Age-Old Runners: Blake Wood

An interview with 62-year-old runner Blake Wood.

By on November 4, 2020 | Comments

‘Age-Old Runners’ is an article series where we explore runners’ performance potential after the age of 45 by interviewing excellent middle-aged runners. Is there still potential to improve? What roles do motivation, mindset, and specific training and recovery techniques play in allowing runners in their mid-forties to mid-sixties to continue to excel? To learn more about this series’ goals, check out its introductory article.

Blake Wood is 62 years old. He’s run the Hardrock 100 twenty-two times, most recently when he was 59 in 2018. He completed both the Barkley Marathons and Nolan’s 14 in his forties, and set his marathon PR of 2:43 at age 54. He ran a 4:49.95 mile at the USATF Masters Indoor Track and Field Championships when he was 50, 5:07.89 at 55, and 5:21.46 at age 60. Blake also set the record for the longest time between sub-three-hour marathons (41 years) in 2017 by running a 2:58 at the Modesto Marathon, a record which was subsequently broken. He’s looking to reclaim that title as soon as marathons are on the calendar again.

The following is a transcript of a phone interview with Blake. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Blake Wood running the 2017 Modesto Marathon. All photos courtesy of Blake Wood unless otherwise noted.

What do you think of the idea that older runners have the potential to improve?

At the middle distances that I run in indoor track–the 800 meter, the mile, and the 3,000 meter–at age 60, at the national-class level, you’re basically losing three seconds per mile, per year. I used to think having five-year age groups was a little bit of an overkill, but it’s not when you look at it. You figure every five-year age group, you’re going to be 15 seconds slower a mile. And, actually, that’s one of the reasons I like running indoor track… just because it doesn’t lie. The hard numbers, particularly if you look at indoor track, are there.

But that being the case, I think there is still a lot of potential for improving where you are. I’m never going to run the times that I ran in my forties, or even in my fifties, but I can run better with respect to my 60-year-old peers. I can improve on that scale.

But you ran a marathon PR of 2:43 in 2012 when you were 54?

I didn’t run fast marathons when I was in my prime. But when my daughter was training for the [Olympic Marathon] Trials, I trained with her. And I ran with her when she qualified for the Trials. Then I ran the corresponding race when she ran the Trials…. I ran 2:43. Twice. Which I was pretty happy about.

Then, I went out in 2017 and ran a sub-three[-hour marathon]…. I actually set a [then] record for the most number of years between sub-three-hour marathons. Now, I’m back down to number three or four on that list. But this past spring, I was going to go out and do it again and set the record again. My race got canceled, but I was feeling pretty good about it. I was pretty sure I could do it because I ran a 1:22 half marathon in February, and I felt if I could do that, I was going to beat three hours without too much trouble.

I’ll try again next spring or whenever they start having good races again, and, hopefully, I’ll bump that record up to over 45 years. That [goal has] actually made running marathons really interesting for me again. I feel like there is a time there now that’s an important time, and that if I’m in really good shape, I can probably still beat it. For how many more years? I don’t know. It’ll be interesting to find out.

Do you think runners’ belief in their potential has a substantial impact on their racing over the age of 45?

I think it varies a lot from runner to runner. There are a lot of people who still get all the satisfaction [they need by] just going out and doing the distance, seeing their friends, and taking on the challenge.

On racing fewer ultramarathons.

To tell you the truth, I don’t actually run all that many ultramarathons anymore because there isn’t a strong age-group contingent. Age groups aren’t really a thing in ultras… as opposed to, like I said, at Indoor Nationals [the USATF Masters Indoor Track and Field Championships]. You go to Indoor Nationals and run against other 60 year olds, and it means something. I can go do a road marathon or a road half marathon, and there is some recognition at the end of it as to how I did with respect to the other 60 year olds. Very few ultras have that.

And I’m not a real social person. I mean, the attraction for me of running ultras has never been the hoopla, the vibe of going to the ultra. It was mostly about getting out into the woods and seeing a beautiful course and, back in the day, when I was competitive, trying to do well overall in the race and set a fast time. But nowadays… I live here in Los Alamos, [New Mexico,] up in the mountains, so I can walk out my front door and go running in terrain that I’d put up right up against anywhere in the world. And I have friends who I run with, and I enjoy that a lot. So I often look at it and say: Well, I could go travel across the country and run this ultra, or I could just get together with a few of my close friends and do some really interesting FKT. And that would be just as satisfying, a whole lot more flexible, and cheaper.

Do you think a lack of competition is why many older runners stop racing?

Yeah, I think that’s probably likely. You know, I enjoy racing and being competitive. It’s one of the reasons I like going to some shorter races, or a race where there are going to be a bunch of other people my age that I can race against, even if it’s not an official thing. But just going to an ultra and finishing in the middle of the pack… doesn’t have quite the appeal that trying to be somewhere near the front did 15 or 20 years ago.

Blake (right) running the 2017 Jemez Mountain Trail Runs 50k.  Photo: Jim Stein

Do you think there’s anything race directors could do to increase the competition among older athletes?

Well, having some recognition for age, like age-group awards… that would mean something. I know that San Juan Solstice, the 50 miler out of Lake City, [Colorado]… has awards for every 10-year age group, or maybe even five-year age groups. You can actually get some recognition there, and that’s good. I kind of wish more ultras would do that.

That’s been a common thread with a number of the athletes I’ve interviewed for this series. Gil Jordan, who I spoke with last month, said something like, “What’s up with an “Over 70” award for everyone 70 years old and up? There’s a big difference between being 70 years old and 75 years old!”

That’s exactly the point because a 75 year old, quite honestly, is probably not going to be competitive with a 70 year old, even though it seems like there’s not that much difference in age.

And, of course, there’s also this small-numbers problem. Most ultras are small enough that, in your average field, you’re not going to have 10 people who are over age 60 like you might in a major marathon. A marathon with 5,000 people running in it… yeah, you’re going to get some pretty good 60 year olds, and the competition is probably going to be pretty fierce. In an ultra, with 100 people in it… probably not. You’ll probably be the only 60 year old in the field. And even if they did give recognition for winning your age group, if you’re the only person in your age group, does that mean anything?

If there was more recognition and broadcasting of age-group records, would that draw older runners to races regardless of whether their competition was also racing?

I think it would, quite honestly. In most races, you could probably figure out who had a particular age-group record, but it’s not something that gets emphasized. Case in point, the race that I’m most involved with, is Hardrock, and I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head who has various age-group records because that’s not ever been anything we’ve emphasized. And we probably should because that’s actually something that would be kind of exciting to think about. What is the over-60 record at Hardrock? Could I take a shot at that? If there was some recognition for that, yeah, that would be attractive. When you’ve been running competitively for 47 years like I have, and I’ve run races in every one of those 47 years, it’s obvious that there’s more that attracts me to it than whether I win a prize or not, or whether I get recognition or not, but still, it would spice it up a little bit.

Do you think about your age when you’re racing?

It depends on the race. When I go to the local indoor track meets in Albuquerque, [New Mexico,]  and I’m in a field of high-school kids, yeah, I think about it then. Quite honestly, it’s kind of cool. When I ran the marathon in 2017 and set that sub-three-hour record, I remember it was kind of cool during the race to be running along and hearing people as I went by say, “Did you see that old guy? Look at how far up he is!” That was kind of cool. But in most races, it’s not something I think of so much. In a 5k road race, I might look at the people around me and think: Okay, who’s the competition? Who else here looks like an old guy? But in your average ultra? Nah.

What is your strongest motivator to push yourself now at Hardrock?

For me, now, finishing before it gets dark on the second day, which is 38 or 39 hours, is getting to be something that I’ve got to be in really good shape to do. And that gives me some extra incentive to actually get in shape for it…. Before, I’d finish in 38 hours in a slow year. Maybe, in a good year, I’d finish in 35 hours…. But now, if I’m in really good shape for Hardrock, I don’t have to go into a second night. That kind of means something, you know. My grandkids will still be awake when I finish. They’ll be waiting for me at the finish line. That’s some fairly powerful incentive.

Do you enjoy training as much as you did when you started running in high school?

Oh, yeah. I live in an underappreciated runners’ paradise here in Los Alamos. Just this morning, I went out north of town, out on the trails, in the boondocks, out there on the forest-service land, and I think I found some trails that I’ve never been on before, which is actually kind of surprising having lived here for nearly 30 years. I just found some new trails and just followed my nose and made it up as I went. And when I decided it was time to go home, I went home. We have national-park quality land right above town that is so spectacular.

So to answer your question, yes, I would enjoy training anywhere, but in a place like this, where I can go out any day of the week and be up in the mountains and streams, with the elk and the bears, and find places I’ve never been before that are spectacularly beautiful…. Yeah, it’s just as good as it always was.

Did you start trail running when you moved to Los Alamos?

I started ultrarunning when I moved to Los Alamos. I always did a lot of running on trails. I mean, even when I was in high school, I ran on trails just because that is what we had to run on. But I started running ultras when I came to Los Alamos. That was in 1992. [Author’s Note: Blake was in his mid-thirties when he started ultrarunning. He is 47 years old as a runner and 36 years old as an ultrarunner.]

Although, back when I lived in California, back in the mid-1980s, my dad and I used to go out and do multi-day hikes where we would do 40 or 50 miles a day. We’d go with a day pack and hike until it got too dark, and then build a small fire and lie around the fire until we got cold. Then we’d get up and go hiking again. We did some pretty amazing hikes that way. So that wasn’t an ultra race, but it was certainly the ultra spirit. So I was doing that in the ’80s, but I didn’t really start doing ultra races until I moved to Los Alamos here in 1992.

You just fell in with the wrong crowd?

Yeah, basically that was it…. There was this very strong ultrarunning crowd here in town, and I started running with them, and I looked at them, and I thought, These guys are all running 100 milers. They’re a whole lot older than I am, and I don’t think they’re any more talented than I am. I should have a go at 100 miles. And that’s sort of how I got into it.

You said you’ve trained and raced consistently since you were in high school. How has your training changed?

One of the biggest differences in my training now is that I actually train much smarter and much better, if not necessarily faster. I can push my limits more, and I have a better training program now than I did when I was 40. Because then, I could just get off the couch and go run a 100 miler, and it was no big deal. But now, I kind of feel that every time I try to go and run something like that, Boy, I’d better be in good shape, because it isn’t a slam dunk anymore.

I definitely feel like I need some additional recovery now. I was always the guy who could put in 100 miles a week. I was doing that in high school. It wasn’t a big deal. And pretty much my entire life since I was 14, I put in 2,500 miles a year…. That’s harder to do now. A big week for me now is 65 miles. But the difference is now when I’m really training hard, that 65-mile week might have four speed workouts in it. I coach cross country and track at the high school here, so I do a lot of my running with the high-school kids. So [my training is] a mixture of short stuff [with them] and long tempos.

Some of my favorite runs are out on the trails up in the mountains in these incredibly beautiful places and just doing one, two, and three-minute pickups. I’ll run fast for a minute and then relax for a minute and then run fast for two minutes and just do that… in this beautiful paradise for a 15-mile workout. So the main difference now is the number of intense speed workouts that I do in a week.

Say I’m doing a hard week that’s 65 miles, I might have a workout where I do those one, two, and three-minute pickups for eight miles of a 15-mile workout. So that’s probably six miles of actual running hard. And then, typically, I would do a downhill tempo, which is another six miles fast downhill. And then probably a couple of days of 200s with the high-school kids, which is not a lot of miles.

Another thing that’s important for me is I have seasons. I don’t train hard all year long. I just can’t do that anymore, and I don’t think it’s good. I actually think I would have been better back in my prime, back when I was 40, if I had trained then like I train now…. That’s kind of where the rising curve of experience added to the falling curve of physical capability and reached its maximum.

Do you take rest days?

I usually don’t schedule days off, but I take one when I think I need it. That probably ends up being once a week when I’m training hard. And, over the years, I have been lucky [not to get injured often]. This is largely a combination of good genetics, which I have no responsibility for, and smart running…. [F]or instance, this winter and spring when I was training really hard for that marathon and for Indoor Nationals, I was pushing up to the limit where I was starting to feel like I was going to hurt something. That’s a sort of limit everybody faces, and if you’re smart about it, which I think I was, you can push pretty close to it without hurting yourself. I think that’s one of the things that I have with 47 years of experience running competitively: I generally have a better sense than most about how far I can push. When something hurts, [I know whether it is] something I can run through, something that will go away on its own, or when I’ve got to back off for a few days because it is something that’s going to get worse.

Do you do any ancillary training to prevent injury or otherwise support your running?

A little bit of strength training. I do a fair amount of stretching. I do this Myrtl routine, which is a hip- and core-strength kind of thing…. That was something we had the high-school kids do…. I’m not the head coach, so I have learned an enormous amount over the years from our two head coaches who are both national-class high-school coaches. Plus, one of our coaches is also a physical therapist… and if something hurts, I can say, “This is bugging me. What do you think I ought to do about it?” And she’ll give me some exercises or stretches. So that helps, but 20 years ago, I thought my running days were about over because my knees hurt so badly. I went through using Cho-Pat straps on my knees. I did that for a few years. I took glucosamine for a number of years. But what finally fixed it was when I started doing those hip flexibility and strength exercises, that Myrtl routine with the high-school kids. I suddenly realized my knees didn’t hurt anymore. My knees are better now than they were 20 years ago. And as long as I do that Myrtl pretty much every day, I don’t have any knee pain.

How long does it take to do that routine?

Ten minutes. I just do it when I’m done running. I just do a little bit of stretching… three to four stretches, and then I do the Myrtl.

When you were training for 100 milers most recently, what was the longest long run you would do?

Usually around 25 miles. I kind of felt like I could do a 25-mile run and still come back and run the next day. I wouldn’t go out and run hard the next day, but I could go out and do a 25-mile run, and I was fine to run the next day. Any more [miles] than that, and I start feeling like it’s going to bang me up more than its worth. That’s not a hard limit; it’s just simply that there’s a particular road loop that I like doing that’s exactly 25 miles long that has a couple thousand feet of climb in it. So that tends to be my once-a-week [long run] if I’m training for something… particularly when I’m training hard in the winter time, when it’s hard to get out on the trails because of snow.

Tell me about your diet. Do you restrict your intake in any way?

Not really…. [T]he things [my wife and I] cook and eat tend to be relatively low fat. But it’s not something that I worry about. I pretty much eat anything I like. I eat a moderate amount of meat. We tend to eat a lot of fish. We eat a lot of vegetables and fruit. I typically eat two meals a day. I’ll get up in the morning, have a couple of pieces of toast and some tea, and go for my run. By the time I get back from my run and have breakfast, it’s mid-morning. So then I usually don’t bother with lunch and just have dinner.

Running the mile at the 2014 USATF Masters Indoor Track and Field Nationals.

What do you eat during an ultra?

I just eat as much normal food as I can. One difference I’ve found with being older is that, over the years, my stomach has gotten more and more sensitive. And I’ve managed to figure out some tricks for that a few years ago that help for 100 miles. Basically, I just try to eat normal food, sandwiches, burritos. My wife makes a terrific banana bread that’s actually my go-to fuel for long workouts now. It’s got a lot of calories, it’s easy to eat, it’s moist, and it tastes good. I’ll throw a couple of pieces of that in my pack when I go for a long run, and that’s what I eat.

I hardly ever have gels or things like that. The only time I ever have some of those is when I run a marathon…. But my go-to things on long runs are peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and banana bread…. I’ll get up in the morning and put as much peanut butter and jelly as I can between two pieces of bread, throw it in a Ziploc bag, put it in my pack, and I’m good.

This spring, with all races canceled, I did this run up above town here. We live on the side of this giant volcano, a big caldera. So I decided, Well since I’m in great shape, but all my races have been canceled, I’m going to try to do something that I’ve been meaning to do for years: to run all the way around the rim of the caldera in a day. It turned out to be 67 or 70 miles, and I did it in basically 25 hours. [My wife], Rebecca, met me in five different places during the daytime, and I planned it out to get 200 to 300 calories an hour. For me, I find a quart an hour of water is about right. I don’t carry that much when I’m on a workout, but if I’m going to be running all day long, a quart an hour will keep me hydrated…. And I usually don’t eat at night because my stomach totally rebels if I try to eat at night.

What distresses you about aging as a runner?

Really nothing. It doesn’t stress me to be slower than I used to be. It’s mildly surprising to realize that my national-competition mile speed on the indoor track is the same speed that I was doing multiple repeats of in workouts 15 years ago. You know, that’s interesting. But it doesn’t bother me. It’s just my nature to be kind of accepting of that sort of thing…. And in some senses it’s gotten fun because if I go to a race now, and I’m the oldest guy there, people seem to be impressed. That’s not why I run, but it’s kind of cool. I go out and run with the high-school kids… and I’ll hear from somebody that this kid thinks Coach Wood is one of the most amazing people he’s ever seen because he’s still out running with the high-school kids and he’s four times their age.

What mistakes do new ultrarunners make?

The biggest mistake that I see is trying to do too many races [too hard]. It’s a shame to see so many really talented runners have an ultrarunning lifetime of three or four years, where if they just backed it off a little bit… not necessarily backed off the times, but just didn’t go out and try to run 8 or 10 fast races a year. It’s not a problem for them to run 10 races a year. There was a time when I was doing that, but I wasn’t trying to run them all fast. I was running maybe three races that I was really trying to train for to do really well at. The other ones were just for fun. I think that’s the biggest mistake that a lot of the younger runners make. I totally understand it because I remember what it was like to feel that way. And, of course, when I was that age, there wasn’t such a thing as sponsorship…. I think the sponsorship is a little bit of a problem for some people because it’s leading them to run too many races.

It seems like it’s hard to know how many ultras is too many until you’re over the edge.

Exactly. Because that’s not something you’re going to see in one season. After three or four seasons of doing that, suddenly you’re just not going to feel like running anymore. And luckily, I’ve been racing for 47 years, and I’ve never gotten to that point where it wasn’t fun.

Training specifics:

  • Weekly running volume: Sixty-five miles a week when training hard
  • Strength training: Ten-minute Myrtl routine daily
  • Off-season: Cuts back in the fall
  • Sleep: Eight hours
  • Race nutrition: Real food, including peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and banana bread
  • Recovery: A day off as needed

Three factors Blake attributes his running performance to:

  1. Genetics
  2. Racing and training consistently
  3. Experience knowing when to push and when to back off

Call for Comments

  • It’s time to share some Blake Wood stories. You know what to do in the comments section!
  • Are you in your sixties and racing hard at shorter distances, where Blake is also focusing more of his effort? What has the experience been like for you?
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Liza Howard
Liza Howard is a longtime ultrarunner who lives in San Antonio, Texas. She teaches for NOLS Wilderness Medicine, coaches, directs the non-profit Band of Runners, and drives her kids around in a minivan.