81-year-old woman runs 150 miles at Tennessee ultramarathon

Sylvia Quinn of Spokane, Washington had never run such a long race before grinding out 150 miles at Lazarus Lake's age-positive ultra

September 10th, 2018 by | Posted in Runs & Races | Tags: , , , ,

Photo: Karen Berg

Sylvia Quinn of Spokane, Washington, who is 81 years old, ran 150 miles (168K) in Lazarus Lake’s A Race for the Ages (ARFTA) in Manchester, Tennessee over the Labour Day weekend. 

ARFTA is designed to favour older people–the older you are, the more time you’re given to accumulate miles. Those 40 and under get 40 hours. Those 41 and older get as many hours as their age in years. Whoever runs the most miles wins.

The race is run on a one-mile loop in Fred Deadman Park in Manchester, Tennessee.

“I didn’t go in with the intention of doing 150,” Quinn told us. “I was going to do 82, since I’m in my 82nd year. But I had 81 hours. After the first day, when I ran 50 miles, the next day I was at 81, and [another runner] said you know, if you run 100 you get a belt buckle. And I said, I can do that. So I just kept going.”

Photo: Karen Berg

Quinn explains that she didn’t run continuously, taking time out to sleep each night, even though her running partners did not. And she run-walked the distance.

“You can’t go all out on these things, if you’re going to run for four days,” says Quinn. “You run what your body tells you to run. Never to the point of exhaustion. Some people don’t sleep at night, but I always do.”

The race’s total length is determined by the oldest entrant, who was 86 this year, and it’s organized so that everybody finishes at the same time. 

Sylvia Quinn (right). Photo: Karen Berg

Two of the women Quinn went to Tennessee with are “pretty seasoned,” but Quinn’s ultramarathon experience was limited to two fifty milers–one to celebrate her 50th birthday (31 years ago) and one to celebrate her 75th birthday (six years ago).

Quinn’s running partner, Gunhild Swanson (who is only 74), ran 163 miles (261K). And a host of folks in their 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s ran well over 100 miles (some of them well over 200 miles). Swanson has run (and finished) the Western States Endurance Run 100-miler several times. And Quinn’s other companion was also an experienced 100-mile runner. 

“We trained all summer together,” says Quinn. “If you run-walk you can go a long, long way, and you have a lot of company on the course. It’s a one-mile loop, so you see and talk to a lot of people, which is very motivating for me. There are so many stories.”

RELATED: Can’t get into the Barkley? Consider another Laz Lake ultra


ARFTA is one of a number of ultramarathons directed by Lake (though this year it was directed by his wife, Sandra Cantrell, since Lake himself is 3,000 miles into a walk across America). All are unusual in some way.

Photo: Facebook

Quinn says she’s having no issues with recovery, other than that she has a cold. “I don’t have a single sore muscle,” she told us. “The first day [of the race] my ankles hurt a bit, but that was gone the next day. I also had a slight knee problem, but that went away too. I was never in distress.

“That first night, I slept about 10 hours… I can do better if I’m rested. To me, I’m wasting my time if I try to run exhausted. Also we stopped for meals.

“I have severe neuropathy in my feet, so each day I would soak them in epsom salts and ice water. The race is all on asphalt, and the heat just radiated up your legs… I wore a white linen shirt, and I would soak it in ice water and put it on, and after one loop it was dry.” 

Quinn started running in the early 1970s, apparently to prove her husband Patrick wrong. Patrick regularly ran around the track near their home in Spokane, and Sylvia played in the sandy long jump pit with her daughter. One day Patrick suggested she join him for a few laps, and wasn’t impressed with her results (though he did buy her a pair of running shoes to replace the Keds she was wearing). “I thought running meant running fast,” says Quinn. “I got about halfway around the track and had to stop.”

When Patrick left for the next of many tours in Vietnam, Sylvia vowed she would run 600 miles during the six months he would be away. And she did. Most of it on that same track on the Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane. “Nobody ran on the streets back then,” says Quinn. “They would have thought I was crazy.”

RELATED: Laz reaches Oregon as A Race for the Ages kicks off in Tennessee

Since then, she has run numerous half- and full marathons. In 1977, she and a few of her running friends started the annual Bloomsday run, which has taken place on the first Sunday in May every year ever since. (The inspiration for the name comes from James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, which takes place on a single day in Dublin with the protagonist, Leopold Bloom. Quinn was race director from 1981 to 1991. “We tried to make it an event rather than a race, and we tried to get as many women interested as possible,” says Quinn, who has never missed a race. The 12K is now the tenth largest race in the world, with 45,000 signed up this year.