At the Falmouth Road Race on Cape Cod, friends and well-wishing strangers offer handshakes, smiles and greetings before the race starts. Along the 7.1-mile course, many of the 5,400 entrants do the same. Boston Mayor Ray Flynn waves hello as he speeds past, as does Fred Lebow, director of the New York City Marathon. Every few yards, it seems, another spectator yells, "Way to go, Ruth!" from the sidelines. Then, in the final stretch, cheers erupt as the P.A. system booms out: "Now approaching the finish, wearing number F86, is Ruth Rothfarb of Cambridge, Massachusetts." The "F" means female and the "86" is Rothfarb's age.
"She's an inspiration to all of us," says Joan Benoit, the 1984 Olympic marathon gold medalist. "'We all have to learn from Ruth's example," says four-time Boston Marathon winner Bill Rodgers.
Rothfarb's running career began 17 years ago, when she was a mere 69. She ran her first race at 75, her first marathon at 80 and has competed in hundreds of track and road events at various distances. "I must have 300 or 400 T-shirts from races," she says with a smile. Rothfarb has finished seven marathons, including one New York and two Bostons, and holds 23 U.S. single-age and age-group running records at distances from 100 meters to the marathon. She set her first record at age 79 and may well be the oldest competitive female athlete.
Such achievements were hardly anticipated in 1976 when Rothfarb entered her first race, a 10-kilometer event in Beverly, Mass. She arrived at the race with her son, Herb, 51, an accomplished triathlete, and a few running friends. "The excitement at the start, the people warming up, got to me," she recalls. "I asked Herb if he'd be embarrassed if I ran in the race, and he said no, so I got a number. I needed to make one pit stop, but I still finished in 1:45." Herb fondly remembers seeing his mother cross the finish line in old running shoes and a pair of Bermuda shorts.
Nowadays her typical attire might include a purple-and-silver mesh singlet, silver nylon shorts and new running shoes. Whether in Cambridge or Miami, where she spends the winter months, Rothfarb logs about 10 miles per day—about half running and half walking. She competes nearly every week, all year round, and has been known to knock off 10K races on successive days. "I have finished every race I have entered," she says proudly.
In fact, she frequently does more than just finish. At the 1981 World Veterans Championships in New Zealand, Rothfarb entered 10 events and won seven gold medals and three silvers. In the process she set five U.S. single-age (79) records, including the 100 meters (19.75), 400 meters (2:03.5) and 1,500 meters (8:47.8). Her 5:28:37 marathon in Miami in 1982 stands as the fastest by a woman in the 80-to-84 age group, in which the competition is admittedly thin. "When I compare myself with people my own age," she says, eyes twinkling, "well, most of them aren't around anymore."
At first, Rothfarb felt people wouldn't accept her running, and she trained in off-hours and in obscure venues. Now she is an athletic celebrity, and manufacturers provide her with running shoes and warmup suits. After Rothfarb's first marathon, Joan Lunden interviewed her for Good Morning America, and she appeared on The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers after the 1987 Boston Marathon. Fan letters often arrive signed "Your sister in running."
Rothfarb's active life-style—"There aren't enough hours in the day," she says—resembles that of runners 50 to 60 years younger. She favors fish and chicken over red meat and eats no butter, sugar or salt. Running magazines have influenced her diet, which stresses bread, salads and fresh fruit. Her only vice is a daily three to four cups of coffee, although Herb notes they are so weak "she's basically drinking hot water."
Born in czarist Russia in 1901, Ruth immigrated to Boston at age 12 with her family. She married at 19, and with her husband, Harry, ran a clothing store for 42 years. Widowed in 1961, she managed the business for seven more years, then retired and soon thereafter took up running. Her daughter, Rita, 64, also lives in the Boston area, as does a 42-year-old grandson. Ruth says that Herb is "a bit of a coach" to her.
Rothfarb's constitution is well adapted to her sport. Like many distance runners she is small—4'10½", 100 pounds—and she has a pulse rate in the low 40's. Of her weight she says, "I feel better at 98 pounds, but sometimes I go up to 102. Those extra pounds have to come off." Arthritis, especially in her knees, has bothered her over the years, but running seems to ameliorate the condition. "It distracts me and makes the pain more tolerable," she says. "It also helps to keep the joints more limber. Got to keep those joints moving. It's the lesser of two evils. I refuse to take any kind of pill. Instead I go out for a run or a long walk."
In light of research showing that women 55 and older watch more television than any other group, and that two thirds of all 80-year-old women cannot cross a street before a green light changes, Rothfarb's achievements are all the more distinctive. John A. Kelley, 80, the living legend who has completed 53 Boston Marathons, says, "She shows that I'll be able to keep on running when I get old." Running guru Dr. George Sheehan, an active competitor himself at 68, notes that "older runners develop more wisdom of the body. They go with their bodies' messages, not their brains'. Ruth is probably superbly tuned in to her body."
For her part, Rothfarb says, "I think I was old at 65, but now I'm young." Running itself matters more to her than records. After the Falmouth race, when asked for her time, Ruth smiled and shrugged, "Who knows?" Nonetheless, at last November's Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., she ran a 5:40:51, U.S. age-group (85 to 89) pending record. Of course, that's about 12 minutes behind her 1982 mark of 5:28:37. But, says Ruth, "you slow up a little bit as you get older."
Craig Lambert is a Boston-based writer who is doing a screenplay about elite-level rowing.