During Monday’s Boston Marathon, most eyes will be focused on the elite female and male packs. But more than a few will be using the Boston Marathon’s runner-tracking system to check up on 71-year-old Gene Dykes.
That’s because Dykes broke the marathon world record for 70-plus runners in Jacksonville four months ago, and doesn’t appear to be slowing down. Dykes ran 2:54:23 in Jacksonville, which was not “record eligible,” since it is not a USATF sanctioned course. But the course is certified in distance, and no one doubts Dykes’s speed. He had already run 2:57:17 in Rotterdam and 2:55:17 in Toronto in 2018. The over-70 record was previously held by Canada’s legendary Ed Whitlock, who ran 2:54:48 at age 73.
To track Dykes on Monday, go here and input his race number, 2754.
Dykes says he won’t decide until the last moment if he plans to attack his record at Boston. “I’m going to run with a 2:57 paceband,” he notes. “I’ll be happy with anything under 3:00. I think I’m almost in good-enough shape for a world-record attempt, but I think I’ll hold off on that until next fall.”
At any rate, he seems likely to break the Boston course record for 70+ runners, and it’s always nice to put yourself in the Boston record books. Although he’ll be replacing himself, as he ran 3:16:20 in last year’s tempest to break the previous Boston 70-74 age-group record by 30 seconds. In 2016 and 2017, at ages 68 and 69, Dykes ran 3:09:56 and 3:09:35 at Boston.
You might think that someone racing at such a high level would narrow his focus and concentrate exclusively on fast performances. That’s not how Dykes operates, however. In fact, he’s gained some notoriety for his ultra-marathon jaunts.
In late 2017, he ran three 200 milers in a three-month period, and then a 50 miler and 100 miler early in 2018. Those are the only things he can finger to explain his dramatic improvement in 2018. “My coaching and training didn’t change much in 2018,” he says. “The only thing different is that I began the year with a huge endurance base.”
He started this year the same way, with the Arches Ultra 50 Miler in Moab in late January, and then the 200-mile Delirious Western Endurance Scenic Trail race in Australia three weeks later. That one took him 101 hours to complete, including five encounters with venomous snakes. “At one point, I spotted a Tiger snake below me when I was in mid-stride,” he recalls. “I had to twist my body and throw myself into the underbrush to avoid it. But these ultra distance adventure runs are great fun, especially when they include sleep deprivation. You get flashbacks afterwards—the good kind.”
Dykes isn’t just a newsmaker in the Boston Marathon this week. He’s also the subject of a “Commentary” in the New England Journal of Medicine. It’s headlined “Record-Breaking Performance in a 70-Year-Old Marathoner.” The authors had suggested “Breaking3” but the NEJM editors apparently didn’t understand the reference to Nike’s “Breaking2” event with Eliud Kipchoge in 2017. In the Commentary, a University of Delaware team tries to suss out how Dykes achieves his amazing performances. They conclude that it’s not because he’s got a worldclass oxygen uptake, but rather because he can run at a high percent of his max for an unusually long time.
Dykes’s physical stats are unremarkable. He’s 5’ 9.5” tall, weighs 141 pounds, and carries 19.1 percent body fat on his frame. His blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels are solidly in the normal range.
In a laboratory treadmill test, Dykes recorded a maximal oxygen uptake of 46.9 ml/kg/min, “much lower than expected of an athlete who can run a marathon in less than 3 hours,” the authors note. This might have occurred because Dykes has almost never run on a treadmill. “It was very uncomfortable,” he told me. “I’m sure I could have done much better with some practice.”
In contrast, his lactate threshold and running economy were extraordinary. He didn’t reach his lactate threshold until he was running at 93 percent of his max. That compares with 75 to 85 percent for typical marathon runners, and 85 to 90 percent for the likes of Frank Shorter and Derek Clayton. “There has been some hint of this among other masters runners,” says marathon endurance expert Michael Joyner of the Mayo Clinic. “It also strikes me that perhaps his ultrarunning has reduced the amount he fades towards the end of a marathon.”
University of Delaware exercise physiologist, William Farquhar, himself a 17:42 5K runner (at age 50), agrees with Joyner, adding: “I think the data show that you don’t need an incredibly high VO2max to run a great marathon. Training hard can improve other components of fitness—in this case the lactate threshold—which allow a great performance.”
None of this comes as news to Dykes. He has long known that he races better at long distances than at the shorter ones. “The online calculators don’t predict my marathon time from my 5K,” he says. “I just seem to be able to settle into a hard pace and keep it going for a long time.”
He hopes this message resonates with other, uh, mature athletes. “I’d like to dispel any notion that getting older diminishes the joy of running,” Dykes says. “I’m having more fun every year, and that’s not dependent on my running faster.”