The significance of being the oldest competitor in Monday’s Boston Marathon is not lost on Jules Winkler.
This is Boston,” says Winkler, 84, who lives in Medford. “Even if you’re not a runner, you’ve heard of the Boston Marathon. To be the oldest out of 30,000 runners, it’s a real honor.”
The race, first held in 1897, is one of the longest-running annually held sporting events in America; it’s also considered one of the most prestigious. Unlike other major marathons, most of the runners in this year’s 120th edition of the race had to complete a qualifying time in a previous 26.2-mile race to be eligible to run the point-to-point course from the western suburb of Hopkinton to downtown Boston.
Winkler didn’t have a qualifying time this year. But race organizers reasoned that anybody who can still run a marathon at his age deserved recognition regardless of how fast he can run.
“I always talk about the concept of earning the right to run Boston,” said race director Dave McGillivray. “In my opinion, Jules earned that right.”
McGillivray, 61, met Winkler at the Craftsbury Running Camp in Vermont last summer. A prominent name in the world of running, McGillivray had been invited to speak at the camp by former U.S. Olympic runner Lynn Jennings — one of the camp organizers — who has known Winkler since he started attending Craftsbury years ago. Winkler returns to the weeklong camp each year as much for the camaraderie with the other campers as for the running instruction and coaching. “It makes me feel young,” he says.
As McGillivray recalls, after a long drive from Boston, he arrived at the camp and accompanied Jennings to the room where he was to give his talk. The campers were ushered in, and Winkler headed right to the front row. “I thought he might have been the grandfather of one of these runners,” McGillivray said. “So I go on and do my shtick, and when I was done with my talk, he stood up and introduced himself. And he started telling me a little bit about himself, how he’d run marathons all over the world. I was fascinated. The intent was for me to come there and inspire all these campers. Instead I left being inspired by him.”
During their conversation at the camp, Winkler had expressed to McGillivray an interest in running Boston, a race he had only done once, in 2003. About a month later, Winkler received a letter from the Boston Athletic Association, the organizers of the marathon. It was an official invitation to run the 2016 Boston Marathon. “I said, ‘Holy mackerel!’ ” recalled Winkler. “I showed it to my wife and told her, ‘This might be my last hurrah.’ ”
Winkler has been captivated by the 26.2-mile distance for most of his adult life. He started during the “running boom” of the 1970s, completing the first five-borough New York City Marathon in 1976, and continued racing locally through the 1970s and 1980s.
After his first wife, Phyllis, died of pancreatic cancer in 1997, Winkler heard about Team in Training, a program in which participants raised money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and in turn, trained in groups for a marathon with a coach. Running in honor of his wife, Winkler raised $12,000 and completed a marathon in Alaska in 1999. In 2004, Winkler remarried. He and his second wife, Maureen, have a total of five children, 11 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, many of whom are expected to be in Boston on Monday to watch the patriarch run.
The idea of running and traveling — especially for a good cause — appealed to the marathoner. A former jewel setter in Manhattan’s diamond district, he became, at age 74, the oldest member of the Seven Continents Club, a group of runners, now numbering 560, who have completed a marathon on each of the world’s continents. Winkler’s global itinerary included marathons in Australia, Egypt, Ireland, Easter Island, China and — most memorably — on a ship anchored in remote Neko Harbor on the Antarctic Peninsula in 2001. Bad weather prevented the runners from landing on shore, so they held the marathon on board the cruise ship — 422 laps.
In the decade since he completed his Seven Continents quest, Winkler has continued to run marathons; he’s done a total of 40. He also became a coach and certified personal trainer, leading exercise classes at Sunrise Senior Living facilities throughout Suffolk County. “We have anywhere from 10 to 20 people per class,” says Winkler. “I’m older than half of them now.”
Training for the Boston Marathon, however, has tested even the fitness of a fitness professional. Winkler, who has rarely had an injury during his running career, has been hampered by inflammation in the iliotibial band — connective tissue that runs along the outer thigh from the pelvis to the tibia or shinbone. It’s a common injury among marathon runners, and Winkler credits treatments with Sayville chiropractor Leonard H. Van Kalmthout for helping him heal. “It’s getting better,” Winkler said.
On Monday, the oldest runner in this year’s Boston Marathon will take his place in the back of the pack. Because organizers can’t release 30,000 runners en masse onto one narrow street in a small Massachusetts town, participants are grouped into four waves that start over a 1 3⁄4-hour period. Digital clocks and chips embedded in each runner’s number assure participants that they will get their accurate time for the full distance. The course closes six hours from the time the last runner in the fourth wave — which goes off at 11:15 a.m. — crosses the start line. The overall winners will likely finish in about 2 hours, 10 minutes.
Winkler is in the fourth wave, and that’s fine with him. “I plan to start slow and hopefully finish the race in good shape. If I have enough left, I’ll sprint across the finish line!”
A run for all ages
Through the first half of the 20th century, the appearance in the Boston Marathon of runners in their late 30s or early 40s was deemed newsworthy because of their “advanced” ages. The idea of “senior” competitors — not to mention women — was unfathomable.
“The marathon was for young men,” says historian and author Tom Derderian, executive producer of “Boston,” the first full-length documentary film on the marathon, slated for release in 2017.
With its roots in ancient military history — specifically the legend of Pheidippides, the Greek messenger who supposedly ran 22 miles from the plains of Marathon to Athens with news of a great victory over the Persians — no one was interested in seeing older runners attempt the distance. “It would have been seen as about as exciting as watching an old guy with a rifle marching around a battlefield,” Derderian said.
That changed in the ’60s and ’70s, as Americans grew more fitness conscious and older runners became part of the marathon scene. Last year, 10 octogenarians — nine men and one woman — completed Boston’s famed race. This year, organizers say there are 10 men and two women in that age bracket.
“Marathoning is a trial of self-knowledge,” said Dr. Walter Bortz II, professor emeritus at Stanford University and a veteran of 30 Boston Marathons. “And I don’t think there’s any expiration date on that.”
— JOHN HANC