a battery of tests, proclaiming his cardiovascular fitness “remarkable." Yet there is clearly something else beneath his smiling exterior driving him to hit the pavement day after day.
What makes Gene Dykes run?
Good but not great
The first time he went for a run, Dykes was 14, living in Canton, Ohio. As sometimes happens with teenage boys, it was partly about impressing a girl.
He laced up his sneakers and set out for her house, 2.5 miles away. He made it just a mile or so before he had to stop and walk.
He eventually got there, but the girl was unimpressed. Dykes found he liked running, however, and joined the track team, eventually posting a time of 10:17 in the two-mile run. Very good, but not elite. When he went on to Lehigh University, others on the track team were regularly running faster than 9 minutes for that distance.
“I wasn’t fit to tie the shoelaces of my teammates,” he said.
Chastened, he soon gave up the sport. Decades passed, during which he focused on career and family, raising two daughters with wife Olivia S. Mitchell, a prominent professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Then at age 56, he was invited by a golfing pal to join a running group, and decided to give his old sport another shot.
Within a couple of years, Dykes was racing again — still not winning, but enjoying the intensely personal quest of the serious runner: competing against himself.
“It’s kind of a quiet dedication, almost,” said daughter Hilary Shirazi, 30, a software executive. “For him, every day it’s ‘How can I spend a little time and get a little better?’ ”
He ran his first trail race, getting a kick out of navigating fallen branches and tree roots. He tried a half-marathon, then marathons in New York and Boston. Training on his own, he eventually ran a marathon in under 3:30, yet felt he could do better. So he Googled the words Philadelphia running coach, contacted John Goldthorp at fixyourrun.com, and announced his goal of winning his age group in Boston.
“My first reaction was ‘Who are you and what are you talking about?’ ” Goldthorp recalled.
It was an odd request to get from out of the blue. Even odder: Dykes eschewed stretching exercises — a staple of most runners’ training regimens — and he was perhaps the least flexible athlete Goldthorp had met.
But the coach, who has a degree in kinesiology from Pennsylvania State University, saw that his new client had a compact, efficient stride, and seemed eager and able to do the work. Dykes had been running three or four times a week; Goldthorp bumped him up to six, mixing in punishing uphill workouts with long, slower runs.
Five months later, at age 66, Dykes ran the 2014 Boston Marathon in 3:09, a personal best, though just third place in the 65-to-69 age group. He kept training, and also saved time for ultramarathons — drawn by the scenery to such far-flung locales as Patagonia and the Azores.
He runs the ultras more for the fun and camaraderie, at a leisurely pace of at least 12 minutes per mile — saving all-out efforts for the marathon. In 2018, he broke through, running the 26.2-mile distance in under three hours on three occasions: 2:57 in Rotterdam, 2:55 in Toronto, and the 2:54 in Jacksonville.
Dykes, who is 5′10″ and normally 142 pounds (he tries to lose a few before marathons) does not mind the resulting celebrity. But he said his main goal is to show others what is possible.
“As near as I can tell, a lot of people have said: 'I’m going to put my running shoes on. Heck, if this guy can run a marathon like that at age 70, what’s my excuse?’ ” he said.
He enjoys sharing his exploits on social media, revealing a dry wit. He apologized to followers when his tracker stopped working in Australia:
“Sometimes it made me look like I died at an aid station. Sometimes it showed me bushwhacking through the wilderness."
Most of all, it is fun. So much that on the morning of one daughter’s wedding, he insisted that both the bride and her sister get up before 7 a.m. to run with him.
That is the “why" of Gene Dykes. Less clear is the how.
A running machine
For the New England Journal of Medicine study, Dykes ran on a treadmill with a mask over his face, enabling researchers to measure how much oxygen he could extract from each lungful of air. At its peak, his oxygen uptake was deemed “exceptional” for his age — but not good enough to explain breaking three hours in a marathon.
Then came the real surprise. Most marathoners maintain a pace that equates to 75 to 85 percent of their peak oxygen uptake. Dykes’ marathon pace, the researchers calculated, meant he was somehow running 26 miles at more than 90 percent of his peak. If there were a lab instrument to measure dogged determination, Dykes would be off the charts.
Why, then, was he not an elite runner in high school and college? Goldthorp, his coach, thinks he just needed to train more strategically. And now that he is retired, he can train full time.
As for the health benefits, there is ample evidence that regular aerobic exercise makes for a longer and better quality of life. A key reason: Exercise helps maintain the elasticity of the heart and blood vessels, said Benjamin D. Levine, director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Texas Health Presbyterian Dallas.
But most people in those studies are not running 218-mile races. Is there such a thing as too much?
Surely yes, though research has not established where that threshold is, said Levine, also a professor of medicine and cardiology at UT Southwestern Medical Center. Told of Dykes’ ultramarathons, Levine said the slower pace in those races should prevent undue stress on the heart. As for marathons, he said the necessary training is well within reason for most people — though runners, like anyone, should undergo regular checkups.
How about the joints? Running has been blamed so often for knee problems that people speak of “runner’s knee.” But the latest evidence suggests that nickname is unfair, at least where arthritis is concerned, said Angela D. Smith, past president of the American College of Sports Medicine and a retired orthopedist and honorary professor at Thomas Jefferson University.
In one 2018 study, researchers tracked more than 1,500 older adults at elevated risk of knee arthritis for various reasons, such as being overweight. After four years, people who engaged in moderate to vigorous physical activity were no more likely to develop knee arthritis than those who were sedentary.
At some point, of course, Dykes’ wiry frame will slow down. But for now, he is optimistic about breaking his age group’s marathon record of 2:54:48, set in 2004 by Canadian Ed Whitlock at age 73.
Dykes’ Jacksonville time was 25 seconds faster than that, but the lack of official sanction for the event means Whitlock’s mark still stands.
Monday’s race in Boston also is not eligible for a world record, as the course is laid out from point to point, with a net drop in elevation of several hundred feet. Records can be set only on courses that end up at the same spot.
Still, Dykes hopes to set a course record for Boston in his age group, breaking his own mark of 3:16, set last year in driving rain. Official world-record attempts may come later in the year in Toronto or New York, followed by one in London in 2020.
The researchers who prodded Dykes with their instruments would not be surprised if he succeeded.
What’s certain is that the Ultrageezer will run, and he will have fun.