How do you keep running faster as you get older? The story behind this record-breaking run might hold the answers.
Running 2 hours 54 minutes and 23 seconds for the marathon, an average pace of 6:39 per mile, is impressive for an athlete at any age. But running that time at 70 years old is simply incredible. American Gene Dykes did just that. On December 15th, at the Jacksonville Marathon, he broke the previous M70-74 world record – Ed Whitlock’s 2:54:48 in 2004 – by 25 seconds. And what’s more, he did it just two weeks after a weekend double that included a 50k trail race. It’s clear that Gene is no conventional athlete.
When we caught up with Gene a few days after the race he revealed he hadn’t been entirely confident he’d break the record. “If I had been more confident, I would have let more people know, but the effects of those two big races really put me in unknown territory,” said Gene. “I hoped I would be able to just nip Ed’s record. I definitely had the fitness, so it was all a matter of whether or not I had sufficient rest from my races two weeks before.”
“Running a 50K trail race and a competitive road marathon on consecutive days, just two weeks before a world record attempt, is hardly a textbook approach to preparation! It turns out that 13 days of tapering was more than sufficient. I did run a hard 5K race on the weekend before Jacksonville just to keep my legs from getting too lazy!” laughs Gene.
Gene actually had a crack at the marathon record earlier in the year, in Toronto, but fell just short. What made the difference this time around? “First, I had a conditioning breakthrough at some point between the two races. At the Philadelphia Half Marathon I figured I was only trained well enough to run about 1:26, but I finished at 1:25:07. It’s not often that I greatly exceed my expectations. I’m pretty in tune with my fitness,” explains Gene. “Second, I had a new fueling strategy. I switched to Maurten’s 320. Remarkable stuff. I was able to consume two bottles (640 calories). Before, I could drink 250 calories or so of my previous fuel, but any more and I got sick. Those additional calories would have been really useful at Toronto, where I bonked with a mile to go.”
This time around things went as well as could be hoped, until the very end. “When I get to the start line, I’m always in the frame of mind that I’m going to trust my training. Facing the prospect of running 26 miles at a 6:39 pace would be totally scary, otherwise,” says Gene. “After 20 miles, you start looking for signs of an oncoming bonk, but none of the telltale signs appeared, and I knew then it was going to be my day, until… at mile 24 I started getting calf twinges […] Then just 400 yards from the finish line, with the track in sight, my worst nightmare came true. My left calf was seized by a full scale cramp. Here I was, almost a minute ahead of world record pace with only a couple minutes left, and I’m at a dead stop from the pain. Fortunately, it eased up after 10-20 seconds, and I was able to get to the finish line uneventfully.”
So, of course, the question everyone is asking is, how has Gene managed to reach such a remarkable level of fitness at 70-years old? Gene points to three key factors. “Don’t forget there’s a difference between longevity and success in later years. I’ve only been racing for 12 years, so we can talk about longevity if I start challenging the records Ed Whitlock set in his mid 80’s. Rather, the fact that I am still relatively new to the game is the first major key to being successful at an advanced age. My body hasn’t been ravaged by decades of hard training and races. Being an accomplished younger runner is a very strong predictor of not being all that strong later in life,” he explains. “Another key I cite is good coaching. I’d still be a nobody without the coach I hired five years ago. The third key, that works for me at least, is to maintain a strong base by doing lots of ultra trail races. Lots and lots.”
And that’s exactly what Gene plans to do next! In January alone he will race two 50-mile trail races while in February he has both a 100-mile and a 200-mile trail race penciled in on his schedule. One thing is for sure: Gene Dykes shows no signs of slowing down.
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