Eugene Bruckert on Racing in Retirement

Eugene Bruckert, who prefers to go by Gene, is a Chicago, Illinois-based 86-year-old ultrarunner who is “kicking back and relaxing” these days, he says. His retirement plan is to volunteer at the food bank once weekly, enjoy frequent if not daily walks with friends, and run. He’s not dedicated to much stretching, massage work, or strength exercises. He is the king of simplicity: He runs and walks nearly four miles everyday, except his volunteer day. A week before a race, he fits in a 7.5-mile long run.

Bruckert has big, exciting goals. Thanks in part to that consistency, he routinely crosses the finish line of ultramarathons countrywide. In the last 20 years since he started racing, he’s enrolled in more than 550 races, he estimates. That immense portfolio includes four ultramarathons in all 50 U.S. states. Before he “hangs up his sneakers,” he’s working on upping that nationwide tally to five. His other forefront goal is to finish a 50-mile race in every state, while simultaneously completing one hundred 50-mile events altogether.

“I’m close now. I’ve got more than 80 finished. I’m closing in,” he says. Bruckert’s technique is to run slow, and he often signs up for 24-hour runs, which provides adequate time for him to finish a 50 miler with no pressure or risk of a DNF. Each year, he usually enjoys 12 to 25 races including 50ks, 50 milers, and 24-hour ultras. Most recently, he completed his furthest distance, yet: 195 miles at the June 2021 Six Days in the Dome event.

“I got to 195 miles and did not get my 200-mile buckle — but that’s okay. I came close. I got to 195, which was good. I could’ve been wiser. I probably could’ve planned a little better, but you see what you can do and you learn. I’d never run 195 miles before. That was an experience,” he says. Recovery gets more challenging with age, too. “Now, I can hop along — everyone calls it a ‘reasonable walking pace.’ I’m thinking I’m jogging away. I don’t go fast — well, I can’t go fast. And I don’t recover well… I know I’m not fully recovered from a race when I go into my next one. I used to be able to recover, but the races do take a bit of a toll the older I get,” he shares.

Bruckert was on the track team in high school then took a hiatus. He took up running later, after his five kids were fully grown, around when he retired two decades ago. His eyes were set on 5k, 10k, half-marathon, and marathon distances. His first marathon was the inaugural 2000 Green Bay Marathon. “I did marathons for a while, but I got hurt a lot. It took me injuring three tendons, two ligaments, and my plantar fascia to figure out I couldn’t run fast — my body breaks down. Then, I was running with a friend and she suggested we go slower and further: 7.5 miles. I did, recovered, and felt great,” he says. So he stuck with running further.

When he raced the 2003 Rockin’K marathon trail run at Kanopolis State Park, he’d never run on a trail before — and it changed his entire perception. “The race was in the countryside and was a very nice marathon right in the middle of Kansas. It was sandy and hilly, and the sand made it difficult, since you’re slogging through. It dawned on me that running on a trail is more fun than running on concrete or blacktop in a hot city environment. I started going more and more toward trail events,” he says.

Eugene Bruckert, We Run Far

Eugene “Gene” Bruckert runs through the woods during a particularly muddy trail race. All photos courtesy of Eugene Bruckert.

He returned to run the Rockin’K several times, and by the time he turned 70 years old, he was mostly running trail events. “You don’t get too many marathon-distance trail races, so my focus naturally evolved into 50ks. I do an occasional 50 miler, but that is pretty tough for me to finish. I have done a 100 miler but only on flats,” he says.

Running is Bruckert’s passion, though the center of his heart is his family. “My three boys and two girls are the greatest thing in my life: Ann, Vincent, Clayton, Andrew, and Rebecca. My wife is named Margaret, and she’s deceased now, as of a couple of years ago. There are things you can’t avoid in life, and we had a lot of good years. Now, the kids are scattered. A couple of them live in the Chicago area. Three are in New York and one is in California,” shares Bruckert.

In January 2000, he retired from his lifelong career as an electrical engineer. He’d worked for a handful of companies before landing with Motorola, where he developed two-way and cellular radios. “It seemed like every year, the jobs got more and more interesting. There’s a lot of busy work you have to go through with any job but my work felt easily handled and there was usually excitement with the new projects I had. I was happy and enjoyed my working life,” he says.

Bruckert was an only child and his dad was a civil engineer during World War II. “Every year, he had a new job in construction engineering all over the U.S. I was born in upstate New York in a hospital, and just a few years ago, I went back to that city for the first time. I moved all around the West Coast, East Cost, and the South growing up. I went to high school in the Chicago area, and my dad tried to stay in one spot. After I graduated, I picked up my father’s habits,” says Bruckert.

He went to college and transferred countless times all over the country, while earning a mathematics and electrical engineering degrees. That list includes University of Notre Dame, The University of Alabama, The University of Maryland, Indiana University Bloomington, and Loyola University Chicago. In the middle of earning his degree, he was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he served for two years. After returning to Chicago to finish school, “I met a beautiful young lady, we got married and settled down, and here we are today,” he reflects.

Eugene Bruckert, We Run Far

Eugene “Gene” Bruckert runs through the trees during a trail race. 

It’s hard for Bruckert to choose a favorite trail race from the hundreds he’s experienced an enjoyed. Among the most poignant is the Potomac Heritage Trail 50k, which starts in Washington, D.C. and crosses over the Key Bridge to Virginia, where it continues on singletrack. The route “is absolutely gorgeous. That was about the most fun I’ve had, and as a nice a trail on the East Coast as there is. It’s flat, rocky, and you run through history, through a major city, but you don’t feel in an urban place, because the trail is through the woods and follows the river,” says Bruckert. Also in the East, he favors the PHUNT 25k/50k Trail Race in Fair Hill Nature Preserve, Maryland.

In the West, “I really enjoyed my years running on trails. You’re going on a trail and some are drop-dead gorgeous. The prettiest trail I’ve ever run was the Tahoe Rim Trail for the Tahoe Rim Trail 50k. It was just so spectacular. I think it cost me a half hour the first time I ran it, because I had to stop and enjoy the view. I was on my way to the top of the mountain and there was Marlette Lake, and way down there was a little patch of blue and that was Lake Tahoe. In the West, you don’t get as many trees, so the vista opens up for you, which is really nice. Kathy Tracy, a pal of mine, said so well about the Tahoe Rim Trail race, ‘It’s a glimpse of heaven and taste of hell,’” says Bruckert. He loves and misses running big trails in the mountains out west. “Any major trail in the Rockies is pretty much a really great trail. You can’t go wrong it seems,” he says.

Seven years ago, Bruckert also took over race directing the Angela Ivory Memorial 50k, held at Killens Pond State Park on the Delmarva Peninsula in Delaware. “The race is in the middle of winter and sometimes you get a bit of snow, but the weather isn’t too bad down there. It’s a little over three miles to loop around the pond. I had enjoyed the race so much that when John Harper, the former race director, retired, I picked it up. It’s a fat-ass event and right down to the basics of bring in everything and pack it out. You have to bring your own water. We have picnic tables to put food on and there’s a sign-up sheet for counting your laps. It has nice hills,” he says.

Next year, Bruckert will pass off the race to another race director. He’s retired from cross training on a bike, due to arthritis in both thumbs. And he can’t run trails very much anymore. When he does, he needs to be cautious, given he says he’s not as steady on his feet. Looking back on his decades of dedicated bliss on trails and at races of all types, Bruckert says, “If you enjoy it, do it. Don’t be afraid to not know the outcome in a race. You’ll see parts of the world you’d never see.”

“The voyage of discovery and joy to run the trails. It’s been a long, fun run.”

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Morgan Tilton

is an adventure journalist who writes about the outdoors with a focus in travel, industry news, and human endurance. She is a recipient of multiple North American Travel Journalists Association awards including two double-award articles—“Wild & Broken: A First SUP Descent of Utah’s Escalante River” and “A Wild Space”—that share her first descent on stand-up paddle board of Utah’s wild Escalante River, a self-supported journey she shared with four friends. She works with close to 50 publications. Follow Morgan on her website and Instagram account.