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Now 80, marathon runner plans to keep running

on December 1, 2008


In a ritual that started years ago, Richmond resident George French wakes up every other morning at 2:30 and runs 3 to 6 miles from his home toward El Cerrito BART, mainly along San Pablo Avenue. “At this hour, it is safe to run,” he says. “The streets are empty. There is no traffic. The only people I meet are the streetwalkers.”

French is a restaurant manager, which is why he likes getting to work before dawn. He says, he is also a Russian interpreter. But he likes to call himself an inventor, having created years ago what he calls a key cutting machine.

And this year, by the way, he turned 80. He has no plans to slow up his running routine.

“There is something about sticking to what your goal is, through resistance, through pain, whatever it takes,” French says, adding that running 3 to 6 miles in the middle of the night is a very pleasant activity. “Others consider that I am certifiably crazy,” he says. But “it is my yoga, it is my way of getting out and being by myself. You do relax when you are running.”

Since 1960, French says, he has run about forty marathons around the world, traveling as far as Moscow in 1983. He says he’s never won a race—that it has never really been one of his goals. But as he aged, he has found himself a challenging ambition: to become the oldest runner of the New York Marathon, a race he says he’s run 14 times in the last two decades.

On Sunday November 2, this year, when French showed up at the starting block in New York, he was proud to be running in his new age category, for people over 79.

He ran the 26 miles and crossed the finish line at Central Park around 5 p.m., more than five hours after the winner, 31 year-old Brazilian Marilson Gomes Dos Santos. French finished the race with a time of 7:00:39, coming in 37,723rd out of the marathon’s 38,356 runners.

“To finish it and be feeling good, that’s a reward in itself,” French says, adding that he has seen many younger people give up, unable to run the whole distance. “That was quite an accomplishment for me,” he says.

For this year’s race, French wore bib No. 52576, a black running shorts and — to add color to the historic moment — a special white Jersey that reads “80 YEARS OLD IN ’08.” “I felt better this year,” he says.

The week after the competition, the Contra Costa Times ran a story with the headline “26 miles at 80 years old.”

“I am pleasantly surprised,” French says. “Nothing I have ever done before in running has particularly attracted much interest. I guess because we are such a small group, those of us who are over 80.”

There were only a dozen runners over 80 at New York this year; the oldest was 87. In his category, French finished No. 6, according to marathon records. “I was right in the middle,” he says.

French maintains his sense of humor when he talks about crossing the finish line. “As you go into Central Park at the end of 26 miles, and you are going down the road to the finish line where a pretty girl will hang a medal around your neck, and she will kiss you on the cheek,” he says. “ That’s a high.”

He grew up in Pasadena and studied physics at Princeton University. When he was young, French says, he was not particularly into running. He says he loved biking, though, and to prove it, he pulls from an old photo album an article from the “Pasadena Star News” of June 27, 1949. “Cycle 3046 Miles in 24 days,” the front page reads, and there’s the photo of French in a white jersey, a white hat and a white short, standing on his bike in a middle of a small crowd staring at him at the Ocean Beach in Santa Monica, where he was about to wrap up a lone cross-country bike ride that he had started back in Asbury Park, New Jersey.

Sitting on a chair at his Richmond home now, wearing a blue athletic outfit and a white hat that reads “Chi Running”, French leafs through the photos album his 16 year old son brought to him from upstairs.

“From the road, I sent post cards to my parents,” he says, showing the collection. He says he has also sent daily post-cards to the psychiatrist of Princeton University where he was then a physics student. He says when he told Princeton officials that he plans to do a cross country bike ride, they required him to go see the psychiatric. “He told me I could not do it, that it is not possible” French says. In his collection he has post-cards from a dozen cities including Philadelphia (PA), Saint Louis (MO) and Las Vegas. “So every day I sent him post-cards to let him know where I was.”

Years later, French says, in the 1960s, his doctor told him during a routine visit that at 230 pounds – French had changed shape since those bicycling days – he was obese. “I didn’t like the sound of that,” he says. “So I started running.” Whenever he had time, he says, he would go for a jog. Then, in 1968, he decided to participate in his first race, the Golden Gate Marathon. Before he reached the finish line, he says, he was so tired so he sat
somewhere on the road around Sausalito.

“Somebody told me it was a mistake,” he says.

After that race, he says, “one thing led to another.”

During the 1983 Moscow marathon, he says, he had an encounter with the soviet officials. He says after the winners have crossed the finish line, Soviet officials had closed the marathon very early and were going around with a sweep bus to pick up slow runners like him. As he was at his 18th mile along the Moscow river, officials stopped him, telling him he had no reason to be running. “But I plan to run to the finish line,” French says he told them. “Were they afraid we’d run off the road and steal state secrets from the city?” he asks. Finally, they let him run. “The race director and his cohorts had gone home by the time I got to the finish,” he says.

By the time he signed up for his first New York race in 1988, French had lost interest in other marathons. He says he ran his last Golden Gate Marathon in 1972, his last Napa Valley in 1981, and his last San Francisco in 1985. “I became kind of lazy,” he says.

But when it comes to the New York race, French said he takes it seriously and will not give up soon. ” It is a fun challenge to see how long you can go,” he says.

A week after coming back from this year’s New York, he resumed his unusual training sessions.

“It is crazy,” says his Russian wife, Masha French, who is in her late 50s and has run a few marathons before with him. “His schedule is his priority,” she says. “He has put everything else aside.”

French became a vegan years ago, he says, to stay fit and healthy enough to keep running. The restaurant he has owned and managed since 2003, Manzanita Restaurant, is in west Oakland; his morning run-and-bus commute gets him to work by 4:30, and he’s home around 5 PM. He then only has a few hours to sleep before resuming his routine all over again.

To hear French speak, the most challenging period of his long athletic career has just begun. “It would be kind of fun to be the oldest guy who ever finished the New York Marathon,” he says, adding after a pause, “It may be silly, because I may be stopped before I get to the kind of age I am looking for.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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