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In the last century, Clarence DeMar and “Old John” A. Kelley made athletic and health history with their late-in-life performances in the Boston Marathon. Today, more runners aged 75 and above are qualifying for the Boston Marathon than ever before.
You could call them the Ageless Marathoners, or maybe Boston’s most unique marathoners, since they represent less than one percent of runners expected at the Hopkinton starting line on October 11. They call each other “The Bright Forum” runners after Frank Bright, the 78-year-old retired attorney from Shreveport, LA, who organized them into a digital group in early 2020. Every member of the group is 75 or older, and has an official Boston Marathon qualifying time.
Bright figured the runners would have much to learn from each other, and he was right. He probably underestimated how much they would motivate each other, as well as the group’s potential to inspire other runners.
DeMar won Boston 7 times, still a record. Although warned early in his career that he should stop competing, due to a heart murmur, he continued running Boston through age 65 in 1954. After he died from cancer, an autopsy published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that he had unusually large coronary arteries. This constituted the first hard proof that marathon running was heart-healthy.
Kelley won twice and completed 58 Bostons (still the record), running his last at age 84 in 1992. Today’s Ageless Marathoners consider him their patron saint. They run with confidence that lifelong endurance exercise enhances their physical, psychological, and social health.
Meanwhile, U.S. and global health metrics are deteriorating. Several months ago, a new study revealed that the average U.S. life expectancy had dropped for the first time in 70 years. This decline, termed “horrific” by one expert, resulted primarily from Covid and mental illness. However, low exercise rates and rising overweight/obesity are also contributing to poor health and mortality trends.
Those who maintain a vigorous exercise program enjoy a much better outlook. They live longer and feel better during those extra years.
In recent decades, exciting new research has added an unexpected benefit to the reasons for regular exercise. At a time of mushrooming dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in an aging population, there’s growing evidence that exercise offers some protection.
Ageless Boston Marathoners
Here are five mini-profiles of Ageless Marathoners, all age 75 or older, who are running Boston on October 11.
Frank Bright: 78, is a retired attorney from Shreveport, Louisiana. Last winter he experienced unusual fatigue and arm-chest pains on several runs. When he mentioned this to the digital The Bright Forum group he had organized the previous year, several members cautioned him to consult a cardiologist. He did, and the cardiologist diagnosed a heart attack, put three stents in Bright’s coronary arteries, and ran a 5-mile race with him two-and-one-half months later. On September 25, Bright finished the Fargo Marathon in 4:51. Now he’s headed to Boston for his next marathon.
Bob Johnstone: 76, is chairman of the West Virginia University Department of Anesthesiology, and still works full time in the University Hospital hard hit by Covid cases. Four of his six children have run marathons; three have run Bostons. He also encourages his fellow anesthesiologists to run, and most do. Of himself, Johnstone says: “Mostly, I run to stay healthy, get energy, and enjoy the outdoors.”
Philip Pierce: 80, of Falmouth Maine, served for 20 years as chief psychologist at a VA hospital in Maine. He weighed 210 pounds when he began running in 1984. Today, he weighs 155 and has registered for Boston every year since 1985, failing to run only three years when he was injured. In the last three “in-person” Bostons — 2017, 2018, and 2019 — he finished 15th, 18th, and 21st in the 75-79 division. In addition to his many Boston appearances, Pierce has completed 23 100-mile trail races.
Amby Burfoot: of Mystic, Connecticut, won the Boston Marathon in 1968 and celebrated the 50th anniversary of that victory by finishing Boston again in the freezing rainstorm of 2018. He served for nearly two decades as executive editor of Runner’s World magazine, has authored a half-dozen running books, and continues to write about the health and fitness benefits of lifelong exercise. Burfoot turned 75 in mid-August.
Albert Wieringa: is the youngest and fastest of the Ageless Marathoners, having reached 75 on September 5. He ran a 3:29 to win the Boston 70-74 division in 2017 and also won Boston’s 65-69 division four years earlier. Now residing in St. Petersburg, Florida, Wieringa has a shot on Oct. 11 at a third Boston win in his new age group. A heavy cigarette smoker for many years, he didn’t start running until he was 56. Three years ago he nearly died from septic shock when his colon got twisted and perforated. “My doctors told me that 9 out of 10 people would have died, but I survived because I was in such good shape,” he says. “Running literally saved my life.”
Most of the Ageless Marathoners have never met each other, but have formed close ties through their digital connection. They plan to hold an outdoor gathering in Boston where they can have a face (mask) to face (mask) first get-together.
“We know we’re lucky to enjoy good health,” says Johnstone, the West Virginia physician. “We also have an important message: Life is better, day in and day out, when you follow a regular exercise program. This is true at every age.”