Miles in their shoes

Of the 27,000 runners who line up tomorrow, 5% will be over age 60

By Brion O’Connor
Globe Correspondent / April 17, 2011

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If he could run just one last marathon, 74-year-old Hans Thamhain says, it would be Boston.

“First of all, it’s my hometown,’’ reasons Thamhain, a native of Germany who lives in Framingham. “It’s the most supportive, the most exciting along the sidelines. Every town has its own characteristics. You have fans from the rooftops; it is just unbelievable. The excitement is generated all the way along, from start to finish. I feel I’m a part of it.’’

But given Thamhain’s resume, tomorrow’s event will likely be far from his last. As the oldest member of the Greater Framingham Runners Club, he has run the Boston Marathon almost every year since 1980, missing only two installments. It’s a mighty impressive feat. But then again, consider Wellesley’s Emilio Rotondi.

“This will be my 42d Boston Marathon,’’ said Rotondi, a 73-year-old retired hairdresser and Italian immigrant who moved to the area 60 years ago. “I’ve done 40 consecutive. I took one year off.’’

In the Patriots Day tradition, nearly 27,000 runners are expected to line up in Hopkinton for the 115th running of the Boston Marathon. More than 5 percent of the race field will be at least 60 years old.

They no longer run like the wind — and some admit they never did — but in many ways, these veteran runners represent this legendary race as much as Heartbreak Hill or the rich history of its champions.

“Years ago it was different than it is today,’’ Rotondi said. “There were not too many runners like today. But there’s no such thing like the Boston Marathon. It’s organized so beautifully.’’

Like Thamhain, Rotondi started running later in life, when he was 32.

It’s a similar story for Sudbury residents Michael and Betsy Gonnerman, who at ages 68 and 66, respectively, are the oldest active members of the Heartbreak Hill Striders running club.

In the mid-1970s, when the couple lived in Washington, D.C., Michael was intrigued by a story about the inaugural Marine Corps Marathon. It prompted him to train to run in the race the following year.

“Watching me run got Betsy to start running,’’ he said.

“I ran much shorter distances for 20 years. I really had no desire to do the Marathon,’’ said Betsy. “But when you live in Boston, and you haven’t done the Boston Marathon, boy, you’re nothing.’’

Orchestrated by the Boston Athletic Association, the race has grown exponentially in the last two decades, more than tripling from 8,686 runners in 1991 to 26,872 this year. The number of runners over 60 has jumped even more dramatically. In 1991, there were 164 runners older than 60, less than 2 percent of the field. This year’s number is nearly nine times higher, at 1,455.

“I compare it often with mountain climbing,’’ said Thamhain. “It’s something that one can do, but it’s a challenge, pushing beyond the 20-mile marker, for most people, myself included. I can do a 20-miler every weekend, without much preparation. But when it’s 26 miles . . . ’’

That’s especially true of Boston, he said. “The last three miles is what is the real challenge. And the hills come at the wrong time, just when you need a little break.’’

That, say the Gonnermans, is where membership in the Heartbreak Hill Striders gives them an edge. “We train on the course twice a week,’’ said Michael, an independent financial consultant. “We run Heartbreak Hill every week. It’s almost an unfair advantage.’’

“There’s nothing like training on the course,’’ said Betsy, a hospital social worker.

The couple, married 43 years, moved to the Boston area in 1978. Betsy didn’t run a marathon until she was 58, but qualified for Boston in her first attempt with a time of 3:51. However, her first Boston experience in 2005 was disastrous, and she dropped out at the 17-mile mark. The following year, her legs again buckled at Mile 17, and the same emergency medical workers met her.

“I told them, I’m not going in that medical tent. I’m going to continue,’’ she said. “They recognized me from the previous year, and said, ‘Well, then, we’re walking with you, because we don’t think you’re going to make it.’ And I walked and ran the rest of the way, and I finished the damn thing. It was horrible.’’

Last year, the Gonnermans ran together the entire 26.2 miles, and finished hand-in-hand in 4:18:23 (good for sixth place for Betsy in her age category).

“In fact, our kids were following us on the BAA’s athlete tracking system, every 5 or 10K, and they thought I was wearing two chips, one on each shoe, because we both had the same times,’’ said Michael, who completed his eighth Boston last year.

Two constants among these older runners are gratitude for good genes, and commitment to good training.

“I put it more on genes than the training. It’s probably a combination,’’ said Thamhain. “It’s a lot in the preparation. If you’re not prepared, you have a miserable run. You have to be ready.’’

Thamhain, a former Verizon engineer who now teaches management at Bentley University in Waltham, said his affiliation with the Greater Framingham Runners Club has brought his running to another level. “Doing it alone is maybe good for your health and maybe good for your spirit, but it’s the support group that really makes it fun.’’

The responses vary when you ask these runners their goals for this year’s Marathon. They know they will never be as fast as they once were, and Boston isn’t designed for personal records.

“It’s a tough, tough course,’’ said Betsy Gonnerman.

Even Rotondi, who twice ran it in 2:39, his personal best for the event, and qualified for his age group with last year’s time of 4:23, says he isn’t making predictions.

Thamhain, who once ran a 3-hour marathon, said earning his age-group number is reward enough. “I’m usually happy if I come in about mid-point or better in my group,’’ he said.

None have any intention of skipping future Boston Marathons, even as they admit they’re decelerating. “The smart part of my brain, the rational part of my brain, says you shouldn’t be doing marathons any more. Stick to the shorter distances,’’ said Betsy Gonnerman. “But then the Boston Marathon comes around every year, and we get reinvigorated again.’’

“It’s very important to exercise. So that’s why I do it,’’ said Rotondi. “I’m very lucky to live in a place where the Boston Marathon goes by. Basically, now I’m slow, but I can do it. I have the ability to do to it.’’

Thamhain expressed a similar sentiment.

“Running is not my career, just my passion. So, I’ll continue racing as long as it’s fun,’’ he said. “The idea is to produce endorphins, not necessarily records. When I can’t ran marathons anymore, I’ll settle for shorter distances. When? I really don’t know. Ask me again next year.

“If I’m lucky, I can give you the same answer.’’