If you can run the New York City Marathon in two hours and 47 minutes, you’ll easily be among the top one percent of finishers. That would be impressive no matter who you are, but for United Airlines pilot David Walters, who finished in 2:47:27 last Sunday, the accomplishment is especially noteworthy. Walters is 60 years old. That’s right. As he enters his seventh decade on this planet, Walters averaged a 6:23 mile on a hilly 26.2-mile course. Less than one month before that, he ran the Chicago Marathon in 2:45:26 and captained an overnight flight to Brussels the very next day, while Chicago winner Dickson Chumba slumbered in the first-class cabin.
Needless to say, Walters is not your typical runner. A collegiate all-American, he qualified for the Olympic trials in the marathon in 1988, and holds a PB of 2:19:56. But he was never a professional and always balanced his training schedule with a demanding day job that took him all over the world. Outside caught up with Walters to learn more about his training, and how he has to stay motivated.
OUTSIDE: You just ran two major marathons less than a month apart, New York and Chicago. Is that normal for you?
WALTERS: I’ve been doing it every year, so it’s normal for me, yeah. Is it towards the edge? Yeah. But if you time it right and don’t overtrain for the first one, then the second one is not that big of a problem. I use Chicago as my last long run for New York. I’ll run a spring marathon every year, as well. Normally, I run the Boston Marathon. This past year, I ran the Paris Marathon just to change it up.
Have you considered making Chicago your focus race, since it’s a faster course?
I’ve considered that but, here’s the deal–although I enjoy running both of them, I particularly enjoy running New York, so I make that sacrifice.
What is it about New York?
It’s the fact that you’re running through one of the most spectacular urban landscapes on Earth. I was counting as I was running up 4th Avenue in Brooklyn: that’s a seven-lane street that’s entirely empty except for runners. When you’re out there on that car-free street, it’s like nothing else. It’s a special experience. And crossing the bridges, too. When you’re out in the middle of those bridges, you look out at the scenery and it really takes your breath away. Not only the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, but the Queensboro Bridge as well.
Do you still race other distances besides marathons?
I prefer to do half marathons and marathons. I like the longer distances because you don’t have to start as fast and you can work your way into it and then finish hard and give a really solid effort. I found that I can’t do that in 5Ks and 10Ks. I can’t get my heart rate and my legs going as fast as I want to, to be competitive right off the bat. It’s just not comfortable and it doesn’t feel right. So I decided my best distances are half and full marathons.
You say that, but I was particularly impressed when I read that your age 50+ PR for the 5K was 16:12. That’s a 5:12 mile over three miles. Do you still do much speed work in your workouts?
The only time that I get on the track now is to do a Yasso workout [i.e. half-mile repeats] and those 800s are designed to go, actually, fairly slow. And you work your way up to ten of them. I’ll do hill repetitions quite frequently. Whether it’s in Brussels, or Hong Kong, or here in the Chicago area. I’ll search out the best hill and do hill repeats up and down. Also, one of the workouts that I find is key right now is to do one mile or two mile repeats in the middle of a 12 or 14-mile run. During the season, I’ll usually alternate a long steady run on a weekend, let’s say 16, 18, or 20 miles, with a shorter run on alternate weekends, 12 to 14 miles, with these intervals embedded into the shorter run. And, trust me, it’s these runs at 12 to 14 that will just drive you to your knees. But I gain the most from those.
You said “during the season.” How many days of the year do you run?
I don’t take that many days off, my friend. [Laughs] Let’s call it ten days off after each marathon. And that’s about it. I’ll take one day off, maybe, about every three weeks.
What’s one piece of advice you’d offer to younger competitive runners looking to stay sharp into their 60s?
There are a number of things I’d say. Number one is about being consistent with your training. You have to be out there every day. Normally, when I’ve got the time, I work out in the morning and I work out in the evening, and that’s really helped me sustain what I had back in the 70s and 80s, all the way into 2015. Number two is the flexibility issue. You cannot ignore the fact that father time is overtaking you and, as a runner, you’re not nearly as flexible when you’re sixty as you were when you’re sixteen. I have to constantly work on it. I probably spend half an hour to forty-five minutes a day on flexibility. If I’m working, every hour I’ll get up for five minutes, in the cockpit, and stretch–make sure that the blood is flowing. The third piece of the puzzle is weight. I’m still at my high school weight. I refuse to gain any weight, primarily because I know that it’s going to put more stress on my joints–stress on everything–and the more stress on your joints, the more problems you’re going to have. That’s why I kept the weight off and it’s been working for me.
Clearly it has. Age-group wise, you’re one of the fastest runners on the planet. But you know you’ll never run as fast as you did in your 30s. How do you stay motivated to put in all the hard miles and training?
Well, it’s a whole different ballgame now. Really, it has been for the last twenty years. Since I turned forty and PRs are just out the window. My motivation is that I still enjoy the whole fitness routine. I enjoy the game. I enjoy getting out every morning before dawn and watching the sun come up as I’m running. I enjoy running with all these younger people, all these groups of people, young people, that I get to be associated with. I would hate to give that up. I’m not going to give that up unless I have to. It’s so much fun for me to get out there on the weekends with all these 30-year-old guys and gals, and we mix it up, push each other on whatever trail we’re on. That’s where I find my motivation. Also, the whole age group competition thing has kind of supplanted the PR thing. So I look forward to placing in the top three in whatever marathon I’m aiming towards. I haven’t run a marathon since the year 2000 where I haven’t placed in the top three in my age group. [He won his age group in New York.]
Given the nature of your job, I assume you do a lot of your training in foreign places. Do you plan those runs, or do you usually just wing it? Do you wear a GPS watch?
I finally got a Garmin this year, because I felt that I was slowing down enough that I wasn’t gauging my mileage accurately. [laughs] You know, when you get over to Hong Kong, or you’re in Brussels or Frankfurt, and you go out for a run, you might think you’re running seven-minute miles, but actually you’re doing 8:30s because the whole time change thing has kicked you right in the keester. It takes the body 24 to 48 hours to adjust. I get off the airplane and I try to get out for a run within a couple hours, and you can’t judge how fast you’re going based on effort. I do plan ahead, when I get the chance, and I know exactly where I’m going to run, and that keeps me focused on the sleep cycle, so that whenever I get to where I’m going I’m on a schedule and know exactly what has to get done.
Any favorite runs abroad?
There are several places that I just love. Believe it or not, I do love running in Honolulu. I love running around Diamond Head in the morning when the sun is coming up. It’s a four-mile loop and it’s one of the most spectacular runs. Another great one is running along the Thames in London, or running down the Champs-Élysées, in Paris, in the morning. Also Amsterdam. Vondelpark and Rembrandtpark, I mean you can’t run enough there. One of my favorite runs right now is actually in Tokyo, around the palace grounds. There are lots of great places to run and, again, that provides motivation. You don’t ever want to give up that part of your life because then you would be missing so many great things, you know? The sunrise coming up over the ocean as you’re running in Waikiki.
Do you have any specific running goals that you still want to achieve?
Yes. I want to set the American record for 60-year-olds in the half–I’d like to do that in March at the United Airlines NYC Half. And I’d like to set the American record for 60-year-olds in the marathon–I’d like to do that at Boston in April.