How Gene Dykes Became the World’s Fastest 70-Year-Old
Dykes, who ran a 2:54 marathon at age 70, opens up about training, injury, and his love of racing often. Plus, training details from his coach.
Gene Dykes is a heck of an athlete. In his serious bowling days, he four times rolled a perfect score (300). On the golf course, he has recorded a best round of 68 on a par 70 layout. And a little less than three years ago, Dykes ran the fastest time ever by a 70-year-old in a certified, out-and-back marathon (2:54:23 in December 2018).
What’s he been up to since that marathon record? Quite a bit, especially when you consider his prolific race and ultramarathon schedule. But a bit less than planned, given a broken shoulder in 2019 (trail run fall), Covid restrictions in 2020, and a hamstring injury from late-August this year.
Dykes, now 73, had hoped for peak 2021 races to come at the WADA WMM Age Group Championships in London in early October, followed 8 days later by a fifth consecutive in person, age-group win at Boston. His hamstrings didn’t cooperate, however. He had strained them in late-August at the Hood To Coast Relay.
As late as 24 hours before London, Dykes figured he wouldn’t run. But he’s irrepressible when it comes to starting lines, so he was there the next morning, and eventually hobbled and walked to the finish in 5:37:56.
At Boston, he hoped to continue his four-year age-group victory streak (65-69 victories in 2016 and 2017, 70-74 in 2018 and 2019). His legs felt a bit better, so he decided to aim for 3:30 pace, which he calculated would give him a 50/50 chance of winning his age group.
His math proved remarkably good, but he ended up on the short end of the 50/50. Dykes hit the tape in 3:30:02, just 28 seconds slower than Mike Wien’s first-place 3:29:34.
“If I had known I needed 30 seconds, I could certainly have found them in the last 5 miles,” Dykes says.
Other 70-somethings have broken 3 hours in the last month, including Jo Schoonbroodt in Amsterdam (2:56:37) and Michael Sheridan in London (2:59:37). Dykes will turn 74 next April. If he wants to remain atop his age-group, he’ll face serious competition for the first time.
To get ready, and to heal an ailing body, Dykes plans a full month of no running from mid-November to mid-December. He and his wife will be cruising the waters around Antartica and chasing a solar eclipse. He hopes to return to competition at the Naples (FL) Half Marathon in January.
Here, Dykes answers questions about his remarkable past three years of running and what he has learned along the way. His coach, John Goldthorp, adds more information about Dykes’s training routine.
Q &A with Gene Dykes
Why did you run London and Boston if you were injured?
Before London, my coach didn’t want me to run, my family didn’t want me to run, my wife didn’t want me to run, but I felt like my Facebook friends were all saying: “Run, run, run.” I thought I’d drop out after 6 or 7 miles, but I kept going even though my hamstrings wouldn’t allow anything under 10:15 pace. Then I didn’t run a lick before Boston, but I could tell that my legs were a little better.
You were already running strong in your mid-60s when you hired a coach for the first time. How did that change things?
It was like night and day. I was a 3:29 marathon runner before, and six months later I ran 3:09 at Boston. When I coached myself, I pretty much ran all long, slow miles with occasional 800-meter repeats on the track. If I was sore after a workout, I figured it was best for old guys like me to rest. John had me out there working my ass off 6 days a week. Sure, a couple of those were recovery runs, but he had me doing lots of miles about a minute per mile faster than before.
I found that when a coach set expectations for me, there was no way I wasn’t going to suffer to get the workout done. Needless to say, I discovered I had much more ability locked away than I had realized. I only needed the expertise and accountability that a coach provides.
I’ve read that you were mostly running around 45 to 50 miles a week. That seems low for your fast race times.
That’s the trouble with averages. They hide a lot of variation. I ran close to 2800 miles in 2016, 2017, and 2018, which comes out to about 53 miles a week. But I did so many ultra-marathon races, that my training average was probably 45 to 50. When peaking for a specific, important marathon, I was in the low- to mid-60s.
You run a lot of ultras, and also race frequently. Is that to build endurance first, and then speed?
I’ll probably never have another year like 2018. I ran 43 races that year. Hey, only seven of those were ultras! Because I raced almost every weekend, the race substituted for one of the week’s harder speed workouts, yes, but I also trained pretty hard between races.
This year is instructive: You dropped out of a 256-mile trail race, ran a world best for 50K, did a road mile, then a 100-mile, then won three track races at USATF Masters, then jumped into Hood to Coast in late August. And these were only a few of your races in 2021. My question is: Is this a racing plan or a kid running amok in a candy store?
I guess there really is no grand plan most of the time. Every November I go through the list of races that pique my interest, either for fun or competition, and pencil the most important ones into the calendar. So many races, so little time! The most fun I have is when I’m running a long distance on trails. Even though I hate the 5K and shorter, any race is fun. Once upon a time, I figured that I would perform better if I didn’t race so often. But in 2018, I raced 16 straight weeks and got faster every week. So why not go with it?
If 2021 had gone perfectly, what would have been your realistic goals at London and Boston?
At the beginning of the year, the dream was to set a world record at London and win at Boston. So, timewise, that would have been a 2:54 and, say, 3:07. As it turned out, absolutely nothing about that was realistic. After a 2020 filled with injuries and no races, I was off my game from the get-go in 2021. I realized pretty early that I wouldn’t be setting a record in London, but I still thought I could win both London and Boston, at least until the hamstring injury.
What have you learned about yourself and running since your big year in 2018?
Don’t run a bunch of fast legs at Hood to Coast on a body that’s already tired! Otherwise, I’m not absolutely sure I’ve learned anything yet. I have some theories that I’ll test out next year. I’ll probably give myself more recovery time after ultras, and maybe stop doing the 200-milers. I might race less often, but I’m hoping I can still perform well at road races week after week.
Maybe I’ve learned two things: 1) Injuries are weird; and 2) Maurten is a game-changer for me.
What makes injuries so weird is you don’t know when you’re going to get one, or when it will get better. Every injury is different. Some only hurt when you run, and some don’t hurt when you run, but they hurt around the house and yard. Some go away in a couple of days, but are suddenly replaced by others. You never know what’s coming next.
Hamstring injuries really worry me. This is my third. The first one kept me from running for six years! The second knocked me out for six months. I’m hoping that this one is only six weeks (and the fourth one only six days).
Maurten has become an absolutely essential fuel for me in long races. It’s more important than carbon shoes. It lets me get in more calories than ever before, and it eliminates nausea. When I’m feeling fatigued in a long effort, and then get some Maurten, my body feels happy again. [Note: Dykes has filmed a promotional video for Maurten, and might become a sponsored athlete.]
Have you changed your training over the years?
I don’t think much about my training, I just do what my coach tells me.
What’s in your future?
Sometimes I think I should just retire from trying to beat records. Maybe I should just have fun, and to hell with what everybody else thinks. I did set out to beat the marathon record in 2018, but I didn’t do it for the attention. I just needed a good goal to motivate me for a couple of years.
I’ll probably try to get back in shape and run fast next year. Then in 2023 when I’m 75, I’ll try to repeat what I did in 2018. I’ll prioritize whatever age-group records I think I can get, and the big championship races.
John Goldthorp answers questions about Gene Dykes’s training
What kinds of workouts seem to work best for Gene? Which don’t?
Every athlete is an N=1. Gene is fond of ‘general aerobic’ runs that are 60 to 90 seconds slower than his current 5K race pace, and he certainly loves long runs. Often we combine stamina training and short hills to make a longer session. We can tick off a lot of boxes in one day that way. Then he jogs very slowly the next day to recover.
Gene does so many ultras and other races, what role does recovery play in his training plan?
It’s true that older athletes may need more time to recover, but sometimes a 70-year-old retiree can recover faster than a busy professional with young children. My marathoners aim for 2 harder workouts per week with everything else being very easy. Gene tends to run 5 to 6 days a week, depending on his gardening and golfing plans.
What about paces for intervals, tempo, long runs, etc.?
I prefer to help my athletes train by perceived effort instead of pace. Gene is unique in his ability to run marathons at a pace only about 35-40 seconds per mile slower than his 5K pace, where others are often 50 or 60 or more seconds slower. So we target many of our hard workouts close to his marathon effort. Gene’s very good at not forcing things. Early in a workout, he’s often convinced he won’t be able to complete the planned session. But as he warms up, he usually finds that he can.
Gene’s a master at listening to his body and doesn’t hesitate to take a day off if necessary. On the other hand, I can’t tell you how many times I gave him a light session only to learn later that he felt good and went out for a 23-miler instead.
How about Gene’s racing schedule?
To say Gene’s racing schedule is unorthodox would be putting it mildly. In 2017, he ran three 200-milers in three months and often raced the other weekends. But maybe this has contributed to his success. Running ultramarathons early in a training block allows him to develop tremendous endurance. Then, for about 8 weeks, he’ll use shorter races and faster long runs to develop his threshold and efficiency.
I assume Gene’s racing doesn’t fit your ideal. How do you keep him under control?
At the end of the day, we have one life and we need to do what brings us joy. Gene loves going on adventures, challenging himself, and seeing the world via running. He’s made a lot of friends and inspired a lot of people. If I were to say, “No, you must stick to one way of training and racing,” I wouldn’t be taking a client-centered approach to coaching.
I’m here to support Gene’s journey. Sometimes that means getting out of his way. Other times, I try to gently nudge him back onto the path.