This Guy Is Incredible!

George Hirsch, at left

Sports heroes are often celebrated with their incredible feats specially when they are in their prime. However, there are others who seem to be ageless in their sport that defy expectation, breaks barriers and inspire future generations.

When all the dust had cleared up after the recent 2009 New York City Marathon, there were a few who were standing tall and had many heads scratching in disbelief. This story, by Amby Burfoot of Runners World will inspire may young runners and old farts as well that there is hope after our prime.

An author once described that if a measure of a person is how he lives his whole life and not simply his youth, then George Hirsch deserves our admiration for the pursuits he has done before in his prime and his astonishing feats at present.


Chairman of the Board George Hirsch Runs 4:06:14 at Age 75
Amby Burfoot
Photo by Victah Sailer, PhotoRun

In New York running circles, the great Irish miler Eamonn Coghlan has long been known as “the chairman of the boards.” But New York City running has another important chairman: George Hirsch, chairman of the board of directors of the New York Road Runners, as well as publisher emeritus of Runner’s World magazine and The Runner before that.

Oh, and marathoner extraordinaire. Today, to celebrate the ING New York City Marathon’s 40th running, Hirsch, 75, came out of a 5-year marathon retirement to run the event and finish in 4:06:14. “It was my toughest one ever,” he said shortly after finishing and hugging his wife, Shay, and race director Mary Wittenberg.

Through his performance today, Hirsch may have added a new truism to the world of distance running. The Hirsch Manifesto goes beyond “Run most of your miles at a conversational pace” and “Never increase your weekly training mileage by more than 10 percent.” It states: “If you are over 75, don’t run two marathons in a three-week period.”

At last month’s Chicago Marathon, Hirsch planned to run the first 20 miles as his last long run for New York. But he found the cold, windless running conditions to his liking, and plowed all the way through to the finish in 3:58:42.

Today he no doubt hoped to run faster. He didn’t talk about it, but Hirsch, a meticulous researcher, must have known that the NYC Marathon course record in his 75-79 division was 3:54. He had a shot at it if things went well. Paced for the first 6 miles by friend and two-time NY winner German Silva, he reached the halfway mark in 1:55. He knew that Bill Rodgers would be waiting for him at the 19-mile mark. Anything seemed possible.

He didn’t know I would be there for the middle miles. That was meant to be a surprise, and it was.

I caught Hirsch at 15 miles at the top of the Queensboro Bridge. I had hoped to fall in with him at 12 miles, but couldn’t pick him out of the crowd at that point. After letting enough time to pass that I felt sure he must have gone by, I jumped into the pack and started running hard, hoping against hope that I might catch him a few miles later. I got lucky.

I came up behind Hirsch, tapped him on the shoulder and announced, “Your midrace escort has arrived.”

George doesn’t lift his head much when he runs, keeping his gaze glued to the pavement directly in front of him. But this was an unexpected development.

“What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be in the press center,” he said. Then he immediately added: “Not feeling so good. I think Chicago took a lot out of me.”

I proudly showed off the race number that Mary Wittenberg had given me–it said “Amby” on it, just like the others that said “Meb” and “Ryan” and “Paula” and so on–and then stepped in front of Hirsch to break the wind. “Thanks, that’s good,” he said.

Three miles later on First Avenue, he said, “I’m cramping, I need to take a walk break.”

I was stunned. I had never known George to walk during a run. On the other hand, he has several times run past the point of being able to support his body weight, and collapsed to the road when his legs gave out. We were all hoping he would run his last New York and his last marathon, this very race, without that kind of a problem.

“Smart move,” I said. “Let’s save the legs now so they’ll be able to handle the Central Park hills.”

Hirsch loosened his tight focus briefly when Rodgers ran out to us, breaking into a big smile. “Good to see you, Bill. And thanks for joining me today,” he said.

Rodgers turned out to be a chatterbox. I had been running quietly beside Hirsch for 4 miles now, or more often in front of him as a wind shield. But Rodgers proved full of coachly advice. “You’re looking good, George,” he kept saying, “but don’t go too hard now. There’s a long way to go. And be sure to get Gatorade every chance you get. It will give you more energy.”

And then the road grew quiet … well, except for the thick screaming crowds on the sidewalk. “Where’s Bill?” Hirsch asked me at 20 miles.

“I don’t know but I’ll pull over to the side and do a scan,” I said. I returned shortly with my report: “I can’t see him anywhere.”

“That’s so weird,” Hirsch said. “I hope he’s okay.”

Hirsch was walking every mile or so now, though rarely for more than 30 seconds, after which he’d break into a slow jog that soon accelerated to sub-9:00 miles. We passed Anthony Edwards at 21 miles. I veered over to tell Edwards that George was just beside him at the edge of the road, aware that they were working together on the Shoe4Africa campaign. “He’s amazing,” said Edwards. “Tell him he looks great.”

In truth, he didn’t. Hirsch’s running form would never be described as poetry in motion. He doesn’t glide over the road; he forces his legs ahead in a determined, long shuffle. He runs with his heart and his
steel-tough mind, telling his skinny, cramp-prone quads and calf muscles that they simply don’t get a vote in the matter. Nevertheless, Hirsch has been getting the marathon job done for a long time. In 1979, he ran 2:38 in the Boston Marathon. In 1976, he finished the first NYC Marathon in 2:49, and the next year improved to 2:40. In 1984, at 50, he finished New York in 3:03:45. Ten years later he ran 4:43 to accompany his son David in his first marathon. Now, at 75, he was running his final marathon, a promise made to his wife and family.

On the long uphill on Fifth Avenue before Central Park, Hirsch yelled up to me several yards in front of him: “Come closer Amby. I’m starting to wobble.”

I looked back quickly, alarmed. He was wobbling. He was also running dangerously close to the curb on his right side. I was worried that he would scrape it, fall, and hurt himself. So I fell back beside him, and moved inside him to force him away from the curb.

We slowed on the uphills, and increased pace on the flats and downhills. Entering Central Park, we encountered a grinning Rodgers, waiting for us. He floated into the pack again, and renewed his coaching. “We’re almost at the 24-mile mark, George, and you’re going strong. Stay relaxed. Don’t push it too hard.” He also explained that he had gotten separated from us on First Avenue, and figured Central Park was a good place to find us.

We walked for the last time at about 24.5 miles. From there, Hirsch the Determined kept his legs going. On Central Park South, he began passing others runners on a hill for the first time in the race. On the uphill grind to the finish, he ran even stronger. “Take it easy, George,” I said. “Let’s finish looking good.”

At the finish, Rodgers went to his left and I to his right. We raised his arms overhead, and passed under the finish banner. Then we braced ourselves for a possible collapse.

It never came. “That was my toughest marathon ever,” he said right away. But he kept walking strongly, looking for his family and friends. As soon as he found them, he sounded more like a New Yorker than a New York City marathoner. “Let’s go get some coffee and cheesecake,” he said.

8 responses to “This Guy Is Incredible!

  1. Merry Christmas Sir Rene 🙂 Wow, incredible. At 75 he could still do a sub 4. And no wonder, during the 70’s he was an elite pala 🙂 What an incredible guy indeed!

    • Hi Luis– i think it’s the consistency of his training and the fire within him that’s continuously setting him apart. Abot pa kaya tayo ng 75?:-) Merry Christmas to you too!:-)

  2. i hope to be like him except that i’ll be running sub-5 hours for the marathon at the age of 75!

    • BR– i think you’re one of the very few who might be on the right track in achieving a sub 5 in your 70s. Merry Christmas to you!:-)

    • I share your enthusiasm, Jet! Pero baka pulutin na tayo sa kangkungan pag tapak natin ng edad na 70!:-) Merry Christmas to you!

  3. Nice story! Very inspiring, indeed! We should be so lucky to be able to run competitively at all by age 75! Thanks for sharing, Rene! Happy New Year!

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