August 13, 2022 4 min read 4 Comments
Photo by Scott Rokis. Gene after the Tahoe 200.
By Ray Glier
There was no place to hide for Gene Dykes. He was running the 5000 at the USA Track & Field Masters Outdoors in Lexington, Ky., and, as the race progressed, he dropped further and further off the pace. He was on the track exposed as too slow for this particular race, an event he won easily in 2021.
Dykes, 74, was trying to run just six days after competing in a 100-mile trail race in the Cascade Mountains of western Washington, which included several nasty falls, one where he had to be extracted from an icy hole. His left hip was discolored from a deep bruise and there were scabs up and down his legs from the falls.
He could have easily hid. Some athletes did that by not showing up in Lexington because they wouldn’t be competitive. Dykes showed up, albeit on empty. He had an idea he wasn’t going to be competitive because of the 100-miler hangover, travel back across the country, the hip injury, and the 5K talent of 70-year old champion Robert Qualls.
Yet, Dykes was still there in Lexington trying to land a plane with an engine on fire and landing gear stuck.
We are talking about a Masters distance runner who reached the pinnacle in his sport over a 12-year stretch with world-record times. But protecting his reputation by sitting out was never a consideration.
“I felt no shame,” Dykes said of finishing sixth in the 5000. The next day, he had to drop out of the 2000 Steeplechase after two of the five laps because jumping barriers with the injured hip was perilous. On Saturday, Dykes was fifth in the 10000.
He shrugged. And then he gave that Gene Dykes trademark wide-as-a-satellite-dish smile.
Look at some of what he has accomplished:
Dykes won his age group in the Boston Marathon four consecutive years (2016-2019). He was the 2021 USATF Masters national winner in the 5K, 10K, and Steeplechase. Dykes came within 30 seconds of setting the world record in a marathon for someone over 70. He still thinks he can run a sub-three hour marathon and will have a chance in London on Oct. 2 when he presumably will be healthier.
Dykes has run 73 ultras and 73 marathons. In 2017, at 69, he became one of only 13 people to complete the Triple Crown of 200-mile races (Bigfoot 200 in August. Tahoe 200 in September. Moab 240 in October). And in 2018, Dykes won national championships in two disparate races, a 1500 meter and 100-miler, a sprint and a slog. He was 70.
What might be startling to some is that Dykes wondered if this late-life running bonanza was an accident of some sort. He had left over doubt from college where he was on the track team at Lehigh University and considered himself crummy. The coach thought he was crummy, too.
“I got blown out on the track, the coach hated me,” Gene said. “You don't lose badly for four years in college without having that become your view of yourself.”
But he did not allow the calamity in college to devour him, professionally or athletically.
He earned a Ph.d in Biochemistry at Cornell University and ended up as a successful computer programmer in the Philadelphia area.
As for his athletics. Look at his website, www.ultrageezer.com. His daughter put it together, which is good because what he has accomplished does not fit on a one-page resume.
It has all happened the last 16 years. Dykes did not resume competitive running until he was 58 in 2006. But it wasn’t until the fall of 2013 that he found out how exceptional he could be. He hired a coach.
For you runners on the edge of being elite, pay attention here.
In five months of coaching, Dykes was able to finish third in his age group at the Boston Marathon. He was able to break his personal best by eight minutes. He was moving from ordinary to extraordinary.
“He knew the right workouts,” Dykes said of the coach, John Goldthorp. “He knew the right mix of recovery runs and speed runs and distance runs. Before I would do some speed workouts and I would do a lot of really long runs. But I really didn't do a lot of the tempo runs. Basically, he had me working a lot harder and probably fewer miles, but much higher quality miles.”
There was something else that went along with the coaching. A dutiful devotion to Goldthorp.
“I'd rather die than say, ‘Coach, I can’t do that’,” Dykes said. “I would go to do the workouts and say ‘I can't do this’. But he assigned it so I had to run my ass off. I couldn't dream of even assigning myself these workouts and having assigned them I wouldn't be able to do them. But having a coach, you have to do it.”
Dykes was rising to a peak.
In 2017, he ran the three ultra races, 200s. Then came the dazzling year in 2018 with the national title wins in the 1500 and the 100-mile races and another age group win in the Boston Marathon. In Rotterdam he became only the second 70-year old to run a sub-three hour marathon.
“Always,” Dykes said when I asked him if he surprised himself. “I kept getting better and better as the years went on.”
He is a fan of running, but Dykes is not fanatical. His philosophy is “Just run.” He does not have a strict diet, he doesn’t stretch, and he has no core workout, or fabulous, ultra-secret regimen.
The downturn in Lexington stirred the angst every older athlete has, even Gene Dykes.
“I'm as insecure as the next runner,” Dykes said after the 5000. “You have to think after something like this morning ‘Oh, man, I'm really tired after this race. It will never come back’.”
In the next breath, the doom disappears.
“I haven't given up being able to run another marathon under three hours,” Dykes said.
He has three chances this fall in London, Philadelphia, and California, though he wants to squeeze in a 100-mile qualifier for the Western States ultra between London and Philly.
Wherever he is, whatever condition, look for the smile. Gene packs it for every run.
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