Age-Old Runners: Joe Fejes

An interview with 55-year-old Joe Fejes.

By on January 6, 2021 | 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.

Most of the runners I’ve interviewed for this series have said something to the effect of, “The longer the race, the greater my potential to improve despite my age.” So it seemed like it was high time to interview Joe Fejes, who is 55 and who holds both the American record for six-day racing and the American 50-54 age-group record for that same distance, and get his opinion.

Joe’s American six-day record is 606.243 miles (975.654 kilometers). He ran that when he was 49 years old at the 2015 EMU 6 Day Race World Trophy in Hungary. His American 50-54 age-group record is 550.256 miles (885.551 kilometers), which he set at EMU in 2016.

For those of us who limit our racing to less than a day or two, it’s easy to give these gigantic numbers short shrift. But imagine running 100 miles in under 24 hours. Most of us would be quite pleased with ourselves and our big belt buckles, and then we’d spend the day after our race lying around eating sweet things and taking pictures of our cankles. Instead, imagine heading back out onto the course and repeating your performance. Then do it again the following day. And then again the three days after that. That’s what running over 600 miles in six days basically boils down to. The world record for six-day racing belongs to Yiannis Kouros at 644.238 miles (1036.800 kilometers), which he set in 2005 when he was 49.

In addition to these six-day records, Joe’s 24-hour PR is 156.626 miles (252.065 kilometers) at Desert Solstice when he was 47. He also set his 100-mile PR of 14:41:09 that year. Joe ran 153.849 miles (247.595 kilometers) as a member of the U.S. Team at the 2013 IAU 24 Hour World Championships in the Netherlands when he was 48.

Joe’s ultramarathon racing dates back to 2008 when he was 42. Before that, he’d taken a 12-year break from running after running in both high school and college and completing a 2:47 marathon PR in 1995. Once back, he quickly moved to the 100-mile and 24-hour distances. In addition to 12-, 24-, 48-, 55-, 72- and 144-hour timed events, Joe’s also run Vol State, a 500-kilometer race, and several Big Dog’s Backyard Ultras, which are last-person-standing events where the distance is ultimately determined by how far the final two competitors go.

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

Joe Fejes (right) running with Jon Olsen at the 2013 Across the Years. Photo: Aravaipa Running

What is your potential to improve as a 55-year-old multi-day racer?

When I ran my 606 miles in the EMU 6 Day, I was a little over 49 years old. I just turned 55, so this is a fitting topic. Two years ago, I ran at Six Days in the Dome up in Wisconsin. That’s the indoor six-day event, and I ended up running 532 miles. Just to give you a little background, I actually hit 325 miles in three days. That was seven or eight miles less than my goal, but I was very pleased with how it went (other than starting out the whole first day with a migraine headache)….

Mike Dobies is my numbers guy, my handler, and he’s very good with analysis. Probably half the enjoyment of running a multi-day race is looking at the data and variables. What can you do to improve? What can you do with nutrition? What can you do with sleeping? And what I noticed, or what Mike picked up on, was my moving time. When I was moving, I was a minute slower at age 53 than I was at age 49. So that makes it a bit more challenging to exceed my 606 miles.

On what getting slower feels like.

I ran 800 meters in high school and at Emory University in Georgia, and I was okay. I was a Division III 1:58 runner, so I had a little bit of leg speed. But back in college, and even after college, it seemed like I had three gears. It was like riding a bike with three gears. When I got to my forties, I had two gears. Now in my fifties, I’ve got one gear. I’m a single-speed bike. In ultras, especially multi-day running, you don’t really need to have more than one gear. One gear is fine; it’ll get you there. But you have to figure out how you’re going to get there not having quite the same tools in order to do it.

On what contributes to running more slowly.

You start staying, “Well, why is that? Is it something physical? Is it mental…?”

[When I lived in Georgia,] I used to meet the Atlanta Track Club’s Masters early on Wednesday mornings, and we had one runner by the name of Ken Youngers. In 2013, he was 57 and ran a 16:17 5k. He would just dominate some high-school and college runners in a 5k or 10k. I always made it my goal in our training runs to try to keep up with him, and I couldn’t do it. And then you look at Gene Dykes [who ran a 2:54:23 marathon in 2019 at age 70], and you just wonder…. You wonder if it’s getting away from speedwork on a consistent basis. What is it that leads to that stripping of the gears where you don’t have that leg speed? I don’t know necessarily if it’s age or something to do with training….

On older runners’ potential at 48-hour to six-day events.

I mean, the good news for my goals in six-day running, based on the 325 [miles I ran in 72 hours two years ago at age 53 as part of my six-day race], I think it’s still feasible for me to put up 600 miles, and run 100 miles a day. I developed sciatica at the the 2016 Six Days in the Dome. By Day 3, it really started putting a hitch in my step…. After Day 3, I was just trying to hold on for the victory over Bob Hearn rather than my goal of hitting 600 miles again.

Bob Hearn has really done a lot at age 50 and up. He’s still throwing down sub-15 hours for 100 miles. He ran 154 miles in the Desert Solstice 24-hour race at age 53. That is encouraging. Gilbert Mainix from France ran 625 miles, 1,007 kilometers, at age 57. He holds the world record [for the six-day 55-59 age group.] I do think in the 48-hour to six-day running, age 40 is not a barrier. I think you can be competitive on a world-class level in your late fifties, even sixties.

Do you incorporate speedwork in your training now?

You know, I haven’t…. I’m not quite as obsessed with it…. I can train hardcore usually for a maximum of 90 or 120 days. When I was in my forties, it seemed like it was a year-round training cycle…. And when I ran the 606 miles, I was doing more uncomfortable runs. I would jump in and run some of the shorter runs…. I had a little bit more variety in my racing.

So I would say that my training consistency isn’t quite the same. That may be a little bit to blame [for getting slower], maybe more so than just age itself, especially when you look at what some other runners have been able to accomplish.

The conditions in Hungary weren’t ideal at the 2015 EMU 6 Day Race World Trophy when you ran 606 miles. Could you run farther in better conditions six years later?

When I did the 606 miles, two things stick out. I’m not a very good heat runner. And four of the days turned out to be abnormally warm. How many miles did that cost me? I did 975 kilometers. Could I have run 1,000 kilometers if I had been inside at the dome? I think I could have.

The other thing is that two days before the race, I was getting ready to take a shower and it was spraying water outside the tub. So I ran over to turn it off, and my feet slipped from underneath me, and I landed ribs first against the stand-alone edge of the tub. I thought I broke my ribs, and I didn’t think I was going to be able to run. Whenever I coughed or sneezed, it hurt. But the crazy thing is, running didn’t really bother it. The second night of the race, I swallowed a big bug. I started hacking up the bug, and it brought me to my knees. The other runners were probably wondering, What the hell is going on with Fejes?

So those two factors [affected my performance.] Was it my potential? No…. I think the injury made me go a little bit slower.

The good news is, I was still able to come close to my goal was [two years ago at Six Days in the Dome] even though I ran two and a half hours slower for the first 100 miles. You do that by staying on the course more. I took three pee breaks. [Mike] Dobies gave me a goal: “It won’t be considered a break for my reporting analysis if it’s under three minutes.” So when you look at my Day 1 analysis, I basically have no breaks other than my planned sleep breaks. Compare that to Hungary when I had much more time off the course. So knowing that you don’t have quite as much leg speed, you’ve got to make it up in other ways. And the good news is whether it’s 100 miles or six days, you have that luxury.

Has your need for sleep during multi-day races changed as you’ve gotten older?

[Author’s Note: Multi-day racers take breaks to sleep and refuel during their events. The length of the breaks vary from runner to runner and day to day. Optimizing sleep time and quality is a key part of their strategy to accumulate miles.]

I’m still searching for the magic answer. It’s crazy. In Hungary where I did the 606 miles, I would go to sleep immediately, and I would wake up feeling refreshed whether that was 90 minutes or something shorter. I went to sleep quickly. The following year, when I went back, I didn’t have any rib injuries, maybe I wasn’t in as quite as good of condition, and I ran 551 miles. The big difference was I couldn’t go to sleep. That’s probably the biggest issue multi-day runners have: the inability to sleep. You’d think it’d be the opposite. You’d think you wouldn’t be able to wake up, but it’s the inability to go to sleep. [Mike] Dobies and I are constantly searching for what we need to do, in order to go to sleep when you lie down. Is it cooling down? Is it eating a big meal before you lay down? What is it?

Do you think your inability to fall asleep and your quality of sleep has changed because you’re getting older?

I don’t think it’s really age related. I was fortunate enough to get to run against Yiannis Kouros at my first multi-day in Arizona at Across the Years. And in Hungary, I ran against Wolfgang Schwerk. Both Yiannis and Wolfgang… were able to get by on let’s say an hour of sleep a day or 10 to 12 hours over six days. [Author’s Note: Kouros set the six-day world record of 1,036.8 kilometers at age 49 and Schwerk holds the world 50-54 age-group record for 1,000 kilometers.] I’ve heard Yainnis Kouros was able to do that in his thirties…. When I ran against Wolfgang [in 2016 at the EMU 6 Day], he broke the then world record for the 60-64 age group. He ran 543 miles at age 60 and he was able to do that with that amount of sleeping–or lack thereof.

Joe Fejes (middle) at the 2014 Six Days in the Dome. Photo: Jeff Genova

Why do you think older runners stop racing?

I guess it’s just changing priorities. I’m not sure. Is it injury, or is it life complications, or is it burnout, or what? Some runners in their seventies and eighties race every chance they get…. It seems like some of the older runners like Gene Dykes race every other weekend or something like that. I think there’s something to be said [for racing frequently.]

What do you get out of running and racing at age 55?

Fifty percent of it is social. Seeing good friends whether it’s a low-key fat-ass run, or a national championship, that’s just as important as performance. But the other thing is: Hey, can I run 600 miles again? Can I be competitive with others whether it’s overall or in my age group? Throughout my running career, the major thing that drove me was a goal…. That’s why I showed up at 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. to meet and train with the group at the track, doing speedwork, doing intervals, doing hill work. That was the driver.

When running a PR is no longer possible, will age-group records continue to motivate you?

Absolutely…. Bob Hearn stole my records. He stole my 48-hour, my 24-hour and my 100-mile [American 50-54 age-group records]. He’s a couple months older than me, and now it’s time for payback. [Author’s Note: Bob and Joe have a good-natured and friendly rivalry.] That’s part of the motivation. And then you look at the overall age group for the six-day or 48-hour, and you do the math in your head, and you say: “Hey, I could do that.”

Do you think if trail races emphasized age-group records, older runners would be more likely to compete?

Yes, emphasizing age-group records in trail running might move the needle meaningfully as far as older runners are concerned.

What distresses you about the aging process?

The realization that you only have the single gear. Let’s say you’re competing, and you’re going down to the last 20 miles or 10 miles, and you’ve got a younger runner that’s got a second or third gear, and he drops you, or she drops you. Damn Courtney Dauwalter!

What’s your diet like?

My diet is not good. Way too much IPA craft beer, but nothing special on diet [otherwise].

Now, I’ve got some secrets with the six-day event though. What I’ve found with six days is milk–regular, plain milk–and vanilla ice cream especially on Day 1 work well. Go figure. I don’t drink milk at home. I don’t really eat ice cream. But during a six-day race, that’s [what I do.] And William Sitchel from the the U.K., he’s probably the most experienced six-day runner, and we were comparing notes, and it turns out he does the same thing. Just go figure. I also eat my grandmother’s beef soup. I had my sister make up a couple big pots, and I lived on that also. Then after Day 1, I can eat anything and everything.

So you don’t restrict your food choices in any way?

No. Generally, I’ve got to go on a starvation diet for about three or four months before a race.

What does that mean?

It means eating very little whether it’s raw vegetables, salad, fruit, just maybe 1,000 calories or 1,200 calories, or something like that… to drop down usually 25 or 30 pounds. I’ll need to drop it in a couple months, and I’m not very patient, so I’ll find myself doing a crash diet to get down there…. And then after the race, I’m back eating everything and anything and too much. It’s a never-ending cycle…. I put the weight on very easily compared to when I was in college or high school. That’s a big difference.

What is your weekly running volume when you’re building up to a big race?

Even when I was training for the 606 miles, I’ve always probably topped out around 90 miles a week. To get my weight down for the last Six Days in the Dome, I went up to about 120 miles a week…. When I started, Mike Morton’s one piece of advice to me was do two or even three workouts a day. So I don’t really do long runs. As crazy as it sounds, I don’t really like running long in training. So I’ll do seven miles in the morning, and seven miles a night, or five miles in the morning, four at lunch, and five at night. It’s not as many miles as a lot of people might think.

What do you do to keep yourself uninjured?

Going to the gym when I’m really doing the hardcore training. Planet Fitness. I don’t really do legs though. I have a tendency to throw my back out trying to do a squat or something like that. So it’s mainly just doing arms, chest, and shoulders. When I ran the 606 miles and even the 580 miles back in Alaska [in 2014], I was in great condition, not just with the running and the weights, but overall fitness. Without a doubt, the more fit you are, the better you feel mentally, starting the race and finishing it. To increase your odds, do the hard work, do the training, and find the [right] race. That’s one thing with running inside a dome. It’s not too sexy compared with running in the mountains, but it increases your odds.

Do you stretch or do mobility work?

When I did the 606 miles, I actually did yoga. I did two months of hot yoga. Hot yoga about killed me. I didn’t realize how difficult it would be, but found that it really helped. It would open me up to where I felt like I was running with both sides of my body…. And I had thought about trying it again. It was the only time I had really focused on it, but I did it because I was trying to make sure I did the small stuff to make it pay off.

How has your need for recovery changed in training and racing since you started?

After a race, it seems to be a little bit better. After my first multi-day race, I ran 555 miles at the 2013 Across the Years…. I had to get my handler to push me through the airport in a wheelchair. I was that beat up. It took me two months, maybe even longer, to recuperate. The more multi-days I did, the easier it got. It wasn’t really as bad physically. I ran my first marathon when I was 15, and it beat me up like I’d never thought [possible] before. Sometimes the shorter races hurt more than the longer races.

Training specifics:

  • Weekly running volume: About 90 miles per week building up to a race
  • Strength training: Upper body before races
  • Off-season: No
  • Sleep: Six to seven hours nightly
  • Race nutrition: Most anything including ice-cream sandwiches, milk, and beef stew
  • Recovery: Easier to recover from longer races

Three factors Joe attributes his running performance to:

  1. Passion
  2. Ability to resume shuffling following a break
  3. Stupidity

Call for Comments

Leave a story about racing or running with Joe Fejes in the comments section!

Joe and Alan Young at the 2015 EMU Six-Day Race World Trophy. Photo: Szilvia Oszi

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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.