What’s Behind the Smile and Stamina of 71-Year-Old Ultrarunner Eldrith Gosney

Update: Trail Runner magazine subsequently published a profile I wrote about Eldrith, with different stories and details; read it here.

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.

Eldrith Gosney running the Skyline 50K in 2003 (photo courtesy the Skyline 50K website)

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?

Eldrith running the Headlands Hundred in August 2011 at age 70 (photo by Brett Rivers).

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.

Eldrith running the New Year’s One Day 24-hour run at Crissy Field in San Francisco, on the afternoon of Dec. 31 (photo by Rick Gaston).

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.

Eldrith running Crissy Field at daybreak New Year’s Day, 22 hours into the 24-hour event.

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.”

Eldrith and me on the morning of January 1, shortly before the finish of the New Year’s One Day event.

(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.

postscript: I ran Eldrith’s “Uncool 50K” in March of 2014 and loved it! It was my first run post-injury, and my way of celebrating my 20-year anniversary of starting running.

Me with Eldrith at the March 8, 2014, Uncool 50K.

Me with Eldrith at the March 8, 2014, Uncool 50K.

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26 Responses to What’s Behind the Smile and Stamina of 71-Year-Old Ultrarunner Eldrith Gosney

  1. ken michal January 2, 2013 at 10:52 am #

    Thank you so much for this interview!!! I’ve had the pleasure of getting my butt kicked by Eldrith for a few years at events like Headlands Hundred and SF1D! She’s a true inspiration!!! She really comes to life in the later stages of long ultras!! I think we all wish that we could be more like her!!

    Eldrith, have you picked your 100 for 2013?

    All Day!

  2. Vern Gosney January 2, 2013 at 11:01 am #

    I have been Eldrith’s husband for almost 50 years . Every day of those 50 years I have felt so lucky to be with the finest human being of either sex that I have ever known. We treat each other with love and respect. We behave like we are still courting. She is so nice to everyone that they think I must be okay because I am with her. She is also the hardest worker I have ever known. To be in love with her and for her to return that love makes life wonderful. My life has been enhanced by her in every way possible.
    Mr. Eldrith Gosney (AKA Vern Gosney)

  3. AJ January 2, 2013 at 12:41 pm #

    Lovely article. Eldrith sounds like someone I would love to know (and could learn a lot from). Well, based on the comment above mine, Eldrith *and* Vern sound fantastic. 🙂

  4. Ryan January 2, 2013 at 2:17 pm #

    Thanks for sharing Eldrith’s story! Very inspirational. I am a 38 years old and I want to be like her now too!

    Ryan recently posted..New Years Eve HalfMy Profile

  5. alyssa January 2, 2013 at 5:09 pm #

    This is so great. Thanks for sharing.
    alyssa recently posted..Cheers to 2012My Profile

  6. Carol January 2, 2013 at 5:12 pm #

    Wow! I loved reading this article, but the tribute by Eldrich’s husband is just so sweet! That is what impressed me the most! I hope I’m still out on the trails for my whole life but more than that I hope I can have my husband and children discribe me with all the love that I have for them!

  7. Pete Ferguson January 2, 2013 at 6:52 pm #

    Sarah, beautiful interview and a wonderful person she is. Truly inspiring. I enjoyed her husbands kind words about his wife here too. Gives me hope about so many things that have been on my mind!


  8. Martha Howard January 3, 2013 at 4:38 am #

    So inspirational! I have tears in my eyes because I just read Vern Gosney’s comment above. Vern, you remind me how marriage should be. Eldrith, you remind me how I want to be. thank you Sarah, for this great interview!

  9. Sandra Campos January 3, 2013 at 3:23 pm #

    Eldrith is such a strong woman and the least close to being decrepit! I have had the pleasure of sharing some trails with her these past year and a half. She is kind and generous, always looking out for everyone in the group. She leads us into amazing trianing runs! I only hope to be able to run if I get to live to 70. She is truly an inspiration to everyone around her. Thanks for sharing her story!

  10. Jessica January 4, 2013 at 7:03 am #

    I want to be like Eldrith when I grow up too! Thank you for sharing this story.
    Jessica recently posted..All those New Year’s taking up the machines… grumble grumble grumbleMy Profile

  11. clare January 4, 2013 at 11:41 am #

    Sarah…thank you! i *loved* reading this article! It’s a wonderful interview with an amazing person, my eyes got a little moist too.
    Eldrith is such an inspiration. I was training on the Dipsea course in 2011 with Scott and we ran into her. She told us that she always finds the backside of the race, down to Stinson and back up to Cardiac, the most difficult…so her training run consisted of a double dipsea with a return trip to Stinson thrown in the middle! Scott and I did that training run, which we call an “Eldrith”, for the Quad Dipsea last year…it’s not easy!

  12. james January 4, 2013 at 12:44 pm #

    I ran and chatted with Eldrith for a few hills at last years Lake Sonoma 50. Just another interesting, weathered mid-age ultra runner with lots of advice. At the next aid station a volunteer pointed out that her race number matched her age. No way–really?!?
    Months later I worked the 70 mile aid station at Rio Del Lago. Eldrith dropped at that point, but unlike other drops, she had a zen-like contentment about it all. She ran as best she could and now had to stop. No bitterness, sadness, or frustration. Her effort that day was just one race and there were going to be lots more races in the future. Thanks for introducing her to other runners.

  13. Cheryl January 8, 2013 at 9:19 am #

    What a great post! Eldrith is a role model and an inspiration.

  14. Mark Tanaka January 24, 2013 at 5:55 pm #

    I agree that all her self-doubts and humility makes her more real, and this interview all the better. Thanks for doing this, (both Sarah and Eldrith.)

    And great hearing from her husband Vern through his comment since I first read this.

    Yes, will remember we are as old as we act.
    Mark Tanaka recently posted..Return to the Diablo 60kMy Profile

  15. Chris Abess January 30, 2013 at 8:58 pm #

    Fantastic article. I’ve had the great privilege of working side-by-side with Eldrith as volunteer organizers of the Lynch Canyon Trail Run. Her energy is boundless. We’ve had blistering heat, cold fog, and torrential downpours over the years…but one thing is always consistent…Eldrith’s dedication, hard work, and glowing smile. Eldrith Rocks!

  16. Don Gosney May 7, 2013 at 12:51 pm #

    I’m the son that was misquoted in this article. I NEVER told her she couldn’t run a 10 mile race.

    What I told her on multiple occasions when she first started running, was that running a half marathon on Saturday as a tune-up for a full marathon on Sunday was ill advised (I may have used words that questioned her sanity). I showed her articles from professional runners and top flight coaches about letting the body heal after a strenuous run but she chose to ignore me just as she ignores those doctors telling her to stop running.

    At the time, I (as the old pro) was supposed to know more about these things than she (as the novice) did. Aren’t the novices supposed to listen to the old pros?

    Oh well…

  17. Vern Gosney May 8, 2013 at 11:06 am #

    Our fine and loving Son,Don, is one of the smartest people I know, but a smart person should know that you can’t tell an Ultra Runner they can’t do something. They will then almost kill their self just to prove you wrong. Sanity should never be brought up when discussing an Ultra Runner. No sane person would ever even try to run 100 miles. That is why we admire them, and in Eldrith’s case,love dearly.
    A loving Husband & Father.
    Vern Gosney

  18. Milemom September 29, 2013 at 6:03 am #

    Oh my goodness: “Vern and Eldrith”…now that’s an old-fashioned wedding invitation 🙂 I appreciated Vern’s comments as much as I did the lovely article.

    As a 46 year old long-time runner who’s only recently “gone trail” and has plans for decades of running, I’m thrilled to read about Eldrith’s spirit and accomplishments. When I see how many people (even my age) are just hobbling around it makes her seem even that much more impressive.

  19. mizunogirl April 14, 2014 at 2:07 am #

    I am so loving reading about Eldrith Gosney- I just read about her in an issue of Trail Runner, and am just so excited by her spirit! And of course….I want to run the Uncool 50K…seems like a perfect race for uncool me….

  20. Vern Gosney April 14, 2014 at 6:35 am #

    Ever since this article was posted Eldrith has been been treated so nicely at races. She says everyone is so friendly and treats her like royalty.
    She has dedicated so many years to running and working to support ultra running that she deserves this positive feed back. There is a lot more to Eldrith than just running. She is an incredible person in her day to day life. She is a great wife and mother/grandma/great grandma. She is a leader in our community and works harder than anyone else to make it a better place to live. After 50 years together I still feel good when I see her or talk to her on the phone. She has worked side by side with me to make it possible for us not to have any financial problems (if we ever do get old). We are both still working. She is 72 and I am 82.
    I will stop as I didn’t mean to write a novel but my love for Eldrith is overpowering.

  21. Steve Pollock October 24, 2015 at 8:00 pm #

    I ran the Eldrith Pure Ultra today. It kicked my ass!

    It prompted me to read up on this amazing lady who can run that course at 74 years old.

    I am so inspired.


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