Middle-aged marathon runners share their wisdom on health and fitness

As a teenager, Kimi Puntillo "could barely make it around the track." Now, she's setting world records

Published October 18, 2018 6:00PM (EDT)

"Running Past Fifty: Advice and Inspiration for Senior Runners" by Gail Waesche Kislevitz (AP/Skyhorse Publishing)
"Running Past Fifty: Advice and Inspiration for Senior Runners" by Gail Waesche Kislevitz (AP/Skyhorse Publishing)

Excerpted with permission from Running Past Fifty: Advice and Inspiration for Senior Runners by Gail Waesche Kislevitz. Copyright 2018 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

“Don’t waste a day of your life.”

Although never a runner, Kimi Puntillo decided to run the 1995 New York City Marathon to help cope with a difficult time in her life. She had watched the marathoners as they ran through Manhattan and always admired their grit and stamina. She took her training seriously and finished, an experience she found beyond thrilling. That marathon changed her life and she started looking for another race. The Antarctica Marathon, which had been held for the first time earlier that year, appeared on her running radar. “A childhood dream of mine was to go to Antarctica,” she says. “I thought, this is my destiny.” It became more than a destiny. It became a quest to become the first female to run a marathon on all seven continents. She completed that quest in seven hundred days between 1996 and 1998. Her Guinness Book of World Records entry has since been beaten, but she will always have the honor to be the first.

Puntillo, who grew up in Plandome, Long Island, hated running as a child. “I still remember the Presidential Fitness Test I had to take in high school, a 500-yard dash. I could barely make it around the track. She was good at other sports like field hockey and tennis but never excelled as a runner. After graduating from Tufts, she moved to Washington, DC, to take a job with CBS News, then moved to New York to obtain her MBA and MS in media management from Columbia, settling into the New York City life. In the mid-1990s the New York City running scene was taking off but she still hadn’t caught the running bug. She recalls a rainy night and seeing a group of runners training in Central Park. She thought, “Really? In the rain?”

In her mid-thirties, personal setbacks convinced her that she needed to shake up her life. She recalled how inspirational runners in the New York City Marathon were. “I can’t think of any other event where the city comes out and is so positive and supportive of so many runners,” says Puntillo. “The runners were motivated and full of life. I wanted to feel that.” It inspired her to want to run it someday. But when? “I realized that if I don’t do it now, it might slip by. Your life gets turned upside down, and you realize that life is short,” she says.

She started training for the marathon the same way she approached her work and life in general—by giving it her all and working hard. Every runner she met, she asked for advice. One friend said, “Hitting the Wall is often hyped up, but it’s all about the training. If you train well you won’t hit the Wall.”

The 1995 New York City Marathon was by far the coldest ever. The wind blew at 21 to 32 miles an hour throughout, with gusts on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge at the start reaching 58 miles per hour, with a wind-chill factor of 18 degrees. Not the best day for a marathon but quite fitting for someone who would run the Antarctica Marathon. Puntillo did well for her first marathon, finishing in 4:34:49, an impressive time for someone who didn’t like to run. Her most important lesson was never to say you hate to run, or hate anything for that matter.

Running brought a number of surprises to her life. Never a morning person, the routine of 6:30 a.m. runs changed the time she willingly set her alarm clock. “It was refreshing to rise with the sun and morning runs set a positive tone for the day,” she states. It led to becoming athletically fit and paying more attention to what affected her physique. But most importantly she learned not to be intimidated by pushing herself in a new, unchartered direction. “I loved it,” she states emphatically.

As a training run for the Antarctic Marathon, she ran the New York City Marathon again in November 1996. By convincing herself to start out slowly and hold back, she took thirteen minutes off her finish time. The following February, she traveled to remote King George Island to fulfill her dream of visiting Antarctica. And it was there that the Guinness record beckoned her to new goals.

The advent of the Antarctica race had made it possible for the first time to run marathons on all seven continents. While on King George Island, Puntillo learned that the first man to accomplish this feat had just been enshrined in the Guinness book. But no woman had done it. “I decided to try to be that woman,” she says. On the boat of eighty-nine runners heading to Antarctica she mingled with her fellow explorers. One was a quadriplegic, a young man who was in a drunk driving accident. He was the last to finish, in the dark, while the other runners waited to applaud him. Another was an Aussie who talked about his experience running the Mount Everest Marathon. “I had always wanted to see Mount Everest,” she said.

Puntillo already had lined up an assignment to write about her Antarctica experience. Her quest to set a Guinness-sanctioned record generated further assignments. She already had North America completed with the New York City Marathon in 1996. Next up was Europe, completing the London Marathon in April 1997. That was followed by Asia and the Mount Everest Marathon in 1997, then the Mount Kilimanjaro Marathon in June 1998, to check off Africa. Australia’s Sydney Marathon was September 1998 and finally the Adidas Marathon in Buenos Aires, October 1998. She crossed the finish line in Buenos Aires one year, eleven months, and one day after she finished the 1996 New York Marathon.

Her toughest marathon out of the seven was Mount Everest in 1977. “It was like running in Heaven but the starting line was at 17,007 feet. The air was so thin that the runners’ average marathon finish time was doubled,” she recalls. Plus, it took three weeks of trekking to get to the start line.

Running had been so rewarding, she continued to race, even after completing her goal, but suffered a major setback. In 2014 while skiing, another skier ran into her, causing a tear to her ACL. After recovering, she attempted her first post-accident race. Unfortunately, running became much more difficult, and to top it off she came down with food poisoning at the Mongolian Marathon the day before the race. She completed it despite the setbacks because tenacity is what marathon running taught her. Her new goal is to complete one marathon a year.

Puntillo’s running brought her not only a place in the records’ book, but a globetrotting career as a runner and a journalist, taking her to places as far flung as Bhutan and the North Pole. She parlayed her experiences in a book about adventure runs, titled Great Races, Incredible Places: 100+ Fantastic Runs Around the World to share some of the most unique race courses in the world with fellow runners.

Reflecting on her running career, her best advice is: “Get up and try hard every day. Never waste life.”


* * *

“I never met a runner I didn’t like.”

Bill Rodgers, best known for his victories in the Boston and New York City marathons in the late 1970s, winning both four times, twice breaking the American record at Boston with a time of 2:09:55 in 1975, an American and course record and a 2:09:27 in 1979, is a running legend. At the height of his career he was one the most-recognized and beloved marathoner in the country. In 1977, he became the first person in history to simultaneously hold the Boston, New York City, and Fukuoka marathon titles and remains the only person to have achieved this feat.

By the end of his competitive career at age forty, he had run fifty marathons, twenty-nine of them under 2:15. In 2008, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which caught him by surprise. But nothing stops Boston Billy, and he came back stronger and healthier after beating it. Rodgers continues to connect with runners around the world with his charm, stories, and passion for the sport.

Rodgers was born in Hartford, Connecticut. His best friends were his older brother, Charlie, and their friend Jason. The trio did everything together, running like a pack of puppies around the neighborhood. In high school they put their running to good use, joining the cross-country team where Rodgers excelled. “I loved it from the start,” he recalls. “I loved the open territory and going the distance.” On the other hand, he was not good at track, saying he lacked the initial kick required for short distances. His talent was noticed and on Mondays he often enjoyed hearing his name on the principal’s PA system announcing the athlete of the week.

At Wesleyan University he continued to run cross country but slacked off a bit, enjoying the college life. His roommate, Amby Burfoot, was a standout runner also from Connecticut. When Burfoot returned to their room after one weekend, it was strewn with beer cans and cigarette butts. One Sunday morning not long after, Burfoot took Rodgers on a twenty-five-mile run. “I think he was getting back at me for the beer cans,” laughs Rodgers. “I kept up pretty well ‘til the end when Amby picked up the pace and dropped me.” What Rodgers may not have known then was that Burfoot was seriously thinking about a Boston Marathon win. Burfoot’s high school coach, John J. Kelley, won the Boston Marathon in 1957 and Burfoot dreamed of doing the same. One weekend Kelley came down to Wesleyan and they all went for a long run. Rodgers recalls thinking, “That Kelley guy can run pretty fast for an old man.” At the time Kelley was probably thirtynine. Burfoot went on to win the 1968 Boston Marathon his senior year, in 2:22:17. Rodgers hadn’t caught the marathon bug just yet, describing it as too far, too much training. “I thought I’d die if I had to train for a marathon,” he tells me.

Rodgers went through a lost period after college. He stopped running, smoked more than the occasional cigarette, couldn’t get a job, and had the Vietnam War looming over his head. He received a conscientious objector status for his Roman Catholic beliefs against the war and finally got a job at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston wheeling bodies to the morgue. He bought a motorcycle with his paycheck. But things got worse. He lost that job and his motorcycle was stolen. He had to now walk or run everywhere, which made him stop smoking.

In April of 1971, he watched the Boston Marathon for the first time. He saw his Wesleyan cross country teammate Jeff Galloway run by along with John Vitale, whom he ran against in college. He thought, if they can run a marathon, so can I. That epiphany changed the course of his life. In 1975, 1977, and 1979, Track & Field News ranked Rodgers number one in the world in the marathon. In all, he won twenty-two marathons in his career. His first attempt at Boston was in 1973, and after putting in 130 miles a week in training, he thought he was poised for somewhere in the top five finishers. But as he was fond of saying later on, the marathon will humble you. He dropped out at mile 21.

Missing the camaraderie and support of his collegiate running days, he joined the Greater Boston Track Club that had just formed. He ran Boston again in 1974, finishing in 14th place in 2:19. His top competitors included Galloway, Tom Fleming, and Jerome Drayton. He recalls Fleming as the fiercest trainer. Fleming was poised to win in ’74 but sprained his ankle the Thursday before the marathon. As Tom Derderian writes in his bible of a book, Boston Marathon, “There it went. All that preparation (a year’s worth of 100-plus miles week) gone to a New Jersey pothole.”

Rodgers was hell-bent on winning in 1975. Fresh off his third-place finish at the World Cross Country championships in Rabat, Morocco, he knew he could do it. The press still took him for a lighthearted goofball, not a serious contender. And that was fine with Rodgers. “They underestimated my desire to win,” he says. “I prayed for the perfect day and my prayers were answered.” He went like a bat out of hell and never stopped. He wore a hand-painted Greater Boston Track Club T-shirt, white gardening gloves, a headband given to him by Fleming at the start to hold back his unruly mane of blonde hair, and running shoes borrowed from Steve Prefontaine, which he had to stop and re-tie along the course. He set an American and course record that day in 2:09:55. He was on fire.

In 1976, Fred Lebow invited him to run the first five-borough New York City Marathon. Lebow, always the showman, also invited Frank Shorter and thought the hype of having the Olympic gold medalist and the American record winner from Boston run against each other would be great for his marathon. Rodgers recalls that day: “I didn’t even know the course. I remember running on the East Drive promenade passing fisherman and drunks. I loved the New York crowd and fed off their energy.” He won in 2:10:10. And in typical Rodgers fashion, he forgot his running shorts and had borrowed a pair of soccer shorts at the last minute. When he finished the race, his car, which had been illegally parked, was towed. Lebow had to take up a collection to get Rodgers’s car back.

Rodgers became the most recognizable marathoner in the world. With his boyish face, underdog mentality, and shaggy blond hair, he was a rebel. He was hoping for a berth on the 1980 Olympic marathon team when the United States boycotted the Moscow Olympics. Sixty-eight other countries followed. Rodgers was angry, and the only way he knew to deal with his anger was to run and win his fourth Boston Marathon. But the win didn’t come easy. As Derderian recalls in Boston Marathon, Rodgers wanted to show his anger to the world and wear a black armband in protest of the boycott. When word of his intentions got out, a death threat came in by phone to his running store. “The anonymous caller warned that Rodgers would not make it alive past Coolidge Corner,” writes Derderian. Rodgers backed off. He ran the 1984 Olympic Trials marathon and finished eighth in a time of 2:13:30. Alberto Salazar was primed to win the Trials race, but he placed second to the relatively unknown Pete Pfitzinger, who beat him by one second in 2:11:43. Pfitzinger went on to finish eleventh at the Olympics.

At the beginning of his career, Rodgers never made the big cash that athletes do today. He ran during the era when runners had to be amateurs. In 1976, he didn’t have the spare money to drive to New York City on toll roads and took back roads instead. This inequality infuriated Rodgers, who was one of the first runners to challenge the AAU on their stand against payment for amateurs. He asked Lebow for two thousand dollars under the table to run New York and Lebow paid him out of pocket. In contrast, the 2017 male and female winners at the New York City marathon won $100,000. But all this changed and by 1981 Rodgers was earning appearance money as well as prize money. Gone were his days of living on food stamps and sleeping on mattresses in friends’ apartments.

In December of 2007, Rodgers was at a 10K event in Barbados when he got a call from his doctor with bad news: he had prostate cancer. Shocked with the news, he went on to win the 10K and then flew home for surgery in January of 2008. He came back to running, sometimes clocking faster times than before his diagnosis. He also became an advocate for prostate cancer research and early screening. He never talked about retiring but slowed down both in pace and his number of races. “Nowadays I only run in one gear,” says Rodgers. “I can’t shift into surges or kicks. I think of myself as a dependable car with one steady gear.” He attends on average forty races and clinics a year, spending time at expos talking to his fans. He ran an Anniversary Tour in 2015 to celebrate forty years of running, going back to races he won in his heyday like the Cherry Blossom Ten Mile in Washington, DC, the Boilermaker 15K Road Race in Utica, New York, the Falmouth Road Race in Massachusetts, and the Azalea Trail Run in Mobile, Alabama. “Going back to these races is mind-blowing for me,” says Rodgers. “I’m not that young guy who won them and the races have grown so much since I ran them.” Promoting the sport and mingling with his fans is his main occupation. He last ran the Boston Marathon in 2009, a year after being diagnosed with the cancer. He wore a singlet that supported prostrate cancer and he blended in with the other runners. “No one knew who I was and that was fine with me,” says Rodgers, who also supports melanoma research. “Runners are the best fundraisers and if I can help I am more than happy to support a good cause.” Even though he doesn’t run the marathon anymore he is always out there on race day talking to the runners and the spectators who still can’t get enough of “Boston Billy.”

At his speaking engagements, he attracts crowds both young and old. The elder runners still revere him as one of them and the younger ones want to beat him. It’s not unusual at races for young guns to try and beat him and then boast that they do. He tells me he’s okay with it but he still gets competitive and tries to keep up. “I’m still going to try if I can,” he laughs. “I want them to beat me. Heck, if they can’t beat a geezer, then they have a problem.”

Now seventy, Rodgers is stoic and philosophical about his life. “Turning seventy is definitely a challenge,” he says. “I’m not going to lie. This feels like an epic age.” He’s gone from eating junk food to healthy food with an occasional chocolate chip cookie. He’s cut back his mileage to forty a week and only runs fifteen races a year. Once famous for double workouts, he now laughs that his second workout of the day is walking his dog. He’s into yoga. He thinks about his mortality. He loves seeing that scientific data now supports what he and other runners always believed back in the seventies, that running is good for you. “My entire running life people would say to me, ‘What about your knees?’ ‘What about your feet?’ Or my favorite, ‘What are you running from?’” Now we are seeing proof that running doesn’t affect knees at all and in general keeps us healthy and engaged. He can get philosophical about the aging process and how it is linked to his running: “When I was trying to get into marathon racing, there weren’t that many older people out there,” Rodgers said. “There are so many really good older runners today and that’s a huge change in the sport and shows you the longevity of our sport. The old runners want to keep going. It’s the most underrated sport for what it does for your heath and well-being. If you get out the door and stay active, life is better. The evidence of that is clear.”

His advice to older runners is simple: “You have to know when to back off. I raced too much and I felt old at forty. I was motivated to win. It’s a powerful drug that can also derail a career too early.” Nowadays, the crowds he speaks to at race events and meeting new runners motivate him. “I love giving back to this sport that has given me so much,” says an older and more subdued Rodgers.

# # #

Excerpted with permission from Running Past Fifty: Advice and Inspiration for Senior Runners by Gail Waesche Kislevitz. Copyright 2018 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

By Gail Waesche Kislevitz

Gail Waesche Kislevitz is an award-winning journalist and the author of six books on running and sports. She was a columnist for Runner’s World for fifteen years and her freelance work has appeared in Shape, Marathon and Beyond, and New York Runner. A longtime employee of New York Road Runners, she is a coach for their marathon charity team, Team for Kids. Kislevitz has run twenty-six marathons, and has competed in triathlons, including a Half Ironman. In 2006, she was awarded the RRCA Journalist Excellence Sportswriter Award. Kislevitz lives in Ridgewood, New Jersey.

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Athletics Bill Rodgers Book Excerpts Fitness Jogging Kimi Puntillo Marathons Running