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80-year-old Preps for His 15th Rock ‘n’ Roll Virginia Beach Half Marathon

Irreverently, they call themselves The Geezer Jocks. There’s the infant of the group, 66-year-old Rich Hildreth. There’s “the speedster,” a 67-year-old woman. There’s two guys in their 70s. Then there’s “The Colonel,” Chris Catoe.

Catoe is 80 years old and a retired Marine Corps colonel. The Geezer Jocks reside in or near Virginia Beach, Va., and Catoe coordinates the running group’s track workouts. If you think the track sessions might be nothing more than a couple 50-meter laps down the backstretch, check your ageist bias at the door.

On a recent morning, The Geezer Jocks ran two 200 meters, one 400-meter, four 800 meters, then laddered back down to another 400 and two 200s.

Catoe’s pace for the 800s: 4:15 to 4:30. To cool down, he jogs a lap between the 800 intervals.

Come Labor Day weekend, Catoe will run the Humana Rock ‘n’ Roll Virginia Beach Half Marathon. The race is celebrating its 15th anniversary. Catoe has run them all, riding his bike to the start line.

“He’s one of the more remarkable individuals I’ve known,” says Hildreth. “He’s well-read. He’s got a sense of humor. He’s a genuinely good guy. I’ve been impressed with him for more than 10 years.”

Catoe entered the Marines after earning a business degree from George Washington University. Two of Catoe’s uncles served in the Marines during World War II. “I said if I’ve gotta go, I’m going in the Marines Corps,” he recalls.

At the Armed Forces Staff College (now called the Joint Forces Staff College), Catoe studied with Pete Dawkins, the 1958 Heisman Trophy winning running back out of West Point. Catoe and Dawkins soon took up weekly tennis matches.

“The first time we played, I thought, ‘Gee, I don’t think this guy has played tennis before,’” recalls Catoe, who played regularly. “After two or three times, he picked up the game. The last few matches I had a tough time staying with him. He was just a natural athlete.”

You don’t have to be a psychology major to understand why a Marine might morph into a successful marathoner—the discipline, attention to detail, etc. Interestingly, Catoe’s transformation into road racing began at the tail end of his 31-year military career.

He used to spend his lunch hour at a military base gym, saw a flier about a Virginia Beach 10K and the regulars were talking about running the race. Because his workouts were limited to 3 or 4 miles, Catoe had his doubts about stretching to 6.2. But he stepped to the starting line and survived.

That was 1986. He retired from the Marines in 1988. By 1989, he ran his first marathon. His debut 26.2-miler came in at 4 hours and 11 minutes. He would later PR at 3:28, fast enough to qualify for the 100th Boston Marathon.

He estimates his marathon count at 25. And half marathons? “Oh,” he says, “more than 100.”

Jogging provides Catoe with a community that values fitness as much as he does. It has also enabled him to keep his weight under control. Catoe said when he left the Marines he weighed 160-plus pounds. On his 5-foot-7-inch frame, he was in good shape.

“Even though we had pretty stringent requirements, we ate a lot of food,” he says of his military days. “If you didn’t work out you could get pretty porky.”

Today, the scale reads 146 pounds, 15 pounds lighter than when he retired. “I’m as light now as I’ve ever been,” he says.

At 80, Catoe runs 25 to 30 miles a week. His goals are modest now. His last marathon was in 2005 and he doesn’t plan to run another anytime soon. Half marathons stretch the far end of his comfort zone.

“I don’t have any grand plans to accomplish anything,” says the man who has accomplished so much. “I would like to keep running this Rock ‘n’ Roll as long as I can. That’s as much of any goal I’ve got.”