Running fans who were paying attention to the Chicago Marathon were probably impressed by Mo Farah, the quadruple Olympic gold medalist on the track, who won in 2:05:11 and made it look easy. Or maybe they were wowed by Brigid Kosgei of Kenya, who ran away with the women’s race in 2:18:35, making her the seventh-fastest marathoner of all time.
But a little more than an hour after Kosgei finished was Jeannie Rice, age 70, of Mentor, Ohio, a town about 25 miles east of Cleveland.
She finished in 3:27:50—smashing the 70-plus women’s world record of 3:35:29 set by Helga Miketta of Germany in 2013.
Rice, who still works as a realtor in the Cleveland area, felt fine after her marathon. She was back at work—in heels—Tuesday after the Sunday race.
Born in Korea, Rice settled in the U.S. in 1968, when she was 19. After a trip back to Korea to visit family in 1983, she unexpectedly gained seven pounds. “You go to visit cousins and aunts, and they think we are starving in America,” she said. “It’s a feast every time we go. We had to eat to be polite. I came home, I’m 5-foot-2, and I’m a little chubby. I wanted to lose those few pounds.”
She took up running, at first just wearing tennis shoes. She quickly found she was good at it, and with minimal training, she was soon placing in her age group in local races.
In 1984, a lifetime of marathoning started, with a 3:45 debut in Cleveland, followed by a 3:16 at her second attempt in Columbus. Chicago, by her count, was her 116th marathon, and the sport has taken her all over the world – to the Great Wall of China, New Zealand, Prague, Paris, London, Madrid, Dublin, and Iceland.
In training for Chicago, Rice did seven runs of at least 20 miles or more—usually 22 or 23—and her weekly mileage reached about 65. She runs at 5:30 a.m. with friends in the area, many of whom are men, all of whom are younger. “That helps, running with stronger runners,” she said.
She races frequently for speedwork, doing 5Ks and 10Ks (and in August, she ran 6:38 for a road mile at the USATF masters championships). Rice escapes the winter weather in northeast Ohio by heading for Naples, Florida, for about five months of the year, where there is a vibrant running scene.
Running, she says, is a sport that you can pause and resume at any point throughout your life, and it’s not dependent on other people.
“I used to play racquetball, tennis,” she said. “You have to have a partner for that kind of stuff. Running, you compete against any age, gender, it’s fun. You can beat the young kids.” For the record, she still golfs (her best score is 96) and downhill skis in the winter.
Rice makes no concessions to her age. “I don’t feel 70 at all,” she said. “It’s too bad the number is there. I’d rather be 50. I’m sure the time will come. I’m probably not going to be able to run like this when I’m 80.”
But as long as she can, she’s making the most of it and setting ambitious goals. Her next is to win her age group at each of the six World Marathon Majors. She’s done so at Boston and Chicago, and the New York City Marathon is up next, in three weeks. Berlin is on her schedule for next year. “I ran London before, but I didn’t win my division, so I have to go back,” she said. “I don’t want to just participate; I want to win.”
That shouldn’t be a problem. In Chicago, the second-place 70-plus woman was 42 minutes behind Rice. In fact, there was only one other woman older than 60 who managed to beat her, and that was Joan Benoit Samuelson, the 1984 Olympic gold medalist and a former American record holder. (Benoit, 61, ran 3:12:13.)
“She’s been my idol, all these years,” Rice said.
Rice, meanwhile, is an idol to her two teenaged granddaughters. “They are so proud of me, as I am of them,” she said. “They tell all their friends, ‘Oh, my grandma, for her 5Ks are nothing. She runs marathons.’”