Running Strong

In June 95-year-old George Etzweiler became the oldest person to finish the 7.6-mile Mount Washington Road Race.
George Etzweiller and his grandson Robert Etzweiler
photo by Dan Houde/Mt. Washington Auto Road

It might just be one hill, but when that “hill” is Mount Washington with an elevation gain of 4,727 feet, it’s a huge accomplishment for anyone, never mind someone in his ninth decade. Etzweiler, who hails from State College, Pa., completed the race with a time of 3:28:41, which is technically over the official time limit of 3:02, but race organizers have relaxed that requirement for older runners. In 1989 Etzweiller first ran the race at age 69 after his son Larry talked him into it. In 1995 he won — and broke the record for — his age group. In 2005 he ran it once again and has been running it just about every year since with a few missed years due to illness.

First of all, relate a little about your history with Mt. Washington. I know the folks there speak fondly of you. Members of our family have been vacationing in New Hampshire since 1960. Larry found out about the Mt. Washington Race and started running it in the 1980s. In 1989, he talked me into running the race when I was 69. I ran it again in 1995 and won my age group against Henry Kelleg, who held the age-group record. In 2005, I ran it again and have been running it essentially every year since. I missed three years because of health problems.

You come to NH to run up Mt. Washington. Do you have other things you like to do while you’re here? We go to New Hampshire for a week’s vacation and do the Mt. Washington Race as a sideline.  We love to hike. Larry and I have hiked all 48 of the 4,000-foot peaks and must have hiked Mt. Washington 15 times, doing all trails directly up the mountain. All four of my grandchildren have hiked Mt. Washington with me when each was between 6 and 8 years old. My oldest grandchild, Robert Etzweiler, was 7 and was with Larry and me the first time we hiked up Mt. Washington in 1981. Robert ran the race with Larry and me in 2005 and again this year. He is the person with me in that picture of me at the top of Mt. Washington.

I hear you only began running when you were 49. What took you so long to catch the “running bug”? I was too busy to “waste my time” doing any exercise. When I was 49, I was overweight and couldn’t stay awake in the afternoons. Anthony Ferraro, a fellow faculty member in the Electrical Engineering Department at Penn State, found Kenneth Cooper’s book “Aerobics” and started running a mile a day on the indoor track at Penn State. He talked me into reading the book and joining his running group. I lost weight, felt better, enjoyed it and have been running ever since.

How did you take to it at first? Was it easy? It was easy to take to, but the first mile wasn’t easy. The first mile was the first mile I ever ran at one time in my life, and at 49 and overweight, I ran it in 10 minutes, and I thought I would die. I discovered something that my late wife Mary knew — I have a stronger heart than brain.

You've taken home a lot of trophies for your age group. Are any of them specially meaningful to you? That would be the first trophy. In 1973, the Eastern United States Track and Field Federation Six-Mile Cross-Country Championship was held at Penn State.  A friend, Tom Piggott, and I were the only two over 50. I won and became the Eastern United States Cross-Country Veterans Champion, as reported by Runners World.

You’ve become a vegan in recent years. What motivated that change? In 2011, my granddaughter, Rachael Fye, talked me into reading “The China Study” by Colin Campbell and the “Blue Zone,” a report of a study by National Geographic. These studies show that the healthiest groups of people in the world eat very little meat and animal products. I tried it and have been doing fine. I also lost six pounds on a vegan diet after having trimmed down about 20 pounds from running.

Have you ever wanted to take up something a little easier or more “age appropriate”? Like maybe golf? No. I once hit a golf ball on a driving range, but it didn’t catch on like running. I tried swimming and didn’t like that either. Nothing else appeals to me.

Any tips for older runners thinking of taking up the sport? Start slowly and keep it up and do what you enjoy. My sensible friends do a few miles about four times per week. Cooper says to do any aerobic exercise for about 30 minutes at least four times per week. My experience indicates that that is good advice.

What’s the best advice you’ve gotten along the way? Don’t increase your longest distance or weekly mileage more than 10 percent a week. I should follow that advice but don’t. Mary was right!

How much longer do you plan on entering races like the Mt. Washington Road Race? Five more years. In 2020, at age 100, I plan to run Mt. Washington and when I cross the finish line, drop dead. The top of Mt. Washington is the best place I can think of to die at age 100. Please note that age adjusted, I am not in the top 10, maybe the top 30. My only claim to fame is that I was able to convince my parents to give me a set of genes that made it possible for me to live longer and healthier than most people. However, in March 2000 at age 80, I had a single bypass off-pump open-heart surgery (a weird blockage in the “widow’s vein,” no plaque or cholesterol problems). In July I ran a local 10K. In July of 2014 I ran that local 10K and the next day had a pacemaker installed. I’m going to try to get the cardiologist to up the speed of the pacemaker so I can run Mt. Washington faster next year.

Categories: Q&A