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Sunday morning’s London Marathon featured the usual world-class races in the men’s and women’s open divisions, plus an entirely new global event. After several years of planning (and COVID-19 cancellations), the Abbott World Marathon Majors Wanda Age Group World Championships were contested for the first time, crowning winners in age groups from 40-44 to 80+.
73-year-old American Jeannie Rice attracted much of the attention in the Age Group Championships, which had about 700 entries. To qualify, runners had to score points in recognized marathons from around the globe. The list of qualifying marathons is far larger than the six members of the World Marathon Majors tour and the points are scaled relative to the age group winners’ times.
Pre-race, Rice appeared ready to continue a streak of fast efforts that make her 10 to 15 minutes faster now than she was 10 years ago in her 60s.
In the race, Rice ran aggressively through the first half, leading her 70 to 74 age-group competitors at 13.1 miles in 1:39:57. However, she couldn’t maintain pace the second half, and finished in 3:38:38. “I had a stomach issue and had to stop for a toilet break at 16 miles,” said Rice. “After that, I couldn’t get my pace back.” Rice did, however, retain her world record for the 70-74 division, which stands at 3:24:48.
The division title was won in 3:25:30 by Yuko Gordon, who finished 34th in the 1984 Olympic Marathon and three years later achieved a personal best of 2:38:32. More recently, Gordon ran 3:19:37 two years ago in Berlin when she was 68. Gordon turned 70 last February.
Here’s a look at how Rice has managed to get faster in her 70s.
Jeannie Rice: Hidden talent
Born in South Korea, Rice has lived in the U.S. for four decades. She began running at age 35 in 1983, unhappy that she had gained a handful of pounds in the previous year and quickly learned that she had a talent for the marathon. She ran 3:45 after a year and dropped down to 3:16 six months later.
After that, Rice more or less plateaued. She always wanted to break 3 hours in the marathon but never reached that goal. Her marathon PR stands at 3:12. A semi-retired real estate agent who splits her time between Cleveland and southern Florida, she has been self-coached her entire career and has completed more than 120 lifetime marathons.
Getting older and faster
A decade ago, Rice was finishing most of her marathons around 3:40. Since turning 70, she has improved dramatically. In 2018, she ran a world record 3:27:50 at the Chicago Marathon. The next year, she improved to 3:24:48 in Berlin. Last fall she completed the Virtual Boston Marathon in 3:24:59 (September) and the Virtual Chicago a month later in 3:24:15. Rice believes she was in even better shape several months later when she injured her knee stepping in a pothole.
How she did it
Rice is self-coached and says she has been doing basically the same training for decades. She gets her runs in early — as early as 4 a.m. if she has a 20-miler on the schedule — and generally hits 50 to 55 miles a week, with a mix of long runs and shorter, quicker-paced efforts. Before a marathon, she’ll increase to 65 to 70 miles/week for several months.
Rice does her easy-day runs at about 8:30 pace and slows to 8:45–9:00 for the long days. She enters occasional 5Ks for speed work, generally clocking a time in the 21:00s or maybe low 22:00s.
“While my training hasn’t changed much, I do go a little harder and faster than I used to,” she admits. “Also I stay in Florida for a longer time now, which helps a lot with my winter training.”
“I love competition and I’m motivated to run fast and break my personal bests and also age-group records,” she says. “Once I turned 70, I could see it was possible to break records. Now I want to set as many as possible, even though I realize someone will come along after me and run even faster.”