Just run — how Gene Dykes excels as a 70-year-old runner
Gene Dykes has bowled a perfect 300 game four times, sunk a hole-in-one and — at age 70 — ran a marathon in under three hours.
All of which are, of course, very impressive feats. But sometimes his competitive drive gets in the way. In fact, it led to an injury that kept him from running for six years and delayed his first race until he was age 58.
Dykes ran for fun and fitness as an adult, regularly jogging with a co-worker. “One time I got it into my head that he's a little faster than I am,” he recalls. “So I decided that I was going to surprise him and sprint to the finish and beat him. But that was the last time I ran for six years.”
While trying to beat his friend, Dykes tore his hamstring. He gave it some rest but after six months, it still hurt when he tried to run. “I tried it again but it still hurt after a year. It still hurt after two years. It still hurt after three years, four years. I guess I forgot about running.”
During this time, Dykes focused his attention on bowling. At night, he would use visioning techniques to bowl three 300 games before going to sleep. “All of a sudden it (a perfect game) finally happened and I did it twice more that year.”
He also golfed. And by chance, one of his golf buddies was involved in a running group. “So that's interesting,” Dykes thought. “I said, ‘Maybe I can come with you sometime.’ I got into modest shape and started running with them on weekends. Of course, they all talked about racing all the time. So after a year or so running with them, I had to try racing. I had a real blast.”
A star runner is born
About 12 years ago, Dykes did his first race — 7 miles on trails.
“We were scrambling over tree trunks and through branches over rocks and roots,” Dykes remembers. “It was such a hoot. The whole thing was just so much fun. That race kicked off my love of trail running. Basically every year since then I've tried to do something longer in the way of trail running.”
The mental games associated with bowling and golf play a role as Dykes competes in endurance events that are as mentally challenging as they are on the physical side. His accomplishments include being among only 13 finishers of the three Destination Trail 200-mile races in 2017.
“A lot of people say you just can't get through a 100-miler or a hard marathon without overcoming the pits of despair,” he says. “I have never ever considered quitting in an ultra. No matter how bad I feel it never occurs to me that I might quit. I'm always amazed when people quit. Something about my constitution just refuses to quit.”
A record marathon, almost
Not only does Dykes complete races, he puts his name in the record books.
In 2017, he broke seven USATF age-group records in a single track race: the 15K, 10 mile, 20K, 25K, 30K, 20 mile and two-hour records. Last year, he won 10 U.S. championships, seven USATF age-group records, and three non-USATF age-group records. Dykes also ran 3:16 during the brutal conditions at the Boston Marathon, his third age-group win in a row and a new 70+ course record at the historic race.
Dykes concluded 2018 with a 2:54:23 at the Ameris Bank Jacksonville Marathon in Florida. It would have been a world age-group record had the race been properly sanctioned.
“There’s pretty much no recourse to that,” he says, matter-of-factly. “People said that I must have really wanted that record. Actually, I didn't want to be the record holder. I wanted to beat the record as it motivated my training. It was more my goal to beat that record than actually hold the record.”
Still, Dykes would like to officially break the record, maybe at New York City this year but he admits it’s not a good course for setting fast times. Or maybe London in 2020. For now, he is content to pack his race calendar with adventures.
This year, he is alternating road and ultra seasons. He has already completed two 50-milers and Rocky Raccoon, finishing the 100-mile race in 25:32:08. Among the road races on his radar: Boston and Big Sur marathons, which are two weeks apart.
“I just want to have a lot of fun this year after all the pressure last year competing at a high level on track and road,” he says.
Stretching? No. Cross-training? No.
Looking at his ambitious race schedule that he posted on Facebook, one might think he is a dedicated cross-trainer or does yoga regularly to loosen up.
“I don't stretch. I don't cross-train. Everybody's got to find out what works for them. And I think I've shown indisputably that you don't need to do any of these things necessarily.”
For those in middle age and older who have considered running but worry about knee injuries or other issues, Dykes doesn’t mince words.
“Worrying about hurting your knees is total hogwash,” he emphasizes. “My knees are much better off than they were when I started running 12 years ago, and I've had an MRI done.”
After all, Dykes points out, strengthening one’s legs with running can actually benefit the knees. And once a new runner gets in shape, he recommends latching on with a run group.
“You want to make it fun and it's a wide world of running out there. It’s pretty easy to find a place and run with them once a week.”
Dykes credits his long layoff from running for his success, pointing that runners generally have 15-year periods in which they can excel.
“Somebody asked me how they can be as good as me when they are 70,” he recalls. “In all likelihood the best advice I can give them this to stop running. All you have to do is look at all the great marathoners who are now my age and every single one of them is no longer any good. If you run hard early on in your life, you're not likely to be very good when you're older.”
That’s why Dykes doesn’t consider his injured years as lost time.
“I don't look back with regret on those six years,” he says. “I look back on them as a godsend.”
Name: Gene Dykes
Hometown: Canton, Ohio
Number of years running: 8 years during high school and college, and then intermittent jogging for 30 years, then no running at all for six years due to an injury. 14 years ago, at age 56, I began running again, and I ran my first race at age 58.
How many miles a week do you typically run: ~45
Point of pride: The only living 70 year old to officially run a sub 3-hour marathon
Favorite race distance: The longer the better
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: I don’t drink or eat before running
Favorite piece of gear: Nike VaporFly 4%
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I don’t usually listen to music when running
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “Just Run”
Where can other runners connect or follow: “Gene Dykes” on Facebook