Running Wild: Getting Started in Running after 50

ISI 142 - Runnning Wild
Photo by Natalie Bartley


Running is an invigorating exercise that isn’t just for the young. Mary Graeff is still going strong at age 76, training for long-distance races this year. “I am thankful I can do it,” she said.

She ran her first Ultra race at age 71. Ultra distances are generally 31, 62, 80, or 100 miles, though an Ultra is any race over a Marathon’s race distance of 26.2 miles.

Through her fifties and sixties, Mary annually ran a 6-mile fund-raiser event. “I really wouldn’t say I was a runner until I retired at 68,” she said. In retirement, Mary moved from Flagstaff, Arizona to Boise, Idaho and finally had time to train. Her running distance soared to completing half-marathons (13.1 miles) then Ultra races, including the 31-mile Foothills 50k Frenzy held in the Ridge to River trail system that includes the Boise foothills. She said, “Typically I am the oldest in the races but there are getting to be more seniors in the races, though racers in their seventies is a small group.”

Each week Mary runs three days and strength trains two days. Her goal is “to have a good time and finish upright with a smile.” Mary looks for new events, though she is cutting back this year to half-marathon trail races and a 22-mile trail race this autumn. “I pace myself and try to be realistic to avoid injuries,” she said.

Mary suggested volunteering at race aid stations as a fun way to give back to the community, see a race, meet runners, and ask questions. Contact the race director to get involved.

Runners are a diverse group and include folks lacing their shoes for their first running experience to people with prior competitive experience.

Jeff Schutz is a 53-year-old Ultra runner from Boise. He was a landscaper who ended up at a desk job. He didn’t have running as a goal when he decided to make changes in his life. Jeff liked being outside and started hiking. Twenty pounds melted away and in February, 2016, at the age of 51, he started running. Initially he hated it. “I was out of shape and I wasn’t able to like it but I wanted to like it,” said Jeff. “I wanted to be smiling and not wincing.”

He found a 16-week beginner’s program to prepare him for a Marathon race. Initially, the program prompted him to run for 10 minutes then walk for 5 minutes. “It was hard for me,” he said. He built up to 26.5 miles by running on a school track and on the paved Boise River Greenbelt.

“What helped me the most was building a habit or routine at the start,” he said.

Next he wanted to trail run in the mountains and joined a running group organized through the Meridian-based Pulse Running & Fitness Shop. Jeff was pleasantly surprised that no matter what his speed, he was with someone and connected to the other runners. “I felt like was part of something I had never been before,” he said.

The running group became a key factor in his success. Members provided support, became good friends, and pushed him to do more than he thought he could. Within a year of starting to run, with no running background, Jeff completed several southwestern Idaho events ranging from 20 miles to over 80 miles. In 2017, he finished nine Ultras culminating in a 100-mile Ultra in McCall, Idaho.

As his running miles accumulated, his weight dropped. Now 65 pounds lighter, he feels 10-years younger. Currently he runs 40 to 60 miles per week.

Where does a runner go after such big miles? His next goal is to stay healthy, keep running, and take on another 100-mile trail Ultra.

Jenny Stinson, a 58-year old runner from Boise, serves as the race director for the Foothills 50K Frenzy. She ran her first marathon in her 30s and continued to run marathons annually. Upon moving to Boise in 2007, she took up trail running. Jenny completed her first 100-mile Ultra when she was 50.

She has coached runners for the Arthritis Foundation. Jenny said walking and running provides benefits to the mind, muscles, joints, and cardio-vascular system. “The older you become the more it becomes about being in nature, feeling good, being healthy, and doing something you enjoy,” she said.

“Do what you can at first, even if it is around the block,” Jenney said. A combination of walking and running during the same session is always an option, no matter the fitness level or prior experience. Or initiate your running program with a set amount of time such as 5 minutes. Jenny said a guideline is to only increase your distance about 10 percent per week. “That is the safest way for older people to increase their mileage. Don’t do too much too fast,” she advised.

Holly Finch, owner of Pulse Running & Fitness Shop, suggested beginning with a one-minute walk and 30-second run, gradually increasing to allow the body to adjust. She advised that when you first start running, don’t compare yourself with others, instead focus on your goal.

In addition to running shoes designed for trail or road conditions, other equipment includes hydration backpacks for up to 2-liters of water, hand-held water bottles, electrolyte replacement drinks, energy gels, trails maps, and headlamps. There’s a wide-selection of light-weight clothing for all weather conditions.

Visit your doctor for a health clearance, check out your local running or fitness shop, and start running wild soon!

Mary’s tips for getting started:

Purchase quality running shoes properly fitted by a professional.

Pick a race to serve as a goal.

Contact the race director for a suggested training program for that race.

Join a local running group.

Hire a personal trainer or checkout your local fitness center for advice.

Read about nutrition and hydration for runners. ISI

Natalie Bartley is a Boise-based author of trail guidebooks Best Easy Day Hikes Boise and Best Rail Trails Pacific Northwest, and the mobile app travel guide Boise Best Outdoor Adventures.