Gene Dykes, 75, sets seven U.S. masters records

Accomplished ultrarunner Gene Dykes, 75, looks to have set no fewer than seven U.S. masters records at a 12-hour race in his home state of Pennsylvania over the weekend, surprising himself as he pushed past health issues to pass the 100-km mark with 400 metres to spare.

The records, which have yet to be ratified by USA Track and Field, include the fastest outdoor track times in the U.S. men’s 75-79 category for 25K (2:48:33), 30K (3:24:08), 50K (5:40:39), 20 miles (3:41:28), 50 miles (9:25:10) and 100K (11:56:26), and the longest distance run in that category for a 12-hour period (100,481 metres). Dykes set the records during his 12-hour overnight effort at the Dawn to Dusk to Dawn Track Ultras in Sharon Hill, Pa., on May 13-14. 

The 100K record was the most surprising to Dykes, who has broken multiple records since he took up competitive racing in his 60s. “I didn’t think I had a prayer,” he says. “It’s hard running 100K at my age. I only made it by four minutes.”

Making his latest effort even more remarkable was the fact he was battling a host of health issues on race night.

“I told people I’m battling the three C’s out here,” says Dykes. “Two weeks ago I contracted COVID, and I also had cold symptoms going into the race. Six months before I had been diagnosed with blood cancer, and that’s been really hurting my fast pace, but I have this theory that it doesn’t affect ultra paces and that seems to have really been borne out here. The only symptom I have is that I can’t breathe hard enough when I run fast, but when you’re running 12 hours, you’re never running hard. I was really happy to be able to get through 12 hours with all those health problems.”

Dykes says although he has been sitting out races recently due to health challanges, it was important for him to step up to the starting line over the weekend, as he prepares to make history next month as the oldest finisher of the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run.

“I kind of had to take a chance, because the really big race is next month,” says Dykes. “That’s a big deal. I’ve got a sponsor, and everybody’s expecting me to become the oldest-ever finisher there. So I thought, If I can’t run for 12 hours, how am I going to run for 30 hours?”

The self-described “ultra geezer” says his race on the weekend—his longest since receiving his cancer diagnosis—is a good confidence booster ahead of Western States.

“When you haven’t done something that like in a while, doubts creep in. A lot of things could have gone wrong. I could have got nauseated, I could have bonked, running out of glycogen, in which case you’re going to slow down no matter how much you want to run faster. None of those things happened. You get in this strange mindset where you just kind of dial out misery and keep on going.”

Reflecting on his latest effort with humility, Dykes says many of the U.S. masters records he set on the weekend were “low-hanging fruit,” saying he could “think of a half a dozen 75-year-olds out there” who could have set records in the 25- and 30-km distances “if they had the mind to.”

He adds, however, that he was proud to have hit the 100-km distance under the wire. “At 50 km I asked my crew to find out the new pace I would have to run over the next 50 km for the 100 km. I had to pick up from my comfortable pace. I thought I don’t care if I have no chance—I’m going to run the pace I need and keep doing it until I can’t do it anymore.’ Somehow, for seven hours I managed to keep pushing myself right up to the ending bell.”

Dykes is now looking forward to bringing that same determination to Western States on June 24-25. “It’ll be fun trying,” he says. “There are just so many ways to enjoy running. I’m really fortunate.”

posted Wednesday May 17th
by Paul Baswick