Q&A: 38-Minute 10k at Age 65 – Part One
We are thrilled to interview Dan Schlesinger, an acclaimed local artist who also finished 3rd at the 1982 New York Marathon (behind Alberto Salazar). Dan also holds the Maccabiah Games half marathon record, illustrated the Japanese edition Harry Potter books and was formerly a lawyer.
In Part One of the interview we speak to Dan about his New York Marathon experience and how he's managed to maintain his running speed with age.
How did you get into running and which distance did you focus on initially?
I started running as a young teen, growing up in North Carolina, where social status hinged on athletic performance and running was the sport I did best; it was years, though, before I blossomed as a runner. The longest distance we could run was 1 mile and since I had natural endurance, that is the distance I ran in local meets. At age 14 I could do no better than a 5-minute mile but it was then that I began to train seriously (albeit self coached), between 80 and 100 miles a week, until within three years I had become among the best high school long distance runners in the South. I trained to race the 2-mile (before Americans raced metric distances) but once, at a Southern championship, I ran 10k.
Did you run at college and what level did you achieve?
Since I was also a good student, the running programs at most of the Ivy League Colleges recruited me. I decided to go to Yale, in spite of the fact that their track and cross country teams were the weakest in the League. For all four years at university, I ran for the varsity cross country, indoor track and outdoor track teams, racing virtually every weekend. As a freshman, I broke the school record in the 6 mile which had been held by Olympic marathon gold medalist, Frank Shorter. Thereafter the pressures of academic life as a Japanese Studies major took their toll and I did not improve on my successes as a first-year student athlete.
How did you come to enter the NY marathon?
Upon graduation from Yale, I stopped competing altogether. With a view to learning to speak Korean, I accepted a job as a foreign liaison representative at a patent and law office in Seoul Korea. It was a rather bizarre position which prompted suspicions that I actually worked for the CIA. Fortunately, the job entailed far less responsibility than a CIA posting and left me with enough spare time to take up running again. Every day for two years, twice a day, I ran up and down a steep hill in the centre of Seoul. I did not race at all until, on a whim, I entered the first Seoul International Marathon, finishing in 2:17.59.
When I left Seoul and moved to the US to matriculate at Harvard Law School, I ran another marathon in Eugene, Oregon, this time finishing in 2:13.59. The time was fast enough by a single second to garner an invitation to run in the NY marathon as a so-called elite runner. The marathon would take place right at the beginning of my first term of law school, but given that all my expenses would be paid, I thought I might as well run one more marathon before hanging up my racing shoes forever to concentrate on a legal career.
Meanwhile, I entered what was then the preeminent road race in the US -- a 7.2 mile race in Falmouth, Massachusetts. To my utter surprise I placed 5th, in a world class field. Nothing I had run over the past five years pointed even remotely toward such a result. But the evidence was there: two years of extremely hard training in Korea with no injuries and no races, without the stresses of academic life. I had finally begun to realise the promise of my high school days.
Tell us what you remember about the race
I entered the race as the 72nd fastest runner in the field and one of the only “elite” runners not sponsored by a major shoe company. The night before the race I was invited to a meal at Tavern on the Green in NYC and had the pleasure of sitting next to Marti Liquori, a commentator for ABC Sports and formerly one of the world’s fastest 5k runners. When, at mile 18 of the marathon, I stood in 3rd place, Liquori was able to report on air what he knew about my unorthodox background - that I had been training on my own for years in Korea, where I had been translating legal documents from Korean into English: “Here in 3rd place,” he exclaimed, “and closing in on Rodolfo Gomez and Alberto Salazar [I wasn’t] is someone I got to know last night at dinner…. And let me tell you...if anyone out there thinks he has ever heard of Dan Schlesinger, he should think again.”
Throughout the NY marathon I found myself running alongside or in front of the best runners in the world, including Olympic marathon champion Carlos Lopes. I ran with the leaders up until mile 17. The pack had just crossed the 59th Street Bridge from Queens into Manhattan, when suddenly the race was awhirl with runners jockeying for position, all of us energised by the massive crowds on the streets and ubiquitous balconies of midtown Manhattan, hailing our entry into the heart of the city. Alberto Salazar was to my right (I know because a photo of us appeared in the NYTimes the following day). He ran comfortably, as I did, at a steady 5:02 pace, when suddenly the world champion made his move and Gomez, as well as a handful of the other leaders, moved with him.
Meanwhile, I continued to churn out 5:00 minute miles, picking off one runner after another, all save Salazar and Gomez, as I ran my race, alone and undistracted, just willing myself to hold steady. Through midtown I ran, then into the Bronx, the last of the boroughs on this fabled route, then through Harlem, where crowds were sparsest, and then finally back into Manhattan toward the finish line in Central Park. I was really running against no one but myself. Two minutes ahead Salazar and Gomez raced each other toward the finish line. I remember thinking over and over that I must not hit the wall, not in front of all these madly cheering spectators who carried me forward on a wave of sound. I crossed the finish line in a time of 2:11.52, two minutes faster than I had ever run, just blocks from the brownstone where my cousins lived on 73rd Street and a stone’s throw from Tavern on the Green, where my journey from obscurity had started. I would never again, could never again, experience the exhilaration of bursting onto a scene out of nowhere, running at the top of the world.
What do you consider your greatest running achievement?
What I thought would be just the beginning of a steadily upward trajectory was in fact the apex of my career. I did go on to run faster: 2:11.36, at the Boston Marathon the following year, when I might have qualified to represent the US at the World Championships but for a critically careless oversight -- my shoelaces came untied and I had to stop to tie them, thereupon losing contact with the lead pack. I subsequently qualified for two US Olympic Trials, but two weeks before each trial I injured myself so seriously I was unable to contest either race; I watched both Trials from my bed. In 1985 I broke the half marathon record at the Maccabiah Games in Israel, a record which still stands. My time of 1:05.56 was run in the intense heat of an Israeli summer, making it one of my best performances on or off the track. I pride myself on the 28:33 10k I ran on the track prior to the Olympic Trials in 1984 and on my 32.53/7m at the Falmouth Road Race in 1982. It was certainly a thrill to place first in a Marathon (in Duluth Minnesota in June 1987) but finishing 3rd in the 1982 NY Marathon was the highlight of my life as a competitive runner.
Which factors do you attribute to your ability to maintain speed with age?
I gave up competitive running when, at the age of thirty, I started practicing law in New York City -- an unforgiving profession in an unforgiving city. I tried to keep training - rising early for my first run of the day and training after work in the dark in Central Park. But running and law simply did not mix.
Although my competitive days were over (or so it seemed), I carried on training, consistently, every day, until I suffered a serious achilles tendon injury 15 years ago, which prevented me from running for two years, during which I took up cycling and swimming -- a blessing in disguise. I think that the two years off contributed to my longevity as a runner, not to mention the cross training I started to do then. I can of course only speculate about other reasons I have been able to run at a fairly high level for my age. I have consistently kept my weight quite low, so my knees have held up despite all that mileage. It so happens that I have a very low foot plant, which further reduces the stress placed on my overused limbs. I understand from fellow runners in the United States (where I have been all pandemic long) that it is unusual for erstwhile world class runners to run successfully as masters runners -- their bodies just give out -- so in this sense I have been very fortunate.
Do you take part in Parkrun and what do you think about it?
Of course my competitive days were not in fact completely over. My great friend Bill Neally introduced me to Parkrun. While I appreciate that Parkrun is primarily about camaraderie and sportsmanship -- and I do indeed value it for that -- at the same time I consider my occasional outings as competitions. Once a competitive runner, always so…
Does running help your art? Does art help your running?
I am passionate about both art and running, and I devote time to each pursuit every day. Making my living as an artist promotes my running because, whereas I paint or draw every day, I can set aside the tools of my trade whenever I like to run. That sort of flexibility is hugely supportive of my longevity as a competitive runner. I must however be careful whenever possible to run before getting lost in my art. I stand when I paint/draw, which is physically draining. I always notice how much more I struggle to run when I’ve been working on my feet for several hours.
Running in turn helps my art. I do find artistic inspiration on my runs, both visually and intellectually.
What is your favourite place to run? And what is your favourite route?
I am a runner of habit. When I find a run I like I tend to stick with it. That way daily runs become effortlessly habitual.
I have been lucky enough to travel the world. Yet I have yet to find a better place to run than Richmond Park. My route takes me from Cambrian Gate up to the Parkrun 5k turning (in reverse) then straight through up past the Royal Ballet School to the hard right past the concession stand right through to the main road, then back home via Richmond Gate. I also love running a circuit around the Park whenever I’m in town, I do that once a week at most.
How does running culture in the UK compare to the US?
Typically I spend the summers in the UK, plus visits in the spring and fall. I like to do at least one Parkrun per season. I have been encouraged to race more often than that, on the theory that one gets faster with practice, but I have yet to return to the habit of racing more frequently. I have been in Princeton, New Jersey continuously since last March, when the pandemic struck. For the last thirty years I have never been away from England for longer than 3 months at any one time, so this year has been something of a culture shock. For so many reasons I have missed England terribly, not least of all because I have been unable to run in Richmond Park.
Here in Princeton I have a lovely run which takes me around a lake along a canal (the Delaware and Raritan). Still, it can’t compare with Richmond Park. The lake run does not attract legions of runners on weekends the way that Richmond Park does and there is no Parkrun in my immediate neighbourhood. I would never describe running along the Delaware and Raritan as being part of the local culture as one could about runs in Richmond Park.
Are you planning any further races once lockdown ends?
I belong to a Club here -- the Garden State Track Club. It is one of the better Clubs in the US with an exceptionally strong contingent of 50 year olds, as fast for their age as I am for mine (65). I ran a virtual 10k for the Club this past July in 38.36, a time almost exactly 10 minutes slower than I ran 36 years ago, in California, three weeks before the Olympic Trials in 1984. I had intended to take advantage of the fact that I would just be turning 65 around the time of the Masters National in the UK and the World Masters Champs in Toronto scheduled for this past summer, but both races were of course cancelled.
The pandemic has inhibited socialising of course, but I have reached out to other members of the Garden State Track Club through my virtual art exhibitions and gotten to know people that way. Likewise I hope to connect to fans and collectors of Iffley Road through my art.
Dan’s most recent collection of paintings, titled “Runners”, is inspired by his love of running and Marathon racing. Discover his full range of paintings here: https://www.danschlesingerart.com/