Women Outside, Fall 1998
Michael Jordan's trophy room rivals Helen Klein's ... maybe. Since she started running competitively 20 years ago at age 55, Klein has become a pinup girl of sorts for the going-like-60 set. At 5-foot-5 and 109 pounds, she has completed more than 50 marathons, more than 100 ultramarathons (including five hundred-milers in a single 16-week span), the Eco-Challenge race in Utah (nine days, 370 miles), Morocco's Marathon des Sables (seven days, 142 miles in the Sahara), the venerable Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Hawaii, and several 24-hour runs, notching upward of 75 American and world age-group records along the way. Some years ago, when Klein was in her sixties, doctors at Washington University in St. Louis declared her to have the bones, heart, and lungs of a 30-year-old and the muscles of a woman in her twenties.
When we sought to ask Klein about the secrets of her accomplishments, one and only one interviewer seemed right for the job: the Godfather of Sweat himself, Jack LaLanne, founder of the nation's first health club (in 1936), vitamin magnate, TV workout guru for more than three decades, fitness-stunt animal, and — at 84 — no slouch with the ladies.
LaLanne: Do you have time to talk right now?
Klein: Oh, yes.
LaLanne: Because I hear you're a really busy little beaverette.
Klein: It's 9:30, so I've already been to the club for my weight training. That's what I do on Friday.
LaLanne: OK, first question: Why did you start running?
Klein: A friend challenged my husband to do a 10-mile race. He accepted, and I went along with him. There were only three other girls in the race, and I was the only one over 40. And there were 46 men.
LaLanne: I'll be doggoned!
Klein: So I went home with a trophy in my first race. That was very exciting.
LaLanne: You got the bug?
Klein: Well, I decided I'd continue to run for my health, not to compete. I quit working at age 53, and I wanted to stay healthy and slim. I've always been in good condition, but not aerobically. I found that out when I tried to run.
LaLanne: Do you supplement your diet with extra vitamins and minerals?
Klein: Well, I never did ...
Klein: ... because all these years the doctors always said to me, Helen, don't change a thing, you're doin' great.
LaLanne: I tell everybody, if you don't exercise on a regular basis, it's like going to bed with a rattlesnake — it has to get you.
Klein: That's right.
LaLanne: And you weight-train?
Klein: Three times a week. I've been doing that since 1988.
LaLanne: That's really had to help your running.
Klein: It does. It helps me go up the hills. I used to have to stop and rest on the difficult climbs — sometimes I would even lie down with my feet above my head. Then I was running in a race in Virginia with a physician, and he told me that if I weight-trained I wouldn't have that problem. So I started.
LaLanne: Do you have any arthritis or aches or pains?
Klein: No pains, no aches, no arthritis.
LaLanne: Someone asked me if I have any pains. I said the only one is my wife. Don't lose your sense of humor!
Klein: That's not nice.
LaLanne: How much sleep do you get at night?
Klein: I require eight hours to really feel like getting out of bed when I wake up.
LaLanne: Do you take any naps during the day?
Klein: No. But you know, I've found that in the long-distance, multi-day events, I can just lie down and sleep for ten minutes and feel like I've slept for hours.
LaLanne: You know why that is? Because you have a clear conscience.
Klein: Oh, OK. Very good.
LaLanne: Do you use alcohol of any kind?
Klein: On occasion I'll drink a beer, after a race when I'm tired of Gatorade. But I'm not a drinker.
LaLanne: In other words, it isn't what you do once in a while, it's what you do all the time. And you drink a little coffee or tea?
Klein: Yes, I do. Primarily to stay awake during these 100-mile races.
LaLanne: And you're married, of course. Your husband, does he run with you?
Klein: He used to, but he was injured so many times that he now directs the races instead of running them.
LaLanne: You know, those old boys, they just can't keep up with you girls.
Klein: Well, he's not so old. He's only 60.
LaLanne: Yeah, but he can't keep up. Women are tougher than men. You know that? Mentally, they really are.
Klein: I think so, too.
LaLanne: All the bad stuff men have given you ladies all these years, it's built you up and made you real tough.
Klein: Oh, you're kind — you're my kind of guy.
LaLanne: Doggone right! But I'm taken.
Klein: I know.
LaLanne: And I'm expensive.
LaLanne: Though I'm telling you, you are a remarkable, terrific young lady. I wish one of these days I could meet you in person.
Klein: That would certainly be a thrill for me — I've read so much about you. How about that time you pulled a boat with your teeth!
LaLanne: I've done so many feats. On my 70th birthday, I towed 70 boats with 70 people in them. I towed a mile and a half, with my hands and feet tied.
Klein: Oh my gosh.
LaLanne: Yeah. And another birthday I did a thousand chin-ups and a thousand push-ups in an hour and 20 minutes. Then another birthday I did a hundred handstand press-ups.
LaLanne: Then another birthday I did ... let's see ... I towed a 2,000-pound boat under the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco to Sausalito.
Klein: That's just fascinating.
LaLanne: Tell me, Helen, are you a religious person?
Klein: Actually, no. I'm a spiritual person, but my spirit comes from within myself and from the mountains.
LaLanne: In other words, you kind of go by my philosophy: God helps those that help themselves.
Klein: Yes, that's right.
LaLanne: You know, I work out at five in the morning, two hours, seven days a week. And I've never heard someone pounding on my door saying, "LaLanne, this is Jesus, I'll work out for you today." You have to take responsibility for your actions. Hey, how many books have you written on your life?
Klein: I haven't written any books.
Klein: Well, because I'm not a writer.
LaLanne: Just get somebody that will put it together for you and dictate it. I don't think you realize what a terrific influence you could have on millions of people all over the world. People today need motivation. So many are sitting on their big, fat butts, thinking about the good old days, and they're missing out on life. Hell, the good old days are right this second, and you ought to put that in a book.
Klein: I get a lot of publicity wherever I go because I'm always the oldest person in the race. So I constantly get calls asking me to do motivational speaking. And I never refuse. If running were a spectator sport, then there would be money involved. I can get all kinds of products, but I can't get money.
LaLanne: I bet Viagra would pay you a lot of money. I bet you that's gonna be off the market in a year. When you fool around with the hormonal balance in the body, you're gonna be in trouble. Now, how long do you plan to keep up your regular training routine?
Klein: Well, I plan on doing it until I drop.
LaLanne: Then you have no thoughts of slowing down?
Klein: No, no. I have thoughts of improving.
LaLanne: You know, Helen, you're one of the luckiest people on this earth, and do you know why? Because you made your life. You worked at living. You didn't work at dying.
Klein: Well, that's right, and that's what I want to continue to do. I would like to live to be 125.
LaLanne: Why not? I tell everybody in my lectures I'm gonna live to be 150. Stick around and find out.
Photograph by Curtis Myers