When the going got tough for the “70 Rocks” team at this year’s Hood to Coast Relay, two of the world’s toughest 70+ runners got going. The team hoped to become the first to complete the 200-mile relay, held August 27-28, with 12 runners all aged 70 or above.
Forty years after it was first held, HTC doesn’t even recognize a 70+ age-group category. The oldest official division is Supermasters (60+), and that can be achieved by average age, meaning that several runners could be in their 50s.
The 70 Rocks team rolled smoothly through two-thirds of the relay, which requires that each of the 12 runners finish three legs of about 5.5 miles each. But then two members pulled up lame, and couldn’t fill their third slot. This meant someone else on the team would have to substitute for them.
Septuagenarian Stars Step Up
Not a problem — at least not when your team includes uber-70-stars Gene Dykes and Jeannie Rice, both 73. Dykes is best known for running 2:54:23 in a legit-but-uncertified (hence not record-eligible) marathon in December, 2018. He also enjoys regular forays into adventure runs that stretch to 100 miles and beyond. Rice holds the world record for women over 70 — the 3:24:48 she ran in Berlin in 2019.
“When I heard we needed someone to run an extra leg, I volunteered that I’d be happy to fill in,” said Dykes. “After all, I run 100- and 200-mile races all the time.”
Rice didn’t hesitate either. “I volunteered right away,” she said. “I could and would run another leg.”
Still, the team’s injuries weighed heavily on Darren Walton, the 71-year-old small business owner and team organizer from San Rafael, Cal., who once ran regularly with comedian Robin Williams. Walton has suffered a few scrapes along the way, spending more than a year in a body cast after a motorcycle accident, and getting a total knee replacement just two years ago.
Maybe that’s why he doesn’t let the small stuff bother him. He dedicated the 70 Rocks team effort to Dennis Leaf, a Vietnam War veteran like himself, who died from cancer six years ago. They met in Danang, Vietnam, when Leaf beat an overconfident Walton in a military championship race.
Walton was so humbled by the loss that years later he decided to dig deeper into Leaf’s personal story. He discovered a kindred spirit. “Dennis ran every day of his life except Sundays when he volunteered at a food bank,” Walton told his team at a pre-race meeting. “He was a complete gentleman who lived like the Marine Corps captain he was, taking care of others. I felt bonded to him, as if we were brothers.”
Not Over the Hill — Ready to Tackle Them
Of course, Walton also had a second vision for the team that included runners from southern California to Connecticut to Florida. He wanted to demonstrate that over-70 isn’t over the hill. A veteran of several past Hood to Coast efforts, he knew that chaos, fatigue, the darkness of night, and lack of sleep would present plenty of obstacles.
“Focus on the good parts, not the bad,” he advised his fellow runners. “You’re going to be tired, hungry, cramped, and confined to a van that stinks worse than your high school locker room. You’ve got to maintain a positive psychology with meditation, deep breathing, and a Buddhist mentality that this isn’t going to last forever.”
Assembling a dozen over-70 runners hadn’t proved easy. Walton quickly rounded up a half-dozen former teammates from the Marin Athletic Club, but he had trouble finding a second half-dozen. In fact, he was about to quit when Dykes said he had no other races that weekend, so why not?
Dykes notified Rice, and before long super mid-distance runner Nolan Shaheed, 72, also signed on. When one runner scratched at the last moment, his place was taken by 77-year-old retired physics professor Chris Gould, who flew across the country from North Carolina with little knowledge about his teammates or the event.
Walton supported the effort with house rentals at the start and finish. Shaheed entertained the crew by practicing his cornet, typically barefoot. Two high spirited executive chefs kept the team (almost 20, counting drivers and spouses) well fueled at both locations.
Lasting Each Leg Toward a Legacy
Exchange zone mishaps are almost inevitable in the logistically challenging HTC, and 70 Rocks had a few that cost about 15 minutes. To make up for such gaffes, it helps to have several super-strong runners. That’s where Dykes and Rice came in. Dykes ran four tough legs totaling 21 miles at an average pace just over 8:00 per mile. Rice’s four legs added up to 22.5 miles, and she averaged about 7:45 pace.
“I developed a hamstring issue, and had to gut out my last leg,” admitted Dykes. “I know it doesn’t make sense but the discontinuous running was harder than much longer races I’ve done. Jeannie Rice was the backbone of our team with quicker legs than mine.”
Added Rice: “I’m in decent condition, and I could have run another leg if I had to. But I’m glad I didn’t need to. It was hard to keep going on just one hour of sleep.”
Team captain Darren Walton ran the final leg down the Seaside, Ore., boardwalk, fulfilling the promise he made to Dennis Leaf’s legacy. He reached the finish line 30 hours and 15 seconds after the team started running (for an overall pace of 9:07 per mile). “It was a beautiful ending to a day that included a lot of pain and agony,” he said. “My knee held up well, but the rest of my body fell apart. Mostly I was amazed by the way everyone watched out for each other — cheering each runner, offering a pillow or blanket or snack, or whatever was needed.”
The team’s actual finish place remains somewhat confused — maybe it was 4th in the over-60 division, maybe 6th. Either way, 70 Rocks gets a free entry into next year’s HTC, and some early planning has already begun.
This we know for sure: 70 Rocks will forever be the first everyone-over-70 team to go the distance from Mount Hood to Seaside, a badge that can never be taken away from them.
As Gene Dykes says, “I was thrilled to be part of the 70 Rocks team, and to show the world what can be done at our age.”