For some, marathon a lifelong love

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / April 19, 2010

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MANCHESTER, Conn. — Zofia Turosz is running down Main Street, a petite, muscular figure striding past storefront windows. She moves steadily along the familiar route to her night job cleaning the St. James School. Calves bulging beneath black spandex tights, she climbs a short hill without breaking rhythm.

Turosz, 71, is set to win another Boston Marathon title today. She is the defending champion in the women’s 70-to-74-year-old group.

“Running is my passion,’’ said Turosz, who trains while holding down two cleaning jobs.

Last year, Turosz finished in 4 hours, 19 minutes, 49 seconds. According to the 2010 age-grading tables developed by USA Track and Field, her time converts to a 2:42:08 marathon for a female runner in her physical prime and would qualify her for the 2012 US women’s Olympic marathon trials.

Turosz, who began running as a teen in Poland, loved it long before it was popular. She ran fast despite limited race opportunities and a lack of formal coaching. Now, she is fast for her age.

“I was born too soon,’’ said Turosz through a Polish translator. “I would like to be born only now or to be only 25 years old now.’’

If Turosz had been born after the 1980s boom in women’s running, she might be lining up with the elite women’s field tomorrow. Instead, she will be among 142 participants 70 or older in a field of 26,696. The oldest runner registered for this year’s race is 83-year-old Regina Tumidajewicz.

For many older runners, the Boston Marathon is a run against advancing years, the ultimate show of defiance in the face of aching joints and atrophying muscles. For competitors such as Turosz, it is a run for glory delayed.

Underscoring the competitiveness of the older set, the top runners in the masters (40-plus) age groups will wear additional Boston race numbers on their backs for the first time. The request for extra identification came from the runners, who wanted an easier way to pick out age-group title contenders.

Noticeably older runners in the marathon field often prompt double takes. Katherine Beiers, 77, the defending champion in the women’s 75-79 age group, estimates that she is asked her age by fellow runners about 10 times a race. “They say, ‘Do you mind me asking?’ and I know damn well what they’re asking,’’ said Beiers, of Santa Cruz, Calif.

Greater knowledge about the sport and about aging has made older runners faster. Beiers finished in 5:00:50 last year, the equivalent of 2:47:18 for a runner in her prime. At 80, Robert Borglund of Fort Myers, Fla., won the men’s 80-plus age group last year in 4:04:57, which converts to a 2:32:45.

“I probably should consider this my last marathon, but you never know what’ll happen,’’ said Borglund. “My friends reminded me that I said that last year and the year before and the year before . . . I run with people all younger than me and they tell me I inspire them. That’s gratification for somebody my age.’’

Older runners who finish with winning times don’t receive the same recognition as the elite athletes. Last year, Turosz was back in Manchester before she learned of her age-group victory from a friend. More than anything, the challenge of pushing their bodies to the limit motivates older runners. And they keep pushing their bodies faster.

“It is going where no man or woman has ever gone before,’’ said Don Lein, USA Track and Field’s chairman of masters long-distance running. “The older ones are destroying the envelope, particularly older women.’’

Turosz starts her weekdays with a training run at 4:30 a.m., covering 8 to 10 miles on the hilly streets near her home. She averages 60 miles per week. Her daily running route often takes her to the local high school, where she swims, showers, and runs 2 more miles to a bus stop for the 7 o’clock ride to her day job in Hartford. (On occasion, she has run the roughly 15 miles to Hartford.) She spends the next several hours cleaning houses in the area, returns home, and starts her night job — cleaning the pre-kindergarten classrooms at St. James School — at 6.

“When she works, she doesn’t seem 71,’’ said co-worker Joanna Strojek. “Sometimes she seems 18.’’ Only Turosz’s short, gray hair, wrinkles, and hands gnarled by years of cleaning betray her age.

The workday finishes at 10. When asked what she enjoys doing besides running, she said, “Well, I can’t manage to squeeze in too much more.’’

As a teenager in a mountainous region of Poland, Turosz enjoyed running through the countryside, through fields and forests. “I also ran after cows,’’ she said. “I herded cows, so I ran after them.’’

In 1979, at 41, Turosz entered her first 26.2-mile race, the Warsaw Peace Marathon. Initially, her husband, Tadeusz, was not happy about Zofia’s long-distance running career. Not exactly what he had in mind for his wife and mother of two sons. But when Zofia started winning medals, he came around.

At 48, Turosz ran her first Boston Marathon and finished in a personal-best 2:57:21. Tomorrow will mark her fourth Boston and her third marathon in less than seven months. Despite a right knee injury that required minor surgery 10 years ago, Turosz has racked up the miles in training for 51 marathons and longer races.

“First of all, running brings me satisfaction,’’ said Turosz. “You can relax, escape from all the stress because almost everybody is going through some stress in life. Different types of stress, right? Then, I was running to stay healthy.’’

At the end of the month, Turosz will travel back to Poland. She spends six months in Poland with her family and six months in the United States, working to support herself. She recently inquired about attaining US citizenship. “There’s much more of an opportunity for her here, friendship-wise and running-wise,’’ said friend and running mentor Janet Romayko. “There’s no such thing as 71-year-old runners in Poland.’’

Turosz and her fellow older runners enter today’s race with attitudes and concerns much the same as those of marathoners less than half their age.

Borglund, the now 81-year-old marathoner from Fort Myers, sounds like any competitive runner, especially when talking about his age-group-winning 4:04:57 in last year’s race.

“I wanted to break four hours, but I had a little knee problem that kicked up the last half of the race,’’ said Borglund. “I didn’t want to see ‘did not finish’ beside my name. This year, if I can finish I’d be happy with that. If I can do better than my time last year, I’d be elated.’’

Before running 22 miles by herself in preparation for Boston, Beiers downloaded Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park’’ onto her iPod for entertainment. The former librarian and two-time mayor of Santa Cruz, Calif., started running at age 50 to lose weight, increase energy, and see more of her hometown scenery. Laps around a track turned into marathons because, Beiers said, she “always likes to have a goal.’’

“I run with younger people — 30-, 40-, 50-year-olds,’’ said Beiers. “They all say they want to be like me when they grow up.’’

Her 10 grandchildren might think the same. Beiers often selects races where her grandchildren can be at the finish line.

Turosz ran with her son and 18-year-old granddaughter at the Warsaw Marathon last September. It was her proudest running moment.

“My granddaughter decided she wanted to run a marathon with me,’’ said Turosz. “So, we ran our first marathon together.’’

And there may be many more. Turosz says she isn’t stopping anytime soon.

Shira Springer can be reached at