The Story of Truman Smith: What It Takes to Be a 70-Year-Old Marathoner

Truman finished his quest to run a marathon in all seven continents in 2013 during this Antarctica race!
Truman finished his quest to run a marathon in all seven continents in 2013 during this Antarctica race! Truman Smith
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With his grandfatherly white mustache, wire rim glasses, and 200 pounds on his stocky frame, Truman Smith looks like an average 70-year-old. But this Chattanooga, Tennessee resident happens to be an accomplished marathon runner, with 143 of them (and counting) under his belt.

Smith has also run 26.2 miles in every state in the U.S. and on all seven continents, even Antarctica. (He just completed his most recent marathon last month.) He’s done the famous and revered Boston Marathon four times. He’s finished a 100-mile race too, and a half-Ironman triathlon.

And he’s achieved all this after taking up running at the age of 38. That was when, in Smith's words, "I ballooned up to 240 pounds. Seeing that my next size for trousers was going to be waist size 40, I started a running program." After tackling shorter races, he did his first full marathon in 1987, adding on seven more over the next five years.

In 1992, Smith took a decade-long break from training to spend more time with his wife and children. He returned to running marathons again in 2003, after he "woke up one morning to find that my kids were all moved away!" After a few weeks of “just me, my wife and my job,” Smith says, “my wife told me to find a hobby.”

It was that same year when Smith began chasing his goal of running a marathon in all 50 states—a benchmark he eventually reached in 2009. By then, he had connected with another group of runners who were trying to achieve what Smith describes as "the near useless quest" of finishing a marathon on all seven continents. After running on the Great Wall of China, he completed his seventh and final marathon of the series on a frozen figure-eight course in Antarctica in March 2013. “I will credit the quest for providing me a reason to be in some mighty strange and unique places on this earth,” he says.

So how does he do it? What are his keys to staying fit, avoiding injury, and dodging burnout?

Eat smart, and hydrate. Smith had a serious health scare in October 2009 when he suffered blood clots in his heart due to dehydration after a marathon in Indiana. As a result, he started paying more attention to his fluid intake during races, and also changed his diet. "I used to say, ‘I can eat anything I want. I’m a runner,’" he reflects. Now his go-tos are grilled chicken and lots of veggies. But he admits to a burger every once in awhile, “because,” he says with a smile, “they’re just good.”

Cross-training. Smith goes on regular road bike rides with a local group, climbing up to the Cumberland Plateau. He completed a century ride (100 miles) in August of 2016, and he also hits the pool for regular swim workouts.

Smith running on the Great Wall of China.
    Truman Smith
Smith running on the Great Wall of China. Truman Smith

Accept where you are in terms of your ability. Sadly, Smith says, he knows older runners who won’t come to races because they can’t deal with not being as fast as they once were. "People would love to see them out there, and to talk to them," he says wistfully. For him, it’s now all about the experience, finishing, and having fun—not having a time to beat.

Listen to your body. In September 2016, Smith took a fall on his road bike, causing a stress fracture in his femur. He suffered for two months before seeing a doctor. "I shouldn’t have been so stubborn," Smith says, because he had to take months off to heal once he did finally seek help. If he’d gone straight to his doctor after the fall, “I could have been back running that much sooner!”

...except when you shouldn’t."It always hurts to run long distances. Sometimes you just ignore what your body is trying to get you to do," Smith says. Part of the learning process, he explained, is knowing when soreness, tightness, or pain after a run or race is normal, and when it’s something more serious.

Find a tribe. Smith meets up with a 6:30 am running group at the Chattanooga YMCA almost every Saturday, and says the best way for someone to begin running, or to sustain the activity, is to find a person or club to run with and to hold you accountable. He also loves mentoring beginning runners. "Just find a way to get into it, maybe by doing a 5K," he suggests.

With a big goal and careful training, Smith was able to run a marathon in all 50 states and on every continent.
    Truman Smith
With a big goal and careful training, Smith was able to run a marathon in all 50 states and on every continent. Truman Smith

Set goals."Gotta have ‘em," Smith says. After years of shooting for a specific finishing time—even into his 60s, his target finishing time for the marathon was four hours—Smith has shifted his goals as he’s aged. For instance, his sights are now set on completing 150 marathons—and he’s not ready to give up on knocking off 200 before he’s done.

For now, there doesn’t seem to be anything standing in the way of his plans. By following his own winning formula (taking care of himself and setting reasonable goals) it’s a good bet that you’ll see Truman Smith out there running for many more years.

Originally written for BCBS of Tennessee.

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