Ultrarunner and marathon world record setter – at 80 years old
Reporting that she felt ‘absolutely wonderful,’ American ultrarunner Helen Klein completed her record setting 2002 running season with a stunning marathon World Record for the 80 to 84 year age group. Klein shattered the previous record by almost 39 minutes early this month at Sacramento’s 20th California International Marathon on Dec. 8, 2002 near her California home.
– January, 2003, Track and Field
This clip from a magazine doesn’t begin to prepare one for meeting this amazing woman. Standing 5 feet, 5 inches tall and weighing only 109 pounds, Helen Klein looks far younger than her almost 81 years suggest. Slim, graceful, with short gray hair , it’s a surprise, yet no surprise, that she’s a world-class runner.
A humble person, Klein isn’t into trumpeting her myriad accomplishments that take a sheet of paper to list; rather, she just does them. Such things as having completed 138 ultramarathons (50 miles; only 59-year-old Barbara Elia has run more of them) or being an Olympic Torchbearer for the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
Records are commonplace for this Rancho Cordova woman (she holds 75 world records), who admitted to having a houseful of awards. Like being the first woman ultramarathon runner to be elected to the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame. Or the oldest person in the world to complete a 100-mile trail run. Klein is so well known all you have to do is type in her name on the Internet, and up pops a bunch of sites. She even has a race named after her, the Helen Klein Ultra Distance Classic.
While she runs all sorts of courses, trail runs are her favorite, because Klein loves the outdoors with a passion. And since trails that go up must come down she gets her chance to show her specialty: running like greased lightening. Friend and occasional running partner, Joan Bumpus, who lives in Penn Valley, says “On the downhill she’s gone, leaving you in the dust. But she’s encouraging when you run with her, and, of course, a great example.”
Klein loves seeing the world while at a run (“Some places you can only see on foot,” she says), and she’s been everywhere. In 1995, she ran a five-day, 143-mile course across the awesome Sahara, carrying everything she needed, including water that was replenished every five miles.
Klein was in town recently to talk to the Sierra Trail Blazers at the Madeline Helling Library. In fact, this is what she does a lot of between her running – inspiring people to eat right and exercise lots, both of which she gives credit for her health, longevity, and the fact that she has never had a hip, back, or knee problem.
A nurse by training, Klein says, “I learned how to take care of myself, such as eating no processed foods (she even bakes her own bread), and not eating after 4:30 p.m.”
It is this discipline that she feels is crucial to her success as a runner. For instance, she doesn’t have to think about getting up and running six to 12 miles daily, she just does it (getting up at 4 a.m. no less). And when she’s deep into a run, she uses her special brand of the reward system, as in, “I’ll be able to rest tonight, or tomorrow, or in three days. I just keep positive.”
But perhaps the biggest secret of her success has come from the fact that she’s never been consumed by the competitive urge to break records, hers included. “I never try to get past or beat anyone. No push, push.” This may be explained by when and why she started running in the first place.
Klein was 55, and retired from nursing, when her husband Norman, an oral surgeon, took up running.
While the idea of sweating and wearing shorts in public for a woman who was socialized in the 1930s and ’40s was anathema to her, she said “I knew that to keep a marriage together you had to share some same interests – so when Norman was challenged to do a 10-mile race, I trained with him, and have never stopped.”
What are Klein’s plans for the future? To live to be 100 is one. To keep up the pace of running one race a month, and keep inspiring people to move their bodies is another.
And to run on the only remaining continent she has yet to conquer: the Antarctica. “I’ve been trying to find a sponsor for this marathon in 2005,” she says, “but no takers.” At least not yet, that is.
A book Klein recommends is “Fitter After 50” by Ed Mayhew. You can find it on the Web: http://www.fitterafter50.com
Pam Jung is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Union. She lives in Nevada City.
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