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Nancy Rollins Spreads the Good News of Long Distance Running

June 10, 2023 4 min read 3 Comments

Nancy Rollins Spreads the Good News of Long Distance Running



By Sean Callahan

Nancy Rollins, 76, is still running — for so many reasons.

First, there is the simple fact that she’s good at it. There’s nothing like excelling in competition to get you hooked on a sport. Rollins, a Masters Track and Field Hall of Famer, has won the Boston Marathon in her age group three times and finished third in the women’s 75-79 age group earlier this year.

Oh, and last Sunday she won her age group in a half marathon, the Bank of America Chicago 13.1, with a time of 2:00:59.

But winning doesn’t come up much when you talk with her about running.

Instead, Rollins, who lives in Evanston, Ill., discusses the myriad benefits she sees in just getting off the couch and moving. She runs because it’s good for her body. It’s good for her mental health. It is a central part of her family and has helped her build a community, too. And, perhaps most important of all, running gives her a deep, abiding sense of spirituality.

“There’s something about a marathon in that it is sort of a sacred experience in the sense that it’s so beyond what we’re really supposed to be able to do,” Rollins says. “It’s a stretch. It’s humbling, and it ends up being a spiritual experience.”

Rollins didn’t take up running until she was about 30, but she took to the sport with the zeal of a convert — even if her initial exposure to the sport didn’t go well. She attended her first track meet as a high schooler in the early 1960s. In those days before Title IX, there was no girls track team at her school, so she watched a boys meet with a friend.

“I remember seeing guys throw up at the end of a race,” she recalls. “I just remember thinking that’s a terrible sport.”

Rollins didn’t let that bad first impression turn her off from the sport forever. Today, running infuses almost every corner of her life.

Running is family. The sport literally introduced her to eventual husband, Carle. She met him at the Boston Marathon in 1982. Both of her sons, Geoff, 39, and Chris, 35, are runners.

For Rollins, running is an avocation. For most of her running life, lacing up her shoes and running off down the street has been an almost daily devotion. In the past she often ran six days a week. She has slowed down a bit in her 70s and now typically runs five days a week.

Especially as she’s grown older, she is a firm believer that overtraining can be a genuine problem. Less is often more.

“I had my fastest marathon when I was 43 — it was 3:02 — and the highest mileage I had for training for that marathon was 50 miles a week,” Rollins says. “One coach had me do 60 miles a week a couple of times, and I had a terrible marathon. I left my marathon on my training runs. I know what has worked for me is good training, not overtraining.”

She’s a believer in cross-training, although doesn’t practice it as much as she thinks she should. “I’ve done some weightlifting,” she says. “I find it kind of boring, but I think it’s a good idea. I’m really trying to get back to that.”

What Rollins really likes, obviously, is running. Runners are her community. She’s been a member in the Evanston Running Club for most of the organization’s 50 years. For much of that time, Nancy has led the group’s weekly interval training sessions in the summer, which are often followed by the group getting together at Temperance or another local brewery for a well-earned beer. Rollins still leads a regular Wednesday morning workout, which this past week featured quarter-mile repeats.

She has also incorporated running into her vocation. Rollins still works full-time as a senior therapist at the Center for Christian Life Enrichment in Highland Park, Ill. The job brings together two of the key forces in her life: her faith and her love of running.

Rollins says her faith “is the grounding force of my life. I believe I’m being asked to love God, love myself, and love other people.”

Running is often instrumental in the treatment she provides her patients. She is always an evangelist for running. “I get them exercising,” she says. “I really say that’s part of your health, part of your mental health.”

Now that she will turn 77 later this year, Rollins believes some elements of her running career may be coming to an end. She plans to run the Chicago Marathon this fall, but she says the race, which will be her 102nd 26.2-miler, will be her last marathon.

It will be the end of an era. But it’s not a complete farewell to running, just to marathons. She’ll still run half-marathons, compete in Masters track events, and run 5ks.

“It’s just such a joy to race,” she says.


3 Responses

Carol Buick
Carol Buick

September 29, 2023

Nancy is obviously an amazing, hard working and talented runner now and through the years. She is also an amazing and wonderful person, and she has always been that throughout her life as well!

JULES WINKLER
JULES WINKLER

June 15, 2023

Very inspiring I have been running a long time i am 91 still running all kinds of races My final goal is try to run just one more marathon!! It would be a great finish for me to complete my dream of my final challenge!

dixon hemphill
dixon hemphill

June 11, 2023

Another great article. I sure look forward to these Saturday stories about great athletes

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