Age-Old Runners: Gil Jordan

An interview with 74-year-old runner Gil Jordan.

By on October 7, 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.

After the last article in this series, reader Gil Jordan commented, “I’d like to put in a word for those who continue to run and work out as they age, but not at a highly competitive level. [Those highly competitive athletes] are amazing, but the rest of us midpackers can still reap the health benefits and get great satisfaction into our seventies, eighties, and nineties by continuing to put in the miles, at whatever level we’re at. Feeling good at age 74 and still able to run respectable 10-kilometer to marathon times are what keeps me going–that, and I just plain enjoy getting outside and running at whatever pace feels good that day.”

In an effort to teach everyone the dangers of commenting and respectful community engagement, I cornered Gil and demanded an interview. Gil was kind enough to offer his insight. He identified a couple of the common threads that bind all the interviews in this article series together and also an interesting action point regarding age-group awards. (Please do keep commenting, everyone. Exchanging ideas and opinions and sharing experiences are among the goals of this series. I promise I won’t track you all down for an interview.)

Gil played team sports in high school, but he didn’t take up running until he was 38 and looking to get fit for a move to Northwest Montana from Southern California. He started walking and jogging around a small quarter-mile park. Now, at age 74, he’s completed 192 races including 37 marathons and two ultramarathons. His most recent marathon was in October of 2019 at the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C.

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

Gil Jordan running the 2019 Marine Corps Marathon at age 73. All photos courtesy of Gil Jordan.

What propelled you from walking and jogging around a quarter-mile park to running marathons and ultramarathons?

That took a long time. For many years, I was one of those people who said, people who run marathons are crazy. Why would anybody want to hurt themselves like that? In those early years, I only ran 250 miles during the year. Even after I started running 5k races, I was still only doing 200 or 300 miles a year. Now, [at 74], I’m doing 1,800 miles a year.

I didn’t run my first marathon until 1993 [at age 48]. I was watching television and saw the personal-interest stories they did on the New York City Marathon, Boston Marathon, and Ironman. I watched those people crossing the finish line, and they looked like they’d done something that was an epiphany for them. I decided to see what that was about. But I gave myself permission to quit. I said: “What I’m going to do is start training for a marathon, and, if I like it, I’ll keep doing it. If I don’t like it, or it hurts, or it’s just not right, I’ll quit.” Of course, the bottom line was the farther I went, the better I liked it. So I never quit. From 1993 on, I’ve done upward of four marathons a year all the way up until I retired. I did my last one last October.

Do you like racing?

Yes. I have a tendency to just jog and take it easy in my training if there aren’t races on the schedule…. I don’t mind winning my age group, but it’s not a big goal for me. Races on the schedule mean that I have to run a little faster in training. I have to push myself, so I don’t show up and finish 55th out of 65 runners. I like to finish in the middle of the pack, and feel like I’m not slogging. Races are motivation for me to train better.

How have your feelings crossing a finish line changed the longer you’ve been running?

Virtually not at all. Of my 37 marathons, I would say two or three were very painful, and I wasn’t happy. It was not a good experience. But virtually all the rest of those 37, I was ecstatic. I’m not a very emotional person, but I often choke up when I cross the finish line. It’s always a joyous occasion no matter what condition I’m in. It’s one of the things that keeps me going. And I enjoy it in 5ks, 10ks, and half marathons as well. If I run a strong 5k or 10k, I get the same good feeling at the end.

Gil at age 65 running the 2011 Boston Marathon.

How much do you run on trails?

Almost all. Well, country road. We live deep in the woods. My road in is about 2.5 miles of gravel from the main road. That’s where I run almost all the time, and it’s kind of like running trails. It’s uneven. It’s got chuck holes in it. You have to pay attention or you can hurt yourself. I almost never run on asphalt except when I’m training for a marathon.

Do you think you have the potential to improve as a runner?

My marathon times have slowed down considerably, but in all the other race distances, I’ve been running under a half an hour for 5ks and under an hour for 10ks for almost 30 years. I consider improving the same as maintaining through the years. I’m not motivated to try and run faster at age 74. That doesn’t interest me. But trying to keep in the neighborhood of my best times over that last 20 years, that, for me, is improvement. All kinds of things decrease with age, and so, if you can maintain over time, that’s improvement.

What was the trajectory of improvement and maintaining with your marathon times?

I started way over four hours and by 1997 to 1998, I was running under four hours quite a bit. My PR was in 2002 at the Mount Rushmore Marathon with 3:49. After that, it slowed over the next 15 to 16 years down to where it is now in the five-hour range.

Running the 2002 Steamboat Springs Marathon at age 56.

Do you feel the same level of fatigue at the end of races at age 74 as you did at 44?

Yes, depending on preparation. If I do the preparation, I feel fine. Well, “fine.” I recover pretty quickly even for an old guy. When I did the Marine Corps Marathon last October, the next day my wife and I were out walking and touring around Washington, D.C. I wasn’t hobbled and limping. I was sore, but I was able to walk around without trouble.

Why do you still race?

Not only do I enjoy it, but it makes me feel good. When I’m in marathon shape, I feel great. This year, there’s no marathon on the schedule, and there’s only been one 5k in the Flathead Valley [here in Montana]. All the rest were canceled. I usually run five or six 5ks and 10ks during the summer up here. So I’ve only had one 5k to run this year, and I’ve slacked off. I’m still maintaining miles, but a lot of them are walking and jogging as opposed to running a little faster. I don’t feel bad, but I’m not quite as crisp…. I just don’t feel quite as fit as when I’m running races, and I love that feeling.

Why aren’t there more 74-year-olds racing?

That’s certainly true. Up here in Northwest Montana, we have a fairly small running community, and our races are not massively attended. They often have 80 to 150 runners, and there are hardly any 70-plus-year-old runners. There’s only me and three others who are still doing it…. George Sheehan said, “Find your own play, your own self-renewing compulsion, and you will become the person you are meant to be.” I think that may be the key. If you enjoy it, if it’s not work to do it, then it’s not hard to keep doing it. If you find it painful or boring or all the negatives, or it takes too much time out of your day, or whatever it is, then you start to lose interest and motivation.

George Sheehan’s Running & Being; The Total Experience has been my go-to motivation for 35 years. I’ve re-read it dozens of times cover-to-cover, always absorbing something new and useful. When I was trying to run a marathon in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., I used to pack it and read it on long flights, on layovers in airports, and then the night before the marathon in my motel room to get focused and ready for the challenge ahead.

If you don’t fundamentally love the feeling of moving your body at a run, there comes a point where racing loses its draw completely?

Running’s never been something I didn’t look forward to. I look forward to going out every day and doing it. It’s one of the things that I enjoy the most. That’s why it’s easy for me to keep going.

Before the pandemic, what was your weekly volume?

It’s increased since I retired in April of 2017. I was working very full time, and I was really busy. I packed the miles in as best as I could, but since I’ve retired, I’ve ramped up pretty well. I did 1,700 miles in 2018 and 1,806 miles in 2019, which was a new record for me. I’m on pace to do about 1,850 to 1,860 miles this year, which means about 38 to 40 miles average per week. I walk my dogs about half those miles, and I jog the other half. Occasionally, I break into a run just to remind myself that I can still do it.

How long are your long runs?

That’s the problem with no races. When I had the 5k, I ramped up and did a six-mile run so I would be more comfortable running three miles. And for this 10k that was just canceled, I was going to be doing eight, 10, and 12 miles out on the highway. But once they canceled that, I pretty much scrapped the idea of longer runs.

When you do your next marathon, what is the longest run you’ll do in training?

I have to tell you that the Marine Corps Marathon last fall might be my last. I haven’t decided that definitively. It just takes so much to get to that point. To answer your question, I do the usual 10% [increase in long-run distance] per week for about 14 to 16 weeks. I go up from eight miles until I get to 20 miles. If I’m feeling good, I’ll do 22 and 24 miles. I’ll do those long runs and in between I’ll do shorter, faster work. I’m not training for speed, I’m just training to make sure I have the muscle and the aerobic condition to cover the distance.

Another photo from the 2019 Marine Corps Marathon.

Why are you considering not running another marathon?

I still feel as good as I felt when I was 60, but at the same time, I don’t know…. Certainly a half marathon is in the picture. That’s easy to prepare for. I could run a half marathon tomorrow if I had to. But the difference to 26 miles is just so great…. It’s a little daunting to think about. I haven’t ruled it out.

Do you do strength work? Do you stretch regularly?

I learned that really early on, if you don’t do core and upper-body work, it’s much more painful. Your legs might be conditioned for running the miles, but if your upper body is not conditioned, your back and shoulders hurt, and everything else starts to hurt around 15 or 16 miles, and it gets worse toward the end.

I stretch every morning. It’s a combination of runner’s stretches and yoga positions that take about 20 minutes. I do it every single morning right after I get up. Then I do moderate upper-body stuff. I do push-ups. I think I’m at about 1,900 push-ups for the year so far. I do about 20 to 40 a week, 20 at a time whenever I feel like it. I have weights here at home, and I do curls, and presses, and extensions, that kind of thing. Before a marathon, I do this with real intent and with a real schedule. When I’m not preparing for a marathon, I do it randomly, one or two days a week when I feel like it to stay in shape, so I can carry groceries. I also do a lot of core work where I lift my feet off the floor for the abs and those kinds of things.

Do you take days off during the week?

Not really. At the level that I’m training, I don’t feel the need to take time off. I certainly keep up the walking and jogging every single day. I never miss a day on that. I probably have a streak going of four or five years with only a day or two missed.

Do you take an off season?

I guess in terms of season, we have our races in the summer, and I do work harder at it, and run harder and faster during the summer. But I keep it up during the winter, just at lower intensity. I have cleats that I wear when the road gets icy. I might reduce my total mileage a little bit over the winter simply because it’s sometimes hard to go out when it’s 10 or 20 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. I put on a mask, and I dress for it, and I go out and do it.

How many hours do you sleep at night?

I try to get seven, but as a retiree without deadlines, I tend to nap whenever I feel like it. That sometimes messes up my night’s sleep, but I average seven hours a day.

Tell me about your daily diet.

I read Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health and Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar–Your Brain’s Silent Killers. I cut wheat down to less than 20% of my diet. And I certainly have been consciously reducing the amount that I eat since I retired. My weight was at 174 pounds when I retired. I’m 5’10″, and while that wasn’t ridiculously heavy, I felt like I was 20 pounds overweight. I lost 25 pounds over that first year of retirement, and I’ve stayed around 150 to 152 since then. I eat almost no sugar. No pop. None of that kind of stuff…. I do eat meat, but not a ton.

How do you fuel yourself on long runs?

I’m a devoted fan of Hammer Nutrition. They’re right here in Montana…. I’ve been a devoted fan for 30 years. I use their products all the time, their gels and their Recoverite. I depend on Recoverite after long runs and marathons.

What can our running community do to keep racing useful and accessible to runners over the age of 50?

The first thing that pops into my mind is very personal. All these local races have age groups of five years until they get up to 70 years. Then it’s often “70 and Above.” That’s no fun. If you turn 75 or 76, and you’re still racing against 70 year olds, that’s frustrating. I urge local race directors to keep their five-year age groups after age 70. Don’t dismiss them just because you think there’s only going to be one or two people who are going to show up. It’s not fair.

Also, there are hardly any age-graded races. Age-graded races allow runners of any age and gender to compare their performance against the entire world of runners…. [T]here are easy calculators online. What’s especially rewarding for older runners is when you discover that your age-graded time means you bested most of the younger runners in the race. Even neater, it tells you how your time compares with all runners everywhere. It’s motivating when you’re 75 years old and running at a nine-minute-mile pace in a 10k, and you discover that you ran the age-graded equivalent of 38 minutes, or just over a six-minute-mile pace. It would not be that difficult for race directors to add age-graded percentages to the results.

Do you think highlighting older runners on race websites or in advertising would lead to greater participation and competition?

Well, sure. I’ve been running in Saucony shoes for 35 years, and there’s nothing but these young, healthy-looking runners in all of their advertising. That does have an effect. You look at that and think, Well, geez, I’m an outlier. I’m an oddball because they certainly don’t look like me in those advertisements.

In the last article in this series, commenters loved the exchange, “You don’t look 60 years old.” “Yes I do. This is what 60 is supposed to look like.” I can see an ad with a healthy-looking 65 year old with the headline, “What does running do for you?” This would followed by: “People often say I don’t look 65. I say, ‘Yes I do. This is what 65 is supposed to look like!'” And a closing tagline, “Keep on running!”

Training specifics:

  • Weekly running volume: Forty miles a week
  • Strength training: Core exercises and upper-body weights twice a week
  • Off-season: No racing in the winter
  • Sleep: A total of seven hours in a 24-hour period
  • Race nutrition: Hammer gels and Hammer Recoverite
  • Recovery: Daily stretching, no days off 

Three factors Gil attributes his running performance to:

  1. A belief that hard work, commitment, and follow through lead to success.
  2. The welcoming and encouraging nature of the running community.
  3. “How running makes me feel virtually all of the time. That feeling of health and fitness is highly motivating.”

Call for Comments

  • Do you have a story about running or racing with Gil Jordan? Leave a comment!
  • Are you over the age of 70, feeling good, and running well? Can you share thoughts about your current relationship with running?
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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.