Runners Over 50: Older, Wiser, and Doing It Their Way

A few mature perspectives on the benefits of running.

By Donna Kelly

Physically fit, mentally sharp, and self-esteem boosting.

Streets, trails, and golf courses throughout Polk County are passages to good health for running enthusiasts.

Take a closer look as these intrepid folks lope along their way, and you’ll realize many of these runners are more than 50 years old. Some are pushing 90 or older. A lot of them run to relieve stress, others to lose weight or stave off effects of advancing age or because they’ve become “addicted” to it.

While they may not run for the same reason, they all find it important enough to fit into the hustle and bustle of their lives — whether they’re in their 50s or 80s.

Why run?

Dr. Matthew Werd, an avid runner and podiatrist with Florida Foot and Ankle, says the benefits of running are well-documented. These include:

— Increased muscle strength

— Improved central balance and flexibility

— Mentally feeling better

— Social engagement

— Self-confidence and self-awareness

— Weight management

Many people run to feel the “runner’s high,” a feeling of well-being gained from distance running, others do it to address health issues.

Kenny Greenwell, a 69-year-old retired military advisor for the U.S. Navy, began running when he was 33. Two years later he ran his first marathon. On April 28 this year, he completed his 100th marathon when he crossed the finish line at Churchill Downs in Kentucky.

He’s retired from full marathons but still competes in half-marathons. Maintaining his health and well-being as he moves toward his 70s provides motivation to continue running.

“The genetics in my family is diabetes and heart disease. I do a lot of (running) to keep my fitness level up and when I go to the doctor. I get good reports back,” he explains.

He also enjoys the social and mental aspects of running.

“I like to run with small groups,” he says. “It certainly helps me mentally. I’m always trying to learn and comprehend new things. It helps me with learning and comprehension.”

John Adams, 65, who coaches runners of all ages — from high school students to senior citizens to Olympic hopefuls — runs because he enjoys it. “I’m blessed with the ability to do it. Runner’s high is a beautiful feeling,” says the Winter Haven resident. “I’m a people person. I enjoy being around people and seeing them do their best on a given day.”

“I just love it,” says 81-year-old Fritz Elmhorst, a former over-the-road trucker who was 77 when he retired. “I love to compete, and I guess it satisfies my ego to get an award every time I race.” He competes in 20 to 25 races a year and has several display cases of medals to prove it. Elmhorst also participates in stair climb races in skyscrapers like the 110-story Willis Tower in Chicago.

For 57-year-old Eric Dickinson, running is a health issue. “I run 15 to 20 miles a week, mainly to stay healthy enough to keep up with the pace of life,” he says.

Artist Pati Mills, 82, runs whenever she can. “I’ve never loved it, but I do believe there’s not more peace anywhere else. I’m not addicted to it. I think I’m just drawn to it and to people who take care of themselves.”

It’s never too late to be a warrior

Nanette Rodgers was exercising regularly and cycling when, at 62, she took her neighbors suggestion and participated in Winter Haven’s Citrus Classic 5k race with no running experience. She completed it in 36 minutes. Twenty years later, her times range between 37 and 40 minutes.

“I want to stay fit — mentally, physically, emotionally, and socially,” says Rodgers, now 82, who follows a plant-based diet and maintains a strict running and Pilates schedule. “It’s helped me mentally be able to write and remember things. I don’t feel like I’m going to be a candidate for Alzheimer’s disease.”

Looking and moving like someone a decade or two younger, Rodgers also attributes her agility and mobility to running. “I feel like my bones are in good shape,” she adds.

Elmhorst, Rodgers’s frequent sidekick on winner podiums during age bracket award ceremonies, was 69 when he was inspired — and challenged — by his daughter-in-law when he suggested he might start running after watching her hoof it around Lake Hollingsworth. When she rolled her eyes, Elmhorst grabbed the gauntlet she’d thrown and began training.

He started with walking, added jogging intervals between two or three light poles.

“I kept seeing improvement. In eight months I could run all around Lake Hollingsworth without stopping. Shortly thereafter, he participated in a race held around the lake and his competitive spirit was born.

“I got hooked on it. I started training more and entering more races. I started placing in my age group and continued making improvements,” he says.

These days he runs six days a week. Like Rodgers, he trains with the Jeff Galloway Lakeland Run/Walk/Run program on Saturdays. These courses — between 5 and 20 miles — are much longer than his weekday runs.

“I’m healthy enough that I have no need for medications. I take no supplements. I eat a balanced diet,” he says. “I’ve not had any joint problems.”

Mills began running and boxing for fitness 12 years ago when her son registered her for classes at Tiger’s World in Winter Haven. “Eric, my son, said ‘I signed you up for Tiger’s World and it’s going to kill you and I want your Rolex,’” Mills said, chuckling.

She believes her years of running and boxing enabled her to survive the kidney failure that hospitalized her nearly a year ago.

“I’d rather not be in the health care system,” she says. “You have to be in charge.”

Mary Beth Jackson, 52, turned to running in her mid-40s when she realized her 50th birthday was quickly approaching. Upon becoming a part of the running community, she found inspiration and acceptance from others and learned a bit about herself, too.

“It doesn’t matter where you’re from or if you’re big, fat, tall, short, or skinny. I always tell my husband, ‘Oh, I don’t look like a runner. My boobs are too big, I’m too heavy. My uterus is going to fall out. I’m not built for this,’” she says, grinning. “But when you get to a running event, it’s amazing all of the different people you see there. It’s so inspiring. Everyone has their own joy when they cross the finish line.”

Participating in races boosted her self-esteem and sense of adventure.

“I wasn’t a spring chicken,” says Jackson. “It really makes you feel like a warrior. You think, ‘Hey, I got out there and I conquered it.’”

Running in hot and humid weather, conquering the chafing experienced by runners, and finishing 5K races to marathons motivated her.

“It’s like, I did it!” she says. “And that kind of carries over to everything else that you do. It motivates you to take a gamble and prove to yourself you can do something else.”

For Jackson, this meant leaving her job she’s held in the healthcare industry for years and purchasing a Play it Again Sports franchise.

“This is the furthest thing away from what I’ve done. It’s retail, but still kind of health-related. Now I’m promoting healthy families and getting them outside and exercising,” she says.

Modify and adjust with age

“I know a 100-year-old who finished a marathon,” says Werd, who is currently training for the Boston Marathon. “It proves it’s never too late to start.”

However, he suggests taking a few precautions before heading out for the first run.

“Make sure there aren’t big medical issues that need to be addressed by a medical doctor, such as bad knees, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, cardiac health,” he says. “As we age, things change.”

For instance, he explained, bone density can be diminished, which can lead to stress fractures. But he adds that regular exercise and maintaining vitamin D can limit bone density loss. Maintaining vitamin D levels help.

Jackson said working with a running coach helped her address potential health issues. She’d been running a couple of years when a visit to her doctor gave her a jolt: Her resting heart rate and blood pressure weren’t what they should’ve been.

“To be semi-in shape, you have certain expectations,” she says.

Jackson’s doctor agreed and sent her to a heart specialist who found nothing wrong and suggested she might simply have a higher than normal resting pulse. When she asked him about running and her heart rate, he suggested she find a trainer.

“I contacted a coach, a woman over 50, so she knows what it’s like to be a middle age woman,” she says.

Jackson worked with coach Marcia Kadens for more than two years.

“It made a huge difference,” says Jackson, who runs three times a week, practices yoga to stay focused and limber, and races for fun and motivation.

Werd also recommends taking time to find the right, well-fitting running shoe.

“Shoes play a big role in injury prevention as well as performance enhancement. It’s a big factor that some people often neglect,” he says.

In addition, Werd warns older runners that the body’s strength and flexibility can decrease over the years, possibly leading to more injuries.

“Recovering from injuries can take longer as we get older,” he explains. “Cross training is a key to helping to avoid repetitive stress injuries because with cross training you use different muscles.

Werd, who has completed more than 200 triathlons, suggests creating a training plan. However, he says whether it’s running, walking, cycling, swimming, it’s important to be an activity you enjoy and will motivate you to exercise regularly.

Adams, who trains runners of all ages, agrees.

“It takes consistency. You have to be consistent and listen to your body. We hurt ourselves when we try to do what we did in our 20s and 30s,” he says. “The joy is being able to run.”

It pays, he says, to remember that bodies change as they age and to be aware of the changes. For example, the muscle soreness he could get over in a day or two now lingers over a week.

“I’ve become more mindful and observant to my body and that’s what’s kept me relatively injury free,” he says.

Dickinson, a participant in events as varied as mud runs, 5K races, marathons, and 100-mile relay from Key Largo to Key West, takes a humorous approach to a serious issue.

“As I age, I try to remember what’s important and that killing myself (running) won’t benefit anyone — unless I pass on before my life insurance runs out,” he quips.