In 2013, Gene Dykes went to the Toronto Waterfront Marathon and sat in the audience as the great Canadian masters runner Ed Whitlock spoke on a panel. Someone asked a question about his many records. Whitlock told the assembled crowd that the one he was most confident would last was the 2:54:48 marathon he ran at age 73, the age-group world record.
Dykes, then 65 with a marathon PR of 3:16, agreed. “I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Wow, yeah. Nobody’s ever going to touch that.’”
A lot can change in five years.
In April, Dykes, now 70, ran 2:57:43 at the Rotterdam Marathon. And on October 21 in Toronto, Dykes finished in 2:55:17, improving by 2 minutes and coming within 30 seconds of Whitlock’s seemingly insurmountable mark.
His pacing was close to perfect, with half marathon splits of 1:27:33 and 1:27:44.
Bettering Whitlock’s record is now in his sights. “I have three years to improve,” Dykes quipped in a phone call with Runner’s World US. “Of course, I don’t have anything against [Ed] personally. But yeah, well, goals are goals. Just missing by 30 seconds, I’m contemplating my options now to give it another go.”
Thinking of Whitlock, who died of prostate cancer in 2017, helps keep him on the road. “It isn’t so much to get [the record], but to motivate the training,” Dykes said. “I train real hard. Just to train hard for hard’s sake, that’d be tough. But having a goal in mind helps.”
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Dykes overhauled his training after that 2013 Toronto Marathon, where he ran 3:29. He had gone in hoping to PR and instead finished 13 minutes slower.
He chalked it up to ageing. Figuring he had “one more chance to see if there’s a better runner in me,” he hired a coach. “I always thought it was pretty stupid to hire someone to tell you how to run,” he said. “Who doesn’t know how to run?” He looked around and settled on John Goldthorp, who is based in Philadelphia. Although they live close to each other – Dykes is in the suburb of Bala Cynwyd – they communicate primarily by email.
Goldthorp immediately started demanding more. Previously, Dykes had been doing lots of long slow miles. If he did a hard workout, he figured he needed a day off to recover. So he was running only three or four days each week. Goldthorp didn’t agree, and now Dykes runs five or six days a week. “Almost all the miles are faster, even my recovery runs,” he says.
The accountability helps, too. Dykes doesn’t want to tell his coach he couldn’t do a workout. “The constant I-want-to-please-my-coach attitude keeps me going,” he said.
Almost immediately, the shift paid dividends. Five months after hiring Goldthorp, Dykes had his time down to 3:09, and he was on the podium for his age group at Boston.
Dykes is a frequent racer, and he also enjoys ultras and multi-day stage races. It may seem unconventional, but now he wonders if he’s on to something. “No one else does it,” he said. “It’s great base building. I’ll do a lot of ultras, then spend eight, 12 weeks converting that kind of base training into the speed that you need for the marathon.”
Among the upcoming races on his calendar: he’ll fly to Northern California in December, where one of his daughters lives, and do a 50K in San Francisco on December 1 and the California International Marathon on December 2. (Yes, really.)
Having retired from his job as a computer programmer about six years ago, Dykes still gets up early to run when younger training partners are available. He’ll sometimes sneak a nap during the day, and he does all the cooking for his wife, Olivia Mitchell, who is still working. He enjoys a glass of wine while putting dinner together.
Dykes isn’t the only septuagenarian who has made headlines this month. At the Chicago Marathon, Jeannie Rice, 70, ran 3:27:50, an age-group world record. Their performances give other older runners something to think about, and Dykes likes that.
He makes it a mission to encourage people to take on new and harder challenges. “I have three or four people running 50-mile races who never even considered it before,” he said. “I told them how fun it was. I have older people telling me, ‘Hey, maybe I can run better than I thought I could.’ I spend a lot of time fielding questions like that.”
He does think Whitlock was wrong about one thing: his most impressive times. “He’s well known for his marathon records, but he’s got some 5K, 10K, and 15K records – and I’m not shabby, but I’m not anywhere close to him,” Dykes said. “He was amazingly fast.”