Health

A 76-Year-Old Ultrarunner Shares His Longevity Tips

“Save your money and your legs for retirement.”
By Rebekah Harding
May 20, 2024

Unlike some new retirees who quickly grow tired of the monotonous hours of free time they suddenly accumulate after ditching fast-paced careers, Gene Dykes was gearing up to be busier than ever after he retired from computer programming. 

“I’ve never been able to understand this expectation that retirees don’t know what to do with themselves or just sit on the couch,” Dykes says. “If you throw yourself wholeheartedly into the things you enjoy doing, I don’t think you’ll ever have any shortage of entertainment.”

The first project he tackled: running competitively.

While Dykes had jogged off and on as an adult, he ran his first race in his fifties after befriending a group of competitive runners. With more time to spare in retirement, he began meeting up with them on the weekends to run. 

“They talked about racing all the time,” Dykes laughs. “They convinced me to run a few races with them, and it was a lot of fun.” He signed up for races on his own and hired a coach to help him improve his form and technique.

Nearly two decades later, Dykes, 76, is a record-breaking ultrarunner. He’s won his age group in the Boston Marathon almost every time he’s competed since 2016. He holds about 60 running records, from local 5Ks to 100+ mile dawn to dusk ultraruns (1). 

This year, Dykes will run almost 40 races in three different countries—including nine marathons, some just days apart (2). 

Gene Dykes finishing the Rotterdam Marathon, where he set an unofficial world record for his age group.
Gene Dykes finishing the Rotterdam Marathon, where he set an unofficial world record for his age group. (Photo courtesy of Gene Dykes)

Dykes wasn’t always a passionate trail runner. He actually considered himself a bad runner when he first gave the sport a try in college.

“I was totally blown off the track by everybody. I mean, I was just terrible,” Dykes says. “I had this deeply ingrained belief that I was a terrible runner.”

He’s since proved this belief wrong, race after race.  

Dykes has developed an unconventional philosophy on fitness: “Save your money and your legs for retirement.”

“A lot of people think it won’t be fun to start running when you’re old,” Dykes says, sighing. “But it just gets better every year, every race.”

So, how exactly does one improve their fitness in their 50s and beyond? Dykes offers strategies that could add years to your healthspan and lifespan.

He Focuses on His ‘Four Fs’

Every year, Dykes sets goals around his personal “four Fs”: get faster, run further, race frequently, and most importantly, have more fun.

Don’t get it twisted. His four Fs philosophy is so much more than an inspiring abbreviation. 

Research into Blue Zones—areas of the world with high concentrations of thriving 100-somethings—shows that maintaining goals and having a strong sense of purpose (or “Ikigai,” as it’s called in one Japanese Blue Zone) can directly impact how well you age (3). 

Aging adults without a strong sense of purpose are at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality (3). 

Gene Dykes on the Azores Trail Ultrarun in Portugal.
Gene Dykes on the Azores Trail Ultrarun in Portugal. (Photo courtesy of Gene Dykes)

He Has a High VO2 Max

After scoring the unofficial fastest marathon time for a man over 70 in 2018, researchers at the University of Delaware brought Dykes into their lab to test his VO2 max (4). 

Your VO2 max is the volume of oxygen your body can use for a set amount of time. The higher your VO2 max, the longer and harder you can work out, and the easier it will be. And the longer you may live: A 2018 study found a link between higher VO2 maxes and a lower risk of all-cause mortality (5). 

Better yet, researchers discovered that even small improvements in VO2 max resulted in a significant reduction of mortality risk. 

Even jumping from a low to below-average VO2 max resulted in a 50 percent reduction of risk over a decade. Go from low to above average and you’ll knock your risk down by 70 percent. 

Thanks to years of distance running, Dykes’ VO2 max clocked in at 49.6—a staggering 63 percent over the average Joe in his age group—and about 17 percent better than the creme de la creme of 70-year-olds (6). 

HEALTHY AGING

Cancer Doesn’t Slow Him Down

Dykes was diagnosed with an incurable but treatable form of blood cancer in 2022. 

“If I weren’t a good runner, I would never have known anything was wrong with me. But I was starting to get short of breath when I knew I shouldn’t be,” Dykes explains. “So when the doctor noticed the high platelets, I guessed what it was before the doctor confirmed it.”

His dedication to running has likely benefited his health over the course of his treatment. Research shows that staying active can both prevent and slow the progression of chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease (7). Both cardiovascular and strength training may be particularly beneficial for surviving blood cancer, as the impact on your bones supports the production of new, healthy platelets (8).

Dykes will take a pill a day for the rest of his life to manage the disease. While he’s not worried about the cancer impacting his day-to-day health, he’s still trying to figure out if it’s impacting his race scores. Although, he doesn’t intend to stop running even if it is.

“I think it affects my ultra running paces the least,” he says. “That’s why I’m doing so many ultra races this year. I’m running so slowly that it’s not a problem for my muscles to get all the oxygen they need.”

Gene Dykes participating in the USATF Steeplechase.
Gene Dykes competing in the USATF Steeplechase. (Photo courtesy of Gene Dykes)
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