Marathon Training

Gene Dykes: My Best Race and How I Achieved It

Here's how Gene Dykes ran a 2:54 marathon at age 70.

Gene Dykes ran his best race, by his own estimation, on December 15, 2018, when he clocked a 2:54:23 at the Jacksonville Marathon. That gave Dykes, then 70, the fastest marathon ever by a 70+ runner. While his time can not be ratified as an official record, because the Jacksonville race was not USATF sanctioned, no one has questioned the legitimacy of the flat, certified, out-and-back course.

Dykes, from suburban Philadelphia, also ran two other sub-3:00s after turning 70 in April, 2018 — Rotterdam and Toronto. Here’s how he trained during his big year, and particularly how he got ready that 2:54 in Jacksonville.

Best-Race Buildup

Dykes believes he ran strongly at Jacksonville due to a full-year buildup that included 40 races. Among them included seven marathons and five ultramarathons. As he approached his 70th birthday, he realized he was in near-record shape, and simply committed to an all-in effort. “I decided to enter every USATF championship I could, and also to seek out other races where I could set an age-group record,” he says.

In a typical training week, Dykes covered 45 to 50 miles, with one day off, and two easy recovery runs. (Of course, his ultramarathon races pushed some weekly totals up to 100 or more.) His workouts ranged over a wide spectrum, from 200-meter repeats to 15-milers at marathon pace, all guided by his coach John Goldthorp, about whom he says, “Without him, I’m just Joe Ordinary.”

Gene Dykes Ultra Race
Photo: courtesy Gene Dykes

Important Peaking Workouts

Dykes actually planned his training for a record-breaking peak at the Toronto Waterfront Marathon on October 21. But frigid conditions, some fueling problems, and a malfunctioning watch caused him to miss Ed Whitlock’s over-70 record by 34 seconds. Whitlock ran 2:54:48. Dykes recorded a 2:55:22. From then until Jacksonville in mid-December, he ran “fairly easy paces” in training. He also raced every weekend, including a 50K-marathon “double” in California two weeks before Jacksonville. 

Taper

His taper for Toronto lasted a week, and included two rest days, two easy recovery days, and one 8-miler with 4 miles at marathon goal pace. His Jacksonville taper was less structured, but included an all-out 5K (20:24) seven days before Jacksonville.

Fueling Breakthrough

During that 50K-marathon double in California, Dykes tried Maurten 320, an endurance-race fuel, for the first time. He found that it allowed him to triple his usual marathon calorie consumption — up to 900 calories, total — without the stomach queasiness he had encountered in previous marathons. He used Maurten in Jacksonville.

Goal

Dykes arrived in Jacksonville intent on setting a new 70-74 marathon record. He always tries to run even-pace marathons, so he needed to average 6:39s on the flat course. “I aimed for 4 to 5 seconds faster than that, and hit almost every split somewhere in the 6:30s,” he says. “I primarily race against my watch. I’m glued to it in marathons. I ease up when I find myself running too fast, and bear down when I fall off pace.”

Key Race Moment

At 23 miles, Dykes was running strong, feeling confident, and at least 40 seconds ahead of record pace. Then he started getting calf-muscle twinges. “I concocted some sort of stutter step that worked temporarily,” he remembers. But the twinges returned, and he deliberately slowed a bit in the 25th and 26th miles.

At the 26-mile marker, he suffered a full-on cramp that forced him to stop. “I massaged it frantically, and got it to subside after about 20 seconds,” he says. “But I was deathly afraid that it would recur in the last quarter-mile, so I never did the all-out kick I would normally summon.”

The Biggest Factors in His Best-Race Effort

“I’d say it was the culmination of a year in which I raced hard week after week after week,” Dykes says. “Mentally, I had the same confidence that I’d felt all year, so I’d have to give the nod to it being primarily a physical peak.”

Gene Dykes Rotterdam Marathon
Photo: Erik Van Leeuwen

Advice For Running Your Best-Race

  1. “In training, always run your fastest miles late in the workout. With intervals, run each one faster than the previous one. With longer distances, run each mile faster. This teaches your body to always finish strong.”
  2. “Get lots of rest. I sleep at least 8 hours a night. Each week, I have at least one rest day, and several recovery-run days.”
  3. “Don’t obsess about cross-training. It just takes time and effort from your running.
  4. “Don’t stretch. It’s more likely to cause injuries than prevent them. I’m one of the least flexible people on the planet.”
  5. “Don’t eat before or during workouts. This teaches your body to use available glycogen and fats more efficiently.”
  6. “Run lots and lots of races.”
  7. “Run a lot of ultramarathons.”
  8. “Don’t be afraid to race in your final weeks of training.”