The runner was an older woman with flowing, silvery ash-blond hair and a smile that crinkled her eyes. I don’t remember the year I first saw her or even what race it was. Maybe the Skyline 50K in 2008. All I know for sure is I was volunteering at an aid station at Bort Meadow in Chabot Regional Park. I stood behind a folding table covered with water cups and snack bowls at the dirt parking lot by the gate I’ve passed through on so many training runs and races.
I looked up to watch for runners streaming down the fire road, and that’s when I saw the woman I now know has the old-fashioned-sounding name of Eldrith Gosney.
First I noticed her face—a beaming face that makes wrinkles look beautiful—framed by locks that escaped a ponytail. Then my eyes closed in on her knees. Painfully red, bloody knees. Nothing about the picture made sense. She looked petite and past the age of retirement, but she moved with the strength and agility of a middle-aged runner and had banged-up knees like a school kid. She defied any age category and therefore seemed ageless.
She ran through the gate, approached the table and graciously asked, “Might you have a first aid kit? I need to clean up a bit.” Unlike some of the discouraged or histrionic runners who passed by cursing and exaggerating the severity of the route, she never complained and never raised her voice. She seemed exceedingly polite and mildly embarrassed by all the offers of help. A couple of minutes later, she headed out on the trail.
I want to be like her when I’m older, I thought. I want to be like her now.
I discovered I’m not the only one who feels this way about Eldrith. ”Eldrith rocks—she is so freakin’ inspirational,” wrote Brett Rivers, the runner-photographer, when he sent me the photos in this post of her running Headlands Hundred last year. Another trail running friend commented, “We all want to be like her when we ‘grow up.’”
I spotted her occasionally at races, such as when we passed on the trail last May at the Miwok 100K. She ran that race at age 70, and it was her 9th Miwok 100K and 127th ultra race on record. In the second half of 2012, she turned 71 and ran six more ultras, most recently just yesterday, New Year’s Day.
I found myself thinking more about Eldrith—and wanting to know how she maintains her vitality—when I recently visited my 78-year-old parents and watched them struggle with declining mobility and old-age blues. And she crossed my mind again when I looked in the mirror and confronted my onset of wrinkles and pondered how much longer I can coax my body to run hard: one decade, or possibly three?
I began the new year by meeting Eldrith at daybreak at Crissy Field in San Francisco, where she was one of 29 participants in the final hours of the New Year’s One Day 24-hour run. Starting at 9 a.m. December 31 and finishing at 9 a.m. January 1, runners run or walk the 1.06-mile loop again and again. Some try to reach 100 miles, while others take a long rest break during the night and just try to make it to 50. Eldrith was in between, aiming for a personal goal of 80 miles.
Meeting her at dawn and briskly walking the final laps with her gave us a chance to continue a conversation that began earlier in December, when I contacted her for an interview. I wanted to find out Eldrith’s secret not only to ultra trail running in her 70s, but also to keeping the smile on her face that makes her look so radiant. (I’m sharing only part of our conversation here in this post because I hope to write a more fully developed profile of her for another publication.)
“I want to prove to myself that I’m still strong and active.”
Eldrith was reluctant to be interviewed because she’s genuinely shy and wondered why anyone would want to know about her. She said she’s “so slow” and runs only about 2000 miles a year, “on average only 40 miles a week.” Finally, she agreed to meet for coffee on Fourth Street in Berkeley.
She showed up wearing a purple sweater top bedazzled with a smattering of sequins, and her skinny jeans also sparkled with tiny rhinestones and decorative stitching. When I mentioned that I liked her jeans, she said she bought them in the girl’s department because her 5-foot, 1-inch frame fits into girl’s sizes. In my mind I could see her bypassing the “petites” department and shopping with tweens.
She also wore a fleece jacket with the logo “Uncool 50K,” from the annual event she has hosted for the past decade. It’s a small (fewer than 30 runners, to avoid the need for permitting) by-invitation-only trail run held each year in the Marin Headlands on the same day in March as the Way Too Cool 50K. Among Bay Area old-time trail runners, those Uncool 50K fleece jackets have earned a status as super cool.
Eldrith ran her last 100-miler in August 2011, the Headlands Hundred, and DNF’ed at two 100-mile attempts in 2012. She has her mind set on attempting another 100-miler in 2013 “to prove to me—not to anyone else; I wouldn’t care if it wasn’t written down anywhere—I want to prove to myself that I’m still strong and active, that I’m not decrepit. And besides, I absolutely love being outside on the trails.”
She began running short distances on road in 1981, at age 40, and switched to running on trails and longer distances about five years later. “I was having a lot of problems with depression,” she said. “I was in counseling for a couple of years and it didn’t seem like anything was getting better.” She paused, and then revealed, “I was suicidal, and I didn’t know why—there was no reason for it; I had a good marriage, good home, good job and good friends—it could have been genetic, I don’t really know.”
In her first two months of running, she worked up to three-mile runs, and then she heard about a 10-mile race. Her son said, “Mom, you can’t do that,” and Eldrith recalled, “I was determined then that I was going to do it because he told me I couldn’t.”
More than anything, Eldrith is defined by that determination. It’s tempting to assume that someone her age, with her gentle demeanor, would be somewhat soft and acquiescent. But she has as much or more determination and perseverance as any top runner I’ve met. Consider, for example, her history at the American River 50, which she first ran in 1988 at age 46:
“American River 50 was my first 50 miler, and I absolutely hated the course because so much is flat and on pavement. I got very sick and finished next to last the first year. So then I was determined. The next year I cut a couple of hours off, and the next year I cut a couple more off. I wound up doing 10, and then I thought they’d give us some kind of recognition—but they didn’t!” She laughed. “… Then I kind of forgot how much I hated it, and I went back and did 10 more. So I’ve got 20 years on a course I really don’t like, which is why I signed up for Lake Sonoma [50-miler in April]: I did not want to feel like I had to do a 50-miler in April and have it be American River. But now that I’m over 70, I’m kind of wondering if I shouldn’t go back and do one more. Crazy, huh? Just to prove to myself I can.”
At Lake Sonoma last April—a much more challenging 50-miler than American River—she encountered the first major creek crossing at around mile 5, and the water went up to her hips. “I thought I was touching bottom, but there was a little ledge and I slipped off and pulled my hamstring. I shouldn’t have gone on, but I was determined I was going to finish it. I ended up being black and blue from my butt to my ankle, and so I wasn’t healed when I went into Miwok” three weeks later. She was “terribly embarrassed” to be one of the last finishers at Miwok last May and added, “I want to run one more Miwok because that’ll be number 10 and then I don’t have to do it again.”
“The more I smile on the trail, the worse it is.”
Finding out about her struggles with depression, and her chronic back pain that makes running increasingly painful, I wondered why she always looked happy and smiling.
“It’s interesting the perception that we have of others who are runners as to how they might be feeling while they’re running, because sometimes they look so beautiful and graceful, you think they must not have any pain; they must be enjoying themselves,” she said in a roundabout way of answering.
“Actually, the more I smile on the trail, the worse it is, and the more pain I’m going through. That’s not 100 percent true, but the truth is I’m in pain a lot of the time, but I have a high pain threshold, I guess. They say that if you smile, things aren’t as bad as you might think they are—somehow, smiling just makes things better. I’ve had sciatic problems for years and years, and it’s so painful sometimes that I can hardly get up off the couch.” Doctors have examined her back and told her she shouldn’t run. “But I can’t listen to them. I don’t. … By the end of the race, I’m so glad I did it, I often break down and cry. I’m just grateful I can still get to the finish line.”
She described a love-hate relationship with ultrarunning in which the positive aspects of it—the endorphins, the environment, the sense of accomplishment—trump the pain and discouragement. “I absolutely love running. The plants, the views, the odor of the woods and mountains, the dirt — I like the way dirt smells. … I like sweating, I like getting muddy. My mom never would let us get dirty. We were very poor and didn’t have much in the way of clothes, so we took care of what we had. So now if I can run and it’s pouring down rain and I’m sloshed with mud, and I have the wind hit me with force, I really like that—I like going home covered in mud.”
She intends to attempt another 100-miler in 2013 because, “The things you hate to do the most, if you can force yourself through them, I think it makes you stronger in your whole life, not just for that day or for that race. That’s one of the things running has given me: it’s given me a lot of self-confidence I didn’t have. If I can run 50 miles, I can do anything; if I can run 100 miles, nothing can stop me from doing something else I want to do.”
“I’m such a wimp.”
I showed up to Crissy Field around 5:30 a.m. yesterday, January 1. It was dark, cold and so windy that the camp stove in the aid station tent kept blowing out. The results board showed that Eldrith had completed 62 laps, or about 65 miles (since each lap is slightly more than a mile), and she had not dropped out. But the race director didn’t know where she was, and I didn’t see any sign of her. I decided to go for a run to warm up and watch daybreak while running along the San Francisco waterfront.
About an hour later, I returned. Still no sign of Eldrith, but she still hadn’t officially dropped out. I figured she must be napping in a tent or in her car. I searched the parking lot and spotted her oversized Chrysler sedan with a Western States 100 license plate rim.
Eldrith was sitting in the driver’s seat, wide awake and staring at the bay and Golden Gate Bridge. I startled her a bit, but she smiled and opened the car door.
The first words out of her mouth were, “I’m so embarrassed. I’m such a wimp.” She explained how she got in her car at around 2:30 a.m. because she was so cold, and she took a short nap. She remained chilled and couldn’t force herself back out in the wind.
Also, she was beating herself up mentally, comparing herself to the time she ran this 24-hour event in 2009 and made it to 94 miles. She cracked a joke about wanting to be “young and in my 60s again.” But as she talked, she got out of her car, fumbled with the zipper on her jacket since her fingers were still so numb from cold, and headed back to the Crissy Field loop with a brisk walk.
For the next hour and a half, Eldrith speed-walked faster than a jog. She expressed anger at herself for spending those hours warming up in her car, even after I told her she did the necessary thing to avoid hypothermia. But she couldn’t let go of the fact she would miss her goal of 80 miles, and that her goal was lower than what it was for this event three years ago due to her lingering hamstring and back injury.
But after a lap, she warmed up both physically and mentally, and expressed joy at the view of the sunrise and at the birds in the lagoon.
We became lost in conversation about different races we plan to do and have done, about mutual friends we discovered we have, and all sorts of things. I felt as if our generational difference had evaporated or never mattered much anyway.
She broke into a slow run on her final lap, as she approached the finish line just before 9 a.m., and she smiled as everyone cheered for her. She completed a total of 67 laps, or 71 miles, and was 14th out of the 29 participants.
At the finish, I told her, “I’m so impressed by what you’ve done,” and she said wryly, “Thanks. I wish I was impressed.”
(I took the iPhone video above as Eldrith finished the final lap of the event. Apologies for the poor quality and loud noise of the wind!)
So it turns out that Eldrith does not fit neatly into a happy and inspirational story, which I actually was pleased to discover, because it makes her so much more real and someone to whom endurance athletes of all ages can relate. She exhibits traits such as harsh self-criticism and going to extremes that I personally struggle with. Behind her sunny exterior, she battles pain, experiences fatigue, holds herself to exceedingly high standards and laments slowing down as much or more as any serious athlete—which is what makes her the extraordinary long-running runner that she is. She possesses a single-mindedness and tenacity, along with a love of being on the trail, that keep her going when discomfort and common sense would compel most others to stop.
I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to get to know Eldrith, an elder in the sport who in no way seems elderly. She’s given me a lot to think about regarding aging and running. In particular, she makes me realize how much more true the saying “you’re only as old as you act” is than the more common adage “you’re only as old as you feel.” Eldrith acts younger than she feels and consequently lives a more active and fulfilling life.
At some point in middle age, we start dressing a certain way, acting a certain way, and giving up on learning or trying new things. We pull back and tell ourselves, “I’m too old for this.” I catch myself saying that already, such as when I give up too easily on learning a new technology, or when I feel I should dress to look more “appropriate” as defined by my upscale peers.
Or, for example, last week, when we went on a day trip during a Hawaii vacation that included zip lining over a swimming hole. We were supposed to let go of the line and drop into the cold pond. I hung back while the kids eagerly lined up, because the water looked icky and we planned to go out to dinner afterward with no chance to shower after swimming—but then I thought of Eldrith, and I took the plunge.