‘UltraGeezer’ Gene Dykes is Ready to Tackle Western States 100

This 75-year-old Philadelpiha runner hopes to become race’s oldest finisher.

Photo: Joev Dubach

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Gene Dykes qualified for the Western States 100 lottery for nine straight years, but he never managed to get into the race. 

“The kicker is because, after four or five years, I qualified but I forgot to enter,” Dykes says with a laugh. “That knocked me back down to zero tickets in the lottery. And I finally decided, well, that’s probably good because. I didn’t want to get in yet ‘cause I’d rather have a shot at being the oldest ever finisher.”

The 75-year-old Philadelphia-area runner who took up running in his late-50s has become famous over the past several years for running fast times over a wide range of distances, including a 2:54:23 age-group world record marathon (6:39 per-mile pace) in December 2018 when he was 70. More recently, he ran the 2022 Boston Marathon in 3:30:02 (or 8:01 mile pace) at the age of 74 to finish second in the 70-74 age group.

Thanks to a sponsor’s entry from Stoked Oats, Dykes, who is known as the “UltraGeezer” will be toeing the Western States start line on June 24 with the hopes of becoming the race’s oldest finisher.

Although he had a challenging past nine months—when he was diagnosed with blood cancer, caught Covid and suffered a few injuries—he has continued to run strong into 2023. Although the blood cancer is incurable, it is treatable. However, his oxygen-processing ability has declined since last summer, which means the aerobic strength he relied on as a fast road runner has too. But he’s still energized to keep running, even if at slower paces.

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“I feel confident, even though things keep getting thrown my way,” says Dykes, a retired computer programmer who has a Phd. in biochemistry. “It all comes down to how hard the Western States course is going to be. I should be better in shape than I was last year, but I dunno. There are so many unknowns…and that’ll make it all the more exciting, you know?” 

Although Dykes is most well-known for his road running records, he has run dozens of trail races and plenty of ultra-distance runs since he was 61. including the Javelina Jundred in Arizona, Rocky Racoon 100 in Texas, Fat Dog 120 in Canada, Tarawera 100-miler in New Zealand and, his favorite race, the Cayuga Trails 50-miler in Ithaca, New York. He also finished the Triple Crown of 200s—the Moab 240 in Utah, Tahoe 200 in California and the Bigfoot 200 in Washington—in 2017 when he was 69.

Dykes says his primary goal is just to finish the race within the 30-hour cutoff time, because that would make him the oldest Western States finisher ever. The oldest finisher is Nick Bassett of Cheyenne, Wyoming, who finished the 2018 race in 29:09 at the age of 73. His secondary goal would be to finish faster than 28:09:24 to break Ray Piva’s over-70 course record, which was set in 1998 when Piva was 71. (The oldest woman to finish the Western States 100 is Gunhild Swanson, who finished the race in 29:59:54 in 2015 at age 70.)

That might seem like a lofty goal but Dykes has been chasing—and breaking—records since he started working with Philadelphia running coach John Goldthorp in his early 60s. Once Goldthorp got him into a structured program to build his aerobic strength through steady-state threshold running, age-group records started to fall. 

“When he started running, he always had some belief that he could be better, but he really resisted the idea of hiring a coach,” Goldthorp recalls. “But when we first spoke, it became clear to me that he was exactly like a lot of age groupers in that he loves racing, but he was basically racing and recovering and not really accumulating a lot of training. His speed was always good, but once he started training, he got a lot faster.”

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Just Finish It

Although Dykes’ wife, Olivia Mitchell, an economist and professor at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, doesn’t run, their oldest of two daughters, Erica Mitchell, a 38-year-old psychiatrist from Minneapolis, has run several marathons and ultras—including a win at last year’s Cayuga Trail 50-miler—and younger daughter Hilary Shirazi, a 34-year-old San Francisco-based corporate finance executive ran the 50K at The North Face Endurance Challenge with him in 2019. They’ll all be at the race supporting him this weekend.

While Dykes’ 2023 training hasn’t been ideal, it’s been sufficient, Goldthorp says. To prioritize Western States amid his recent health setbacks, Dykes cleared his schedule of road races and USATF ultra-distance championships. He plans to return to road racing this summer and is scheduled to run both the Berlin Marathon and Chicago Marathon in the fall. But for now, he’s all about running his way from Olympic Valley to the Placer High School track in Auburn like everyone else who will be on the Western States starting line.

(Stoked Oates has been supporting Dykes with a “Breakfast with Gene” social media campaign and podcast with brand founder Simon Donato since January that has included a variety of Western States-related guests, including race director Craig Thornley, women’s course record-holder Ellie Greenwood and four-time finisher Michael Wardian.)

In early May, Dykes ran the 12-hour race at Pennsylvania’s Dawn to Dusk to Dawn Track Ultras, where he covered a 75-79 age-group record 100,481 meters (100.481K) set pending master’s records 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). 

Most recently, he ran the Cayuga Trails 50-miler again on June 3, finishing 112th out of 122 finishers in 14 hours, 13 minutes. That one was mostly a training run to ensure he was ready for Western States.

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“He’s going to dig super deep, I know it,” Goldthorp says. “Our training was so unorthodox in the past six weeks because he couldn’t get in steady training. His training was kind of compressed in those big efforts at ultras and then making sure he recovered. When you get a cancer diagnosis, it’s you, you don’t know what the future’s gonna hold, but he seems to be able to handle the low-intensity training. But there’s fitness and the intangible mental will to push when, when you don’t even have full fitness. This guy just knows how to hang out in that uncomfortable bonk seat longer than anybody I’ve ever known.”

Dykes took up running in earnest at age 55 and improved his marathon times every year until he was 70. Not bad for a guy who was kicked off the Lehigh University track team in the 1960s for being an underperformer. Instead of taking up running once he started his professional career, he opted for bowling and golf, and he became pretty good at each of those.

What would have happened had been running all of his life?

“I’d probably be all worn out by now,” he says. “I tell people, you know, save your money and your legs for retirement because you know, you, you’ll have the time for it and it will be a  blast. Running is a difficult thing and time takes its toll. It’s easy to see people who used to be good at it, and they aren’t anymore. Somebody said, it doesn’t matter when you start, you’ve got about 15 good years to run. I’m in year 16 or something like that and I’m feeling it, but I’m still having fun. I do the road racing cuz I’m competitive, but I do the trail racing for fun and, you know, fun’s where it’s at.”

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