Ultra running adventures of a septuagenarian
Dallas Smith turns 78 in June. But being a septuagenarian hasn’t slowed him down.
“I've already started thinking of myself as 78,” Smith says. “I think runners are the only people who look forward to having birthdays when they get old, hoping they get into a new age group. One of my friends said, ‘It's not really a birthday unless you get an age group upgrade.’"
Smith has set more than 100 Tennessee records, including three at age 76 and two at age 77. “In Tennessee, they keep state records for each year of age, because once you get as old as I am, your running speed is such a function of your age that it changes annually.”
He has more than 100 marathons under his belt, and has won his age group at the Chicago Marathon and New York City Marathon, as well as other races.
In 2017, Smith knocked out a total of 2,407 miles and ran 17 races, including Vol State — a 500K ultra marathon without aid stations spanning the state of Tennessee in July.
But long before he strapped on race bibs, won age-group awards and finished ultras measured in days, he had to convince himself that he was a runner.
A secret race
Smith began his running career 19 years ago, after being a self-professed “jogger” for 17 years.
“By jogger, I mean I didn't enter races,” he explains. “I generally didn't know runners. I lived in sort of a rural environment and there weren't a lot of runners around me that I knew, and I didn't even know there was a publication called Runner's World. I was just an isolated person that would go out on my lunch hour and I would run. And I typically would run about six miles on my lunch hour, or sometimes after work.”
Then he lost both his parents and faced surgery himself. While recovering, he hatched a plan — running a marathon. But first, he would run a secret race.
Smith registered by mail to run the 10K race in his town of Cookeville, where Tennessee Technological University Is located. “I was aware of the race because I live close to the course,” he says. In fact, the race took place on a road that Smith had been running — or jogging — for years.
The night before he surprised his wife by telling her he would wake up early Saturday morning to go for a run.
“I didn't even tell her that I'd registered for a race,” he remembers of the April 1998 event. “I went to the race and I ran it secretly, but I took something from each family member with me. I had a little watch that my wife had given me and I had on a hat that my son had given me and I was wearing a pair of socks my daughter had given me, and I was wearing a pair of shorts that my wife's son had given me and I was wearing a T-shirt my wife's other son had given me. So I had a memento of every family member with me on that race.”
Not only did Smith finish the 10K, he won the masters division and his age group.
“I came in the house screaming. I screamed so hard I hurt my throat,” he says. “It was such an unusual experience. I think I registered for the race secretly because I was timid. I was afraid I wouldn't do well and I'd be embarrassed. So I registered for it secretly and went and ran it secretly. And then, to have such an unexpected outcome, to win first place in my age group and overall masters, and in this race they permitted double dipping, so I got two trophies, actually.”
A ’big adventure’
Smith knocked off his first marathon less than a year later. He then dabbled in triathlons but sought something new, a bigger challenge.
“When you take up running, you keep finding new adventures to try,” he says. “You wonder what else is out there. So you start looking around. I didn't know anything about ultra marathons. I can't even remember when I first started hearing about ultra marathons, but there's one nearby that's pretty well-known called the Strolling Jim Ultra Marathon.”
A week after he ran the Country Music Marathon in Nashville, Smith did the 40-mile (actually 41.2) Strolling Jim ultra. “somehow, I started hearing about 100-mile ultra marathons. I thought I would give that a try.”
So Smith planned his “big adventure.” Not one, not two, but three ultras back-to-back-to-back.
He discovered the Arkansas Traveller 100-miler. “I thought, ‘Well, if I've gotta drive all the way to Arkansas, let me look around and see what else is going on.’" He found another 100-mile race in Kansas, just a week later, and then, a week after that, he discovered was a 50-mile run in Palo Duro Canyon in Texas.
“I thought about that for a long time,” he says. “It sounded so appealing just to make a drive and run all three of those, but I hadn't ever done a 100-mile ultra-marathon before. I didn't know what would happen. And to do two back-to-back weekends followed by a 50-mile run just a week later, three races back-to-back ... That was pretty darn insane to think about.
“But again, just in the spirit of the very first race I ran, I decided, ‘What the heck,’ and just signed up for all three of 'em.”
Three ultras, three weekends
Smith left Tennessee and drove to Arkansas with his truck and camper shell. First stop: the Ouachita Mountains in Arkansas.
Fairly early in the race, he fell quickly and smashed his hands on some rocks. He kept going, though he was worried about the swelling in one finger.
Around 2 a.m., he was on a Jeep road, returning on the out-and-back course.
“I passed an aid station, and then there came a long climb on a real rough hill,” he recalls. “A bunch of rocks and gullies and everything else. I made that climb, and I was running by myself, and suddenly I came to a field, an open space, that looked like it had recently been disked up, or not plowed, but they had run maybe a disker or something over it, it looked like. And I thought, ‘Well, that's odd. I don't remember a field on this stretch on the outbound run.’ And I thought, ‘Well, maybe I just forgot it.’”
He headed across a field, in search of a trail. He found a trail but not the one for the race. After backtracking, he still couldn’t find his way back to the course.
“I had been running for a long, long time and I didn't know what to do,” he recalls. “I was at the point of giving up so I just sat down and was going to lean back against the tree and wait for them to find me."
Realizing the race had a 30-hour time limit, Smith collected himself, and walked the perimeter of the field, looking for a clue to get back on course.
“That’s when I found out that the field I was in had a real complicated shape,” he says. “It would neck down and then it would expand out and so forth, but I didn't care. At that point, I figured my race was gone, I was just gonna follow the dad-gum line. I didn't care if it took me to Oklahoma. And after doing that for a while, finally I came up on the big mud hole where I had come into it. And that was a great celebration. So I headed down that trail, it finally intersected another trail, and my flashlight spotted one of those surveying ribbons hanging down from a tree limb, and that's the way they had marked the course. So I knew I was on-course again.”
Rejuvenated, Smith took off knowing he could still finish the race. He ran fast down the mountain, leaping over rocks and roots. His confidence grew as he made up time. Then he saw the lights of an aid station.
“I went running in there to that aid station, and there's still a woman with a clipboard in her hand,” he says. “She was writing down race numbers. And she looked at me and she looked at her clipboard and a funny little expression came on her face that I didn't understand. And then she said, ‘You were here before.’ And it hit me: I was running the wrong way.”
Smith trudged back up the mountain and finished the race, as well as completing his triple crown. “It was quite an adventure.”
Now, Smith is listening to his body, trying to heal his injuries. He heads to the gym, does some weights and light running. He often runs the same races, but here will be no Vol State this year.
“Each year you expect to be slower than you were the previous year,” he says. “That's just biology and there's nothing you can do about it. You can train your eyes out, but you can't defeat biology, ultimately. So you see that happening just year after year after year. Your performance erodes. When you get to be an older runner, as I certainly am, then you start computing your age-graded time.”
Whether Smith beats his age-graded time from previous races or not, he serves as an inspiration to those around him. Even as he slows down, he encourages others to find running like he did.
“I was pretty old when I started. I waited so many years because I was just timid, afraid of failure,” he admits. “My message is don't be afraid of failure. And don't be afraid to try. Just go do it. Because I look back on my situation, and for many years I was a jogger but I never tested myself. So I had no idea whether I was a good runner or a bad runner or what. And it really doesn't matter. I think it would have been an exciting adventure for me no matter what had happened. And I didn't realize that until I did it. So I think that's what I would tell someone that's thinking about running. Give it a try, why not? You may surprise yourself and you'll have an exciting adventure in any case.”
Name: Dallas Smith
Hometown: Cookeville, Tennessee
Number of years running: 19 running; 17 jogging before that. Total 36 jogging/running
Weekly mileage: varies from 0 to 75, averaging around 50.
Point of pride: 1st in AG 15 times at Country Music Marathon, 12 of those in consecutive years. 1st in AG NYC Marathon. 1st in AG Chicago Marathon. 1st in AG Barcelona Marathon. 3-time finisher Last Annual Vol State Road Race, twice as oldest ever. Over 100 single-age Tennessee state records. Published three books on running adventure.
Favorite Distance: Marathon
Favorite pre-race meal/drink: water/Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pie
Favorite gear: RaceReady shorts
Favorite song: Hmm, long list. I listened to mainstream jazz 35 years, because there was a public jazz station in Music City. Mostly I like songs from what people call the Great American Song Book. That's less a function of my 77 years of age than of my environment of ready jazz. I typed a list of songs into my phone for multi-day Vol State race, so that I would not forget about one. Each song represents outstanding composition, which appeals to my writer's soul, and I know most of the lyrics of all of them. The list includes two country songs and one blues song too. Here is my phone list:
The Night We Called It A Day
The Folks Who Live On The Hill
The House I Live In
The Old Country
Sugar (Rare Silk version)
I'm So Lonely I Could Cry
Going Down Slow
Favorite mantra: Falling Forward
How to contact: @smithbend on Twitter; dallasfallsforward.blogspot.com