Lynn Rathjen of Grand Island now holds the American age-group record in the mile.
Lynn Rathjen, a high school cross-country coach and retired physical therapist in Grand Island, Nebraska, has been running consistently for the past 40 years. But he didn’t give a whole lot of thought to setting age-group records until his son, Andrew, looked them up.
As Rathjen was approaching a new age category—he turned 75 in January—a few marks suddenly looked attainable. He signed up for the USATF indoor and outdoor masters championships, with the goal of gunning down some fast times.
Then COVID-19 intervened, canceling the races Rathjen had targeted. But on August 9, at the socially distanced Lincoln Mile in Nebraska, he got his shot—and set an American 75–79 record for the road mile, running 5:59.18.
Rathjen took more than 17 seconds off the previous record, 6:17, set by multi-time masters champion Doug Goodhue in 2017. Rathjen ran mostly evenly, he said, hitting 3:00 for the half-mile split, slowing slightly on his third quarter, and finishing strong.
“I had a good sprint at the end,” he said, “and I could see the overhead big clock, which was a motivator in getting under 6:00.”
Rathjen’s return to running
Rathjen was a strong high school runner, but he gave up the sport until he was about 35. Since then, he’s been running consistently, but never with high mileage—he rarely exceeds 20 miles per week in an effort to preserve his good health. In his practice as a physical therapist, he saw many runners who progressed too quickly from beginners to the marathon over the course of a year or two, before sidelining themselves with debilitating injuries.
But that’s not Rathjen, who typically goes out for four miles at an easy pace and skips the long run completely. His most severe injury to date was a strained calf he suffered last year building up to eight miles, which put him out from running for three months. Aside from the calf strain, however, he’s thus far been able to avoid major injury. A couple of years ago, he started incorporating a little core and strength work into his routine and now can knock out 25 pushups at a time—when he started, he could do only three.
Six weeks before a race (he enjoys middle-distance track events and 5Ks), he starts incorporating 20 minutes of tempo running each week—about three miles at 7:05 pace—as well as one interval workout of 200s and 400s on the track, assuming that he can get on a track, which isn’t a guarantee during the pandemic.
Making a name for himself
At the 2019 USATF masters outdoor championships, when he was 74, Rathjen ran 5:25.26 in the 1500—only Gary Patton, who is a year younger than him, beat him in the heat of 70-something-years-old men. (Patton, who holds numerous age-group records, ran 5:22 last year.) That performance helped Rathjen realize that some marks would be within his reach as the calendar turned. But the coronavirus has limited his racing opportunities, and next year Patton turns 75, which means he moves up to Rathjen’s age group, and will almost certainly be the runner to beat.
Runners in their 70s who stick to the track and shorter distances on the roads continue to rewrite the American age-group records books. It’s not just the celebrity marathoners, like Gene Dykes and Jeannie Rice, who are lowering times; athletes like Patton, Goodhue, and Paul Perry, who earlier this year ran fast times indoor times for the 3,000 meters and mile at the Armory in New York, are finding success as well.
Rathjen, who you can add to that list now, just enjoys having the opportunity to compete, even if his days in the record books are fleeting.
“When you see people in this age group, when you get into the 60s and 70s, there’s more camaraderie than there is competition,” he said. “People, they realize, you don’t know how long you’re going to live. You kind of just enjoy everybody in the competition, that’s the way I look at it.”
Learn more about the running events on offer at our upcoming 2021 World Masters Games in Kansai.