Gene Dykes can remember being nearly halfway through a 50-mile race and coming upon a young woman who was struggling to keep moving forward. “She was really up against it,” he recalls.
Dykes stuck with her for a little while and offered some sage advice. Yes, it was tough going, and she felt as if each step might cause horrible agony. But she had to keep running. “I said, ‘This is why we enter these races, to see if we can do it,’” he says. “She kept plodding along.”
For more than a decade, the retired computer programmer from Bala Cynwyd has been competing in races short (not too often) and long (most of the time). On the surface, it doesn’t sound all that remarkable. Roads and trails all over the area are clogged with runners of all kinds. Dykes, however, holds a world record in the 70- to 74-year-old age group, running a marathon this past December in two hours, 54 minutes. That’s a pace of about 6:40 per mile—fast for any runner, let alone one who just turned 71 this month.
His 2019 running schedule includes a 218-mile race in Australia in February, 13 ultra events and seven marathons—including Boston on April 15, when he hopes to break three hours. At a time in life when many people are simply content to be up and moving around, Dykes is trying to get faster. “I don’t see any reason why he’s going to get slower in the near future,” says his coach, John Goldthorp.
Dykes ran in high school in Canton, Ohio, and in college at Lehigh University, but he doesn’t consider his early career at all remarkable. After he retired, he decided to turn what had been a sporadic hobby into an avocation, training more and running in races more often and over longer distances. He also engaged the services of Goldthorp, a personal trainer and running coach based in Philadelphia.
“When I picked up golf and bowling, I threw energy into it,” says Dykes, who has bowled four perfect games. “I’d jogged for fun, but I started really running at 58, and I found I was good at it. I’m naturally competitive, and this was something I could unleash my competitive instincts on. I do it for fun, but the competition is part of the fun.”
Dykes trains year-round, taking off just a couple weeks a year. This year, that came early, after he suffered a nasty fall 30 miles into a 50-mile trail race in early January and injured his knee. “At one point, I thought I’d never run again,” he says.
Three days later, he went on a hike. Not long after that, he was back running, getting ready for his demanding 2019 schedule. He’s hoping to run well in Boston, where he’s struggled over the years, particularly during the 2018 race, which featured temperatures in the 40s and downpours. “It was unbelievable,” he says. “I’ve never run in anything like that before.”
Though Dykes runs some ridiculously long distances, he doesn’t have an extraordinary regimen of roadwork. When he’s in the midst of serious training, he covers about 40-50 miles a week. Goldthorp says Dykes doesn’t do a lot of stretching and won’t lift weights. He begins his workouts slowly, practically at a walk, and increases his pace from there, until he really gets moving.
Dykes’ other major hobbies are cooking (he’s become proficient of late in the sous vide style) and Facebook. “I spend way too much time on it,” he admits.
That still leaves him plenty of time to devote long hours to his methodical running regimen. The approach helps him on his longer runs, when he has to cover 50 miles a day for four days, or when he runs a 24-hour, dawn-to-dusk-to-dawn race. He prefers the harder runs and the bigger challenges. “I like being out there,” he says. “I like working hard. I hate slow workouts. I have to do a couple of recovery runs a week, when I can’t run all out. But I hate them.”
Last year, Dykes ran a pair of sub-three-hour marathons. The first came in Rotterdam on April 8 (2:57.43), while the second, even faster mark (2:54.23) came Dec. 15 in Jacksonville. The second clipped 25 seconds off his age group and broke a record set by the late Ed Whitlock, who’d established several records during his distinguished career.
Although the time Dykes ran in Jacksonville was faster than his Rotterdam finish, it wasn’t recognized as a true world record because the race hadn’t been certified properly. Dykes isn’t too bothered by that. “Everybody knows I did it,” he says. “I always said breaking three hours was more of a training goal I set, as opposed to a desire to be a world record holder.”
Dykes isn’t single-minded about his running. He’s competed in events with his daughters, Hilary and Erica, and has become something of an evangelist for the sport. He tries to get people on the road, keep them moving and then get them to do a little more. It’s rather the same approach he has with himself. He sets daunting schedules and heads out to conquer them. While the idea of running 200 miles might seem ludicrous to most of us, Dykes actually prefers it to some of his shorter races. “Running 100 miles is tougher, because you only have 24 hours to do it,” Dykes says. “You have four times the amount of time to run 200 miles. When I’m in one of those races, I walk when I can, run when I can and nap when I have to.”
Dykes has some advice for those who want to start running. “Everybody knows how to walk,” he says. “Pick a place you like to go and one day go out and walk and jog—or just jog. Each week, try to go a little farther and a little faster and a little more often, even if it’s just a little bit. After a few weeks, you’ll be amazed how far and fast you’re going.
And remember,” he says, “the very worst pain in running is out-of-shape pain. The faster you can run, the easier it is. I’ve run 13 or 14 marathons, and they keep getting easier.”