Though she didn’t start running until she was in her 40s — a career that led up to her finishing her third New York City Marathon at the age of 80 on November 2 — Geri Owens was always blessed with the need for speed. Back in fourth or fifth grade, she reminisces, “In the relay races in gym, they would always put me first. I always thought that was because I was so short.” But the truth was that young Geri was setting a pace that inspired the rest of her team to win.
She had a similar experience playing baseball in grade school. “The pitchers always walked me,” she recalls, because they had trouble targeting the ball within the narrow strike zone on her five-foot-two frame. But her coaches loved that, because once on base, “I stole every base all the way to home!”
The trouble was, in those days nobody praised her for her athletic prowess, so she had no idea at the time how good she was. “Nobody ever said, ‘Geri, you’re quick, Geri, you’re fast,’” she laments. This was in the 1940s, long before Title IX, when “Nobody recognized girls as runners. There were no interscholastic sports for girls in those days…I just felt like I wanted to go fast.”
So Owens pursued one of the few athletic routes then open to girls at DePew High School, where her elder brother Ralph was a star football player: She became a cheerleader. One year DePew was facing Amherst High, whose team had been undefeated that season. Ralph got hold of the ball, found an opening and ran for a touchdown that won DePew the game. In her excitement, “I was on the sideline running with him,” Owens recalls, and actually made it to the goal line before her brother. “Later the coach said to him, ‘Nice going, Ralph, but your sister beat you to the touchdown!’” she recounts with a twinkle in her eye. Luckily Ralph was proud and supportive of his sister and didn’t take that taunt as a humiliation: “He loved it.”
The “star player” for DePew’s traditional rival team, Lancaster High School, a local legend named Joe Owens, became fast friends with Ralph and started dating his little sister when the boys were in college. Geri ended up marrying him, raising four children together; they now have six grandchildren. She still credits Joe with stoking the fires of her interest in athletics over the ensuing decades, calling him “a big influence. He is a motivator. We still hear from students who were in his classes 30 years ago” at SUNY New Paltz.
Focused on raising her family, Geri didn’t pursue her own higher education until she was in her 40s, but, she says, “I schooled myself to be knowledgeable” about subjects like physiology. “I put all my money and time into training, workshops, conferences…Bad back prevention became my specialty.” She has worked as a fitness consultant and trainer for nearly four decades, teaching fitness classes for the Center for Continuing Education at SUNY New Paltz for many years and recently retiring from a long gig at Mohonk Mountain House. “I love what I do, but it’s time. They said, ‘I don’t want to hear it.’ So I told them I’d come back to do personal training, to fill in,” she says. “My greatest satisfaction is working one-on-one. Everyone has different needs…. Part of being a good trainer is knowing your client.”
She is still taking private clients, working from home. It was a fitness class in her living room, back in the 1970s, that sparked Owens’ return to her childhood love of running. She had been taking dance classes with Brenda Bufalino for “at least ten years,” and began working with a small group of local women, doing stretching and abdominal exercises. Feeling that aerobics was the essential missing piece, she began jogging around her Cherry Hill neighborhood and then running at the middle school track. One fine day she rousted her students out the door to join her: “I said, ‘We’re going to go out for a run.’ They said, ‘A what? Are you kidding?’”
As usual, Owens was one step ahead of the pack. Running for exercise was soon all the rage, even for women. When she competed in her very first race, a 5K from SUNY New Paltz to Huguenot Street sponsored by the Lions Club, “They didn’t even have an age division for women over 40.” So she ran with the 20-to29-year-olds and came in fourth. “Two weeks later I ran a 10K in Newburgh and came in third,” she recalls. “I could count on one hand the races where I didn’t place, in 40 years.”
Soon thereafter Owens took up indoor track, attaining national ranking in the Road Race and Track categories for serious runners. She won four medals at the Empire State Games in 1987. And in the 1990s, she won the George Sheehan Mile, a competition in New York City for runners over age 60, with an astonishing 6:37 time, winning again the following year.
Owens ran the New York City Marathon in 1980 and 1982, the Tampa Bay Marathon in 1987 and the Boston Marathon in 1988 at age 54. After a quarter-century hiatus from long-distance runs, she found herself missing the fun of it all. “It wasn’t that I was defying my age; it was that I wanted to experience the New York Marathon, because that is a journey,” she says. “There is nothing like Marathon Sunday in New York.”
Each year some 56,000 wannabes apply to run in the New York City Marathon, and in 2013 Owens won the coveted status of “guaranteed entry.” But that August, she fell and sustained hairline fractures to her pelvis and had to drop out. Unlike most people in their late 70s who break a hip in a fall, “I recovered very fast,” she reports, and was soon doing a half-marathon in Rhinebeck. Her guaranteed status carried over to this year, so she started intensive training for the full marathon in July: “I’d run to Gardiner and back, or Rosendale.” She also did weightlifting. “You’ve got to keep your upper-body strength, do abs,” she says.
This time out, Owens decided, her goal was not so much to achieve a particular time, but to relish the experience. Interviewed by WABC-TV’s Amy Freeze for a mini-documentary, “I told her that I want to look in every kid’s face and high-five them, because that’s what they live for.” One little boy along the route gave Owens a piece of candy corn, which she plans to keep in her “memory book.” The more relaxed pace also allowed her breath enough to converse with friends who dropped in and out of the race to “ask me how I was, how I felt.”
This year’s marathon was a particularly challenging 26.2 miles, as it turned out: “The wind was fierce,” she says, gusting to 35 to 40 miles per hour — even more on the five bridges that are part of the route. “You can train for endurance, you can train for strength, you can train for speed, but you can’t train for wind.” Even the men runners were complaining, she jokes.
Out of 34 people over age 80 in the race, “Only two women finished, and the first is a world-class marathoner.” The second, of course, was Owens. Her finish time was seven hours and 43 minutes. “It should’ve been 7:10, but my calves cramped up” at about Mile 13, so she lost some time massaging them with a muscle cream and stretching. “It put me back a half-hour,” she says. “It was dark when I finished.”
Though she feels a bit nonplussed about all the fuss being made over her for being such an outstanding athlete at age 80, Owens says that she was “just so happy to finish,” with friends cheering her on from the grandstands along the way. Will she give it another go next year? “It’s too early to decide,” she avers. “But I’m not ready to quit.”