Gene Dykes, 70, of Philadelphia, only missed breaking Ed Whitlock‘s 70-74 age group record of 2:54:48 at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon yesterday by 34 seconds, but that doesn’t make him any less extraordinary. Dykes is still the only other person in the world besides Whitlock to run a sub-3 marathon at the age of 70.
It happened the first time earlier this year at the Rotterdam Marathon on April 8, just a few days after Dykes turned 70 on April 3. He ran 2:57. “My daughter contacted an Amsterdam newspaper and they splashed my picture on the front page,” Dykes told us, joking that “you can get anything you want if you have a lot of chutzpah.”
Dykes sets a string of records
And it happened again yesterday, with Dykes’ 2:55:18 finish at Scotiabank, just shy of Whitlock’s record.
Dykes only took up marathon running at age 58, and he only started breaking records last year, when he broke seven USATF age-group records in a single track race: the 15K, 10 mile, 20K, 25K, 30K, 20 mile, and 2-hour records. Also last year, he was one of only 13 people to run the “triple crown” of 200-mile trail ultramarathons, consisting of the Bigfoot 200, the Tahoe 200, and the Moab 240. And he was the oldest finisher in each.
This year he’s racked up 10 (US) national championships, seven USATF age-group records, and three non-USATF age-group records, including yesterday at STWM, and a 3:16 at Boston, his third age-group win in a row and a new 70+ course record on a day in which the weather was referred to by STWM announcer Geoff Wightman yesterday as “biblically bad.”
Dykes is a retired computer programmer who recently became a grandfather. He and his coach, John Goldthorp, were actually planning for him to contest Whitlock’s record at the Jacksonville, Florida marathon in December, but Canada Running Series invited him to the World Masters Athletics Championship, which it hosted at STWM this year, and he couldn’t say no–even though he had only eight weeks to train.
The pressure was on
Dykes wrote on his Facebook page before the race: “I told them during an interview for the piece that I doubted I would be ready in time for Toronto in the hopes that they wouldn’t make too much of it, but when I saw the headline I was doomed. Thanks a lot, guys!”
He first met Ed five years ago at Scotiabank, chatting with him at the marathon for a minute or two. Whitlock said during a panel discussion that year that the record he was proudest of was the marathon he ran at age 73. “Five years ago I was not a good runner,” Dykes told us. “He had no idea I would [try to take that record] and neither did I. It’s still mindbloggling to me that I would attempt it five years later. That’s the value of a good coach.”
Dykes is referring to Goldthorp, who he hired right after that race, where he was hoping to break his personal best of 3:16. He ran 3:29. “It galled me to hire somebody to tell me how to run,” says Dykes. “But I hired him. I had the Boston Marathon coming up in five months, and I said ‘see what you can do.’
The value of a good coach
Before hiring Goldthorp to coach him, Dykes used to do a lot of long, slow miles. “I would always feel like, I’m old, my muscles are sore, and I should rest,” he says, adding that he was only training three or four days a week at the time. Goldthorp had him running five or six days a week, doing hard workouts when he was still sore from a previous workout. Increased intensity and a better mix of workouts are what helped him. “That’s half of it,” says Dykes. “The other half is, even though I would never think I could get through these workouts, I would rather die than report back that I couldn’t do the workout.” He credits Goldthorp with getting him onto the age-group podium at Boston, with a 3:09.
Dykes is also incredibly durable, recovering quickly and rarely getting injured. He loves to run ultramarathons as well as marathons. “Ultras give me a huge base,” says Dykes, which he then converts into speed in the seven weeks or so leading up to a big race, like Boston.
What happened at STWM yesterday
Dykes’ blames his falling short yesterday on the tough headwind and slight incline in the final kilometres of the race, and possibly on faulty GPS data. “My watch went completely haywire,” he said, indicating he thought he had a pretty good buffer, only to discover he was six seconds behind the pace when he heard someone call out the time at the halfway mark. “I had to really pick it up on the hardest part of the course. I gave it all I had, but I just ran out of gas.” Still, he’ll try again–and he can still enjoy being the only living 70-year-old to go sub-3.