BERT Elder keeps telling folks he’s going to stop running half marathons.
But he never does.
“Over the years, I’ve told people I’ve retired from half marathons probably about 10 times,” he said. “It’s hard to hang it up I guess. It gets into your blood.”
Elder has completed 60 marathons in 23 states as the miles keep piling up for this 56-year-old pharmacist and Jackson County resident. His personal-record for a half marathon is an hour and 31 minutes (about a seven minute per mile pace), which he achieved in the late 1980s. But he enjoys a different pace these days.
“I run much slower than that now,” Elder said.
He’s even completed one marathon, the 1993 New York Marathon (“that was one that was on my bucket list,” he said), but it’s the half marathon distance he keeps returning to. Elder completed his most recent 13.1-miler back in April.
“The half is a very difficult race to do; it takes a lot of training,” Elder said. “But there’s also that great sense of accomplishment in finishing.”
Elder’s tally of 60 half marathons is amazing enough. More amazing is the fact that he’s run 40 of those 60 since 2009. His half marathon exploits have taken him to places like Miami, San Diego, Seattle, both Portlands (Oregon and Maine) and north of the border to Montreal.
And he keeps coming back for more.
Elder, who has been running for well over 40 years, described himself as a better than average but not great runner at Jefferson High School in the mid-1970s under hall of fame coach Jack Keen. While he never quite attained high school glory, his passion for distance running continued into adulthood.
Three years after graduating from Jefferson, he ran his first Peachtree Road race in 1979 and vowed to make it an annual event on his calendar. Since moving back to Georgia from Kentucky in 1986, he’s completed 29 consecutive Peachtree races (achieving a personal best somewhere in the 41-minute range).
A flier, however, for the Atlanta Half Marathon in a Peachtree Road Race packet early on piqued his interest in 13.1-mile races. He conquered his first half marathon on Thanksgiving of 1987 and, for several years, continued to enter in about one half marathon a year.
Ironically enough, his mileage has increased drastically upon reaching his 50s.
For the past five years, Elder has completed a staggering average of eight half marathons a year.
That’s due in large part to his involvement in the Rock’ n Roll Marathon Series — a tour of marathons and half marathons throughout the U.S. and even abroad sometimes — which offers a mini vacation of sorts for its runners. The series takes place in popular travel destinations with bands playing along the 13.1-mile course. Elder said he loves the atmosphere at these races.
“I’ve pretty much stuck with that series other than a few exceptions,” Elder said. “I really started traveling for a lot of these half marathons, which is pretty cool in itself.”
And this is fun for Elder, who basically runs for enjoyment now instead of racing for a time.
Still, covering 13.1 miles is physically demanding. Then there’s the ongoing mental battle during such a long run.
“I think I’ve heard the saying is that 90 percent of running is mental,” Elder said. “And then the other 10 percent is mental. It’s definitely a psychological battle to keep going when you start hurting.”
Elder has dealt with a significant running injury just once in his running career when he suffered through plantar fasciitis (jogger’s heel) around the mid or late 1990s, which he called “miserable.” His doctor recommended he lay off it, but the Peachtree Road Race was on the horizon.
“I am not going to miss the Peachtree,” he remembers saying, and he hobbled through it. Such is his commitment to running.
Elder trains three to four times a week, devoting one day a week to long runs that eventually reach 11-12 miles.
He’s actually kept a log of his mileage dating back to 1986 with his odometer reading at 17,400 miles and counting.
“Right now, my goal is to reach 20,000 miles,” Elder said.
To put that in perspective, the equatorial circumference of the Earth is 24,901 miles.
Elder’s passion for running extends beyond his own mileage pursuits. His son Daniel was a standout runner at both Jackson County and Clarke Central high schools in the early 2000s before going on to run track and cross country at the University of Georgia.
“I lived my glory running through him vicariously,” Elder said.
Elder’s other hobbies include traveling, hiking and photography, but he’s a runner first and foremost. His drive to run long distances is rooted in more than just maintaining physical health or training for the next race.
“To me, it’s a good time just to clear your mind, to think,” he said. “It always makes you feel so much better when you’ve completed a run.”
Again, Elder said he’s considered hanging up his half marathon shoes ... but he also saw where there’s an upcoming race at Grand Teton National Park in the spring.
“I don’t know,” Elder said. “I might just keep going.”
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