It's 6:30 on a cold Wednesday morning in Colorado, and the Boulder Striders running group, ages 24 to 70, gathers for guidance from their coach, Colleen De Reuck. Her wispy frame is easy to spot in the dawn light: She's wearing a fluorescent orange jacket, around which she's strapped a water bottle she'll offer her athletes during the workout (in case they've forgotten one).
"It's Laura's birthday today!" she announces as the group stretches and breaks out in a chorus of "Happy Birthday." She proceeds to announce another teammate's recent race success and then offers condolences to a runner named John, who lost his father that week. One runner follows by announcing that she's headed for a race in Peru, where she'll scatter her father's ashes.
The runners then begin their workout: six repetitions of 1 kilometer each (less than a mile) at varied paces, with a short recovery in between. De Reuck, however, is working harder. She buzzes back and forth along the path below Boulder's white peaked skyline, encouraging each runner. "Drop your shoulders, Ann! Head up, Mark!"
Strider John Troeltzsch, 55, has witnessed De Reuck's ability to encourage runners at any level. "One moment she will be offering tips to folks at the back of the pack, and before you know it she has buzzed up to the fastest runners in front to offer encouragement or advice. At times I have thought she must be part hummingbird to move so fast."
De Reuck's drive to help disciples discover the best in themselves sheds light on her enduring appetite for long-distance racing and what she expects of herself. On Feb. 10, she was coaching a similar rigorous training session. Three days later, she was toeing the line at the Olympic Marathon Trials in Los Angeles with 197 other women, most of whom were 20 years her junior.
At 51 years of age, De Reuck was the oldest competitor at the trials (and the second-oldest woman in the history of the Olympic Marathon Trials). De Reuck's qualifying time of 2 hours, 39 minutes and 22 seconds (a pace of 6:05 per mile) at the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon in November 2013 placed her faster than 50 percent of the women who qualified.
While only the top three finishers make the U.S. Olympic Team competing in Rio de Janeiro in August, De Reuck was not displeased with her race. She placed 67th out of the 149 who managed to finish under unusually warm conditions.
De Reuck is no stranger to the Olympic Trials, having competed in the 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004 Olympics. Ten days before her 40th birthday, De Reuck won the 2004 Olympic Marathon Trials — making her the oldest woman to win the race. (She placed 39th in the Athens Olympics later that year.) She ran her best marathon time in 1996, clocking 2:26:35 (5:35/mile pace). She has set 10 American masters road-racing records in the 40-to-44 and 45-to-49 age group categories.
So, what keeps De Reuck competing? It's simple, really. "I enjoy feeling fit and healthy. I like training towards a goal," she says. "I've been doing it for so long that it's part of my life now."
When people began questioning why she was still racing at this late stage in her professional career, she thought, "Why not? I still enjoy racing, and I love the community!" When women she used to solidly beat were miles ahead of her, she asked herself, "Why do I have to stop just because I'm not winning? In other professions, retirement is a culminating event. But with running, you can always do it. That's what's great!"
De Reuck and her husband, Darren, whom she met while competing in college, decided to move to the United States to make a living as professional runners — something they couldn't do in their native South Africa, where she worked as a schoolteacher and he as an accountant. In South Africa, there weren't financially supportive athletic sponsors as in the U.S.
At first, they wandered around the U.S. in search of world-class races that offered good prize money: San Francisco for the Bay to Breakers 12K, Atlanta for the Peachtree 10K and Boulder for the Bolder Boulder 10K. After a welcoming visit by the Boulder Road Runners (another running club in town), the De Reucks decided to make the city their home in 1993 and became U.S. citizens in 2000.
She attributes a lot of her success to sacrifices that Darren, also a coach and competitive athlete, has made. "I wouldn't have been able to continue doing what I've done without his support. We are a team," she says.
Running has been a part of De Reuck's life since she was young. When she was 12, her father started bringing her along on short segments during his long marathon training days. At 14, she gave up ballet in order to go on runs with her brothers and father. When she was 16, her father encouraged her to run a woman's half marathon. Not only did she win, but she beat several top South African girls in a blazing time of 1 hour and 16 minutes.
De Reuck fondly remembers her whole family following her father in a support car (and passing him drinks, snacks and extra socks) during South Africa's world famous Comrades ultramarathon — a race De Reuck will compete in on May 29. At about 56 miles, Comrades (known to be the largest and oldest ultramarathon in the world) will be the longest distance De Reuck has ever run.
In what was only her second Ironman-distance triathlon (a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run), De Reuck won her age group in the 2015 Ironman World Championships in Kailua Kona, Hawaii. "Now I'm at that stage where I'm picking events that are new and exciting for me — doing things on my bucket list." On that list is qualifying again for the Ironman Championships before she's 60.
Not only has she successfully balanced all aspects of training to remain a healthy runner for almost 40 years, she also juggles responsibilities at home as a mother of two daughters (21 and 8 years old) and at work as an athletic trainer at the Colorado Athletic Club and a coach for the Striders.
De Reuck's running success naturally lends itself to coaching. However, it's not her Olympic fame that attracts her athletes to the Striders. Runner Janet deGrazia, 60, underscores her coach's humility: "Everyone feels as if he or she is as important as anyone else in the group. No one is left behind. Colleen doesn't just give the workouts. She joins them, literally."
As runners age, De Reuck advises them to do more cross-training, such as cycling, swimming, yoga and weights. As for how she's adapted her training, De Reuck does only two hard workouts a week (instead of three), gives herself more time to recover after a race and runs fewer miles.
"My times are slower, but I still feel the same because I'm still giving the same effort. Similarly, I tell my runners, 'Don't worry about your pace. Just give a good effort — run on feel.' "
Maybe you're 60 years old and considering training for your first marathon? Without reservation, De Reuck says, "Go for it!"
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