2018-06-01 / Spotlight

Miles to Go

With 98-year-old runner George Etzweiler

George Etzweiler hasn’t really considered himself a runner. He says this, without a hint of sarcasm, despite being written about in Runner’s World, and Canadian Running Magazine. He says this despite participating each year in the annual Tussey Mountainback 50-mile relay race and the ArtsFest 10K. He says this despite the fact that at 98 years old, he still gets out for a run almost every other day, averaging 12 to 15 miles per week.

But there is perhaps no more proof of his identity as a runner than the faded, holey T-shirt seen in this photo.

“I have on my Nittany Valley Track Club T-shirt from 1970. This one is the one that showed up at the New York marathon and every Mount Washington Road Race I’ve run,” he says with a smile. “I claim I’m not superstitious, but I hang on to this and wear it to races.”

Spoken like a true runner.

Etzweiler, a retired Penn State professor of electrical engineering, first laced up his sneakers at the tender age of 49 when a fellow professor urged a few of his colleagues to join him for a lunchtime run at Rec Hall. He ran his first and only marathon, the New York City Marathon, at age 67.

Each fall the vegan runner puts together a relay team of seniors he calls the Old Men of the Mountain to run Tussey’s 50-mile ultramarathon. “Last year, the new kid on the team was 67,” says Etzweiler, who with rare exception doesn’t let a runner on his team under 65.

And this month he’s gearing up for the annual test of will and stamina that is the Mount Washington Road Race in New Hampshire, a grueling 7.6-mile haul up the highest peak in the Northeast U.S. that boasts a 4,650-foot elevation gain. He was inducted into the Mount Washington Road Race Hall of Fame in 2016, having been the only runner over age 88 to finish it.

Mount Washington is his favorite race, he says, though his dreams for it being his last race someday have shifted slightly.

“My plan was to run it till I’m 100 and drop dead when I cross the finish line. And then I discovered last year that that would be June of 2020, and the presidential election won’t be till November,” he says. “So I got permission from the people up there to go another year and drop dead at 101, so I can find out what happens in the next presidential election.”

Celebrity Status Etzweiler gets to skip the lottery with his automatic spot in the Mount Washington Road Race. He currently holds the Age Group Record for 85- to 89-year-olds (2:33:20), 90- to 94-year-olds (2:48:25) and 95+ (3:28:41). The official race cutoff time is 3 hours, but they make an exception for their most senior participant. “One of my greatest claims to fame is that I’ve gotten a major race to keep the clock running an extra hour just to include me.”

Mountain Man He does much of his training on runs up Tussey Mountain, where he’s found a small stretch of road with a 12 percent grade that mimics much of Mount Washington’s racecourse. “I like mountains; it gives you a tremendous workout. On a mountain, I can put forth an extreme, hard effort with very little risk to the knees. That’s why I like to go up the mountains, not down. … Doing Mount Washington is about a half marathon’s worth of work with essentially zero risk to the knees.”

Civic Duty The Navy veteran has proudly voted in every presidential election since 1944. “I like to confound the people; my father was a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat and I registered Democrat but voted for Dewey twice, Eisenhower twice, Nixon once. And then in 1957 (my wife and I) moved from Maryland back here to State College and I registered Republican then – and then started voting Democrat. I think I voted Democrat ever since. And now I’m a registered Democrat. … These are interesting times. I’m just hoping we can survive, and don’t end up with a nuclear war or something.”

Training Game Etzweiler does two 30-minute sessions each week at Ki’netiK Fitness, working with trainers on stability and strength training. And he runs best and most often with running partners, his current one Jay Maynard, Penn State’s Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Physics. “I think it’s incredible that a 72-year-old kid would keep going out there with a 98-year-old. Then on Monday, Wednesday and Friday Jay does a 10K on campus. But then he goes faster; I slow him up.”

No Quit “Every year I think, ‘Why in the world am I doing this?’ But I just keep going, I guess just to see if I can. I guess it’s like, ‘Why hike that mountain?’ Just to see if I can. Why did I hike all 48 of the 4,000-foot peaks in New Hampshire? Just to see if I could.”

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