For some, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race is but a note on the calendar. One of myriad summer distractions – granted one that requires a bit more exertion than reading a good mystery on the beach.
For a few, the 6.2-mile race through the aorta of Atlanta has all but attached itself to them. Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t shake it off, wash it off or have it surgically removed. It is tattooed to their life.
Frances Gilbert turned 80 last fall. So many of the fellow members of her Cincinnati running club who began traveling with her to the race more than 25 years ago have dropped out since. Age has that winnowing effect.
It didn’t matter. Gilbert kept coming. One year she rode the Megabus. Another, she drove down on her own. This year, she’ll be accompanied by a friend from Louisville. As always, she’ll come in a few days early to explore the downtown scene and the health and fitness expo as well as reunite with old friends and make a few new ones. As if it were her first time here.
“I always ask her, ‘Why do you keep coming,’” said her long-time friend here in Atlanta, Charlotte Simmons. “And she just says, ‘Charlotte, it’s part of who I am.’”
The two of them met through a group co-founded by Simmons, the National Black Marathoners Association. Gilbert had helped start up a club back in Ohio in the early 1980s, the Avondale Running Club and had been a long-time organizer and volunteer with the Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati. Yes, this is a little more than a casual runner here.
Even at 80, Gilbert is expanding her running resume. Earlier this year, she did a half-marathon in Key West, the first time she ventured to the southernmost city. At an age where it is thought an unwise investment to buy green bananas, she already has plans for half marathons later this year in Baltimore and next year in Little Rock. Very ambitious for a great-grandmother, nine times over.
A real bedrock of her schedule remains the Peachtree.
“I do a lot of races, do a lot of organizing of races, been a part of a lot of them, but this one (the Peachtree) is so well organized,” Gilbert said. “Amazing how it all works out with so many people. I like the course. And I’m just a people person.
“Everyone complains about Cardiac Hill – I do not.”
Nor does she even mind the long, hot wait at the start. Because there’s always someone to get to know before slogging all the way up to the starting line.
Her professional life was spent in hospital administration, during which Gilbert said she picked up a lot of second-hand knowledge about healthy living. One of 13 siblings, she also became more concerned about her own health as she began losing family members at a far-too-young age. A history of high blood pressure and diabetes and kidney disorders was showing itself through her line.
As a result, Gilbert became much more exercise-centric, even teaching aerobics for a time. Running/walking was, and remains, the key component to making it to 80 and feeling pretty darn good about it.
“One of the things that drives me is to try to control the blood pressure and the diabetes. I guess there’s a choice: Try to outlive it or try to outrun it,” she laughed.
Gilbert’s pace is not what it used to be, of course. This Fourth of July, she won’t exactly be starting up front with the elite competitors as she sets out at more an upbeat walk than a run.
But don’t believe this is all a lark.
“She’s strict about speed-walking,” Simmons said. “At a half marathon I wanted to walk with her and talk with her, and she said no, no, no, this is a race. She doesn’t play.
“This is her passion. When you’re not an elite runner, people don’t recognize it as a passion. This is her passion. This is what she does.
“This woman is a bad mama jama.”
Gilbert has her own theories as to where the speed has gone. “The pace is down to 16-minute mile,” she said. “I don’t think I’m slow because I’m 80. I think I’m slow because I have one knee that’s not all there. Does that sound crazy?”
It’s unlikely that Gilbert is going to distinguish herself on the Fourth with her finishing time. But that’s hardly what this day and this race are about. And for that reason, this one regular visitor from Cincinnati may reflect the spirit of this very Atlanta event as well as any of the field of 60,000.
Hard to quibble on that point with someone who holds a belief that in some ways, running equals life. “I will do this for as long as I can stand up and go,” Gilbert said of her running habit. “It makes me a better person. It makes my days better, my life better.”
After one past Peachtree, Gilbert was inspired to write about what it meant to finish. She wrote this:
“It has been a long and tough road, but also a joyous one. Thanks to all of the ones who have encouraged me on this journey. I have been running all my life, from something and toward something. Finally, I have found other crazy people to run with, and it has made this journey an exciting adventure.
“And I ain’t done yet.”
That was 18 years ago.
And still not done.
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