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How Paula Wiltse broke 3:00 in the marathon at 50

The Brockville, Ont. resident and elite masters runner shares how she was able to break the barrier at the 2017 Chicago Marathon

Paula Wiltse
Paula Wiltse
Photo: MarathonFoto.

Paula Wiltse, 50, continues to run times that most runners – elite or beginner – would be envious of.

The Brockville, Ont. resident broke three hours for 42.2K at the 2017 Chicago Marathon, a race she has always wanted to do. She turned 50 in the summer. The elite masters runner set a Canadian women’s 50-54 age group record of 2:58:52 in the windy city eclipsing Allison Blackmore’s 2:59:41 mark, according to Canadian Masters Athletics, from the 2016 Berlin Marathon. Wiltse won the October marathon’s 50-54 age group.

She’s one of only a few Canadian women older than 50 to have ever broken three hours in the marathon on a records-eligible course. “I didn’t execute the race like I should have,” she says citing a first half split of 1:27:10, or 2:54:20 marathon pace. “I knew the first half was too fast and it was going to hurt.”

Wiltse was originally planning on keying off 1984 Olympic marathon champion Joan Benoit Samuelson for Chicago but she withdrew from the event ahead of race day. The 60-year-old was shooting for an Ed Whitlock-like milestone sub-3:00 marathon.

The Canadian women’s 45-49 30K record holder says she didn’t put in as much mileage during the Chicago buildup as she did for previous marathons. She averaged upwards of 125K per week and says she did more core work and strength training.

What’s her secret? “I don’t know if there’s any secret,” she says. “It’s been about consistency, just like at any age, and it’s about listening to the body. I’ve been fortunate over the last 20 years that I haven’t had too many injuries. I think that I’m more of a consistent runner than anything.”

The Saucony-sponsored runner got serious about running shortly after her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, which came two weeks after her daughter was born. With her mother being treated in Ottawa, Wiltse returned – she ran at a young age – to the sport training near the Civic Hospital.

Wiltse, who coaches and says she loves when her athletes succeed at achieving their goals, does much of her training, generally based more on time than distance, with her husband Brock Davis. Her favourite workout? “400m repeats,” she says. “If I can do 15x400m, with 60 seconds recovery, at 1:25 working to 1:18, that’s a pretty solid workout for me.”

Her all-time marathon personal best is 2:48:53, set at the 2013 Niagara Falls International Marathon.

She says she’s refined her diet in recent years. “I’ve had to change a lot on the last 10 years with food alone,” she adds. “I’ve gotten away from gluten and put more emphasis on protein.”

In late November, Wiltse competed at the 2017 Canadian Cross-Country Championships, finishing fourth and first among women 50-54. Wiltse hopes to run 1:19 for the half-marathon in 2018, among other goals.

Paula Wiltse
Photo: Peter Stokes.

“My PB days may be over,” she says. “But if I can slow the process of how slow I get, then I’m happy. I want to break 18:00 for 5K next year. (The Canadian women’s 50-54 record for 5K is 17:47.) I still like to beat the younger runners, but it gets harder and harder.”