Over the past two years, Jeannie Rice and Gene Dykes, who were born within a few days of each other in April 1948, have attacked the running record books in their age group.
Rice kicked off the record spree in October 2018 at the Chicago Marathon, where she ran 3:27:50 and shattered the existing 70-plus world record by more than 7 minutes. A few weeks later, Dykes went to the Toronto Waterfront Marathon and finished in 2:55:17, coming within 30 seconds of the world record (2:54:48), set by the great Ed Whitlock of Canada in 2004 when he was 73. Many considered the record to be untouchable until Dykes came so close.
It seemed he bested Whitlock in December 2018, when Dykes ran the Jacksonville Marathon in Florida in 2:54:23, bettering Whitlock’s mark by 25 seconds. But Dykes later discovered the Jacksonville race was certified, but not sanctioned, a classification snafu that rendered the course ineligible for records.
What’s next? For Dykes, 71, he’s training to make another run at the record, possibly in London in April or in Chicago this fall. Meanwhile, Rice, also 71, improved upon her own time last September in Berlin, when she ran 3:24:48, or 7:49 pace. She has a full racing calendar for 2020, including the Tokyo Marathon in February, when she’ll try to run faster.
How do they do it? Some of it is the luck of genetics, sure. But the rest is hard work, focus on a goal, and committed training. (Rice logs about 65 miles per week, and Dykes builds up his mileage through numerous ultras.) In other words, they’re just the same as athletes decades younger.
Reach for a goal
Dykes plans each upcoming year in December, and he makes his intentions public on his Facebook page. For 2020, he aims to enter 35 races, a mix of distances and surfaces. Along with trying to officially set the 70-plus marathon world record, he hopes to win his age group at Boston and improve his own 5K PR (19:01). There are six ultras on his calendar, including the Bigfoot 200 in Washington.
“Runners, if you haven’t planned a really nice adventure, you are missing out on one of the great pleasures of running—anticipation!” he wrote on the Facebook post.
Rice has many races planned through the spring. She encourages anyone to set a goal and write it down. She keeps a list of records she wants to go after—her own or someone else’s—on her refrigerator and on a slip of paper in her purse, crossing out the times once she betters them. “Set the goal,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be winning, it doesn’t have to be 3 and a half hours, 4 hours. If you don’t have a goal, what do you do it for?”
Rice races herself into marathon shape with 5Ks, 10Ks, and half marathons. Dykes has a coach who gives him grueling workouts. A recent doozy: 8 x 1 mile at 6:33 pace, with one minute of jogging between each. He didn’t nail the workout, and he gave himself two minutes of jogging, but he kept at it.
Year in and year out, he finds that he improves. “If you try something just a little bit more ambitious each year, the impossible becomes possible and the possible becomes routine,” he says. “I always think, ‘I did that last year; what can I do next year to beat that?’ ”
Never let your focus waver
Rice doesn’t mess around when she gets to the start of a race, and she’s deliberate about her pacing and self-talk. She says to herself, “I know I can do it,” rather than allowing negativity to creep in. For the first three to five miles of a marathon, she tries to settle into her pace—no faster than 7:45 per mile. (In Boston last year, she went out too hard on the downhills and suffered from cramping later on.)
Until mile 20, she looks at her watch and focuses on the splits. At mile 20, she thinks of the finish and the people waiting for her. In December, she ran her 120th marathon, in Thailand, in 3:27. “A lot of people run many, many marathons,” she says. “But they’re not really racing. I race. Once I’m on the starting line, my competitiveness is right there.”
Find what works for you
Dykes has not had luck with many of the pre- and post-run rituals that other runners swear by. “I notice correlations between stretching and weight lifting,” he says. “And the correlation is the more I do them, the more I get injured.”
It’s not that the extras don’t help some people; they do. His point: “You shouldn’t accept it as gospel. Only do it if you perceive the benefits. I don’t see any benefit at all, so I don’t do them. I encourage everybody to not think of them as must-dos, but maybes. Give it a try; see if it works.”
Have a blast
Dykes is a contrarian in many ways, including this advice: He advocates waiting to train seriously until you have the time for it, not when you’re raising small children or working full-time hours.
People who think they’re not going to have any fun running when they’re older? They’re wrong. “That’s the message I’m trying to get out there: You can have a blast as an older runner,” he says. “To a certain extent, you only have so many good years. Why would you want to waste them when running is hard and your competition is fierce? Wait until my age. Most of your competition has one foot in the grave.”
How They Got Started
After moving to the U.S. from Korea in 1968, Jeannie Rice took a trip back home in 1983 and gained seven pounds—all the relatives were feeding her a feast at every gathering. “We had to eat to be p
olite,” Rice says. “I came home, I’m 5-foot-2, and I’m a little chubby. I wanted to lose those few pounds.” So she started walking and jogging around her block. That summer, her two sons were on a local swim team in Mentor, Ohio. Another mom invited Rice to run with her while the kids were at their daily practice. Her first race, a 5-miler, soon followed. “I found out I can run,” Rice says.
Gene Dykes was a successful high school track athlete in Canton, Ohio, running 10:17 for the 2-mile. But when he got to college at Lehigh University, he found himself “blown off the track” by everyone else. After college, he kept running but concentrated on golf and bowling. In 2004, he was a fourth for a golf outing, where one of the other men mentioned he was in a running group. Dykes soon joined them. He did his first marathon in 2006 at age 58—finishing in 3:43. In 2013, he hired his coach, and he brought his marathon time from 3:29 to 3:09 in five months.