Many have tried and all have succumbed to Mary Smith’s mighty tailwind.
Even from a distance, Smith cuts an impressive image as she stands on the Rampart High School track. With her snow-white pixie haircut, black shirt, black Spandex shorts, white-rimmed sunglasses and teal blue and gray spiked Saucony Ballista MD running shoes, you might think twice about tangling with her in a foot race.
The 81-year-old Colorado Springs mother of three and grandmother of five smokes competitors one at a time, steadily, stealthily. Out of 25 sprinters around the globe, Smith, a retired schoolteacher, is ranked No. 1 in the 400-meter dash for her age group by World Masters Rankings. Her time? 1:32.65 — about a minute and a half.
The 400 is her sweet spot — once around the track, the last 100 of which “is a killer,” she said. Her fastest time — 84:34 — came at age 74.
“I look so forward to it,” Smith said. “I could be in a grouchy mood and I come up here and start to run and it makes me so happy.”
In July she took home an easy first place with a blazing 39.40 time in the 200-meter dash at the USA Track and Field Masters Outdoor Championships in Lexington, Ky., almost five seconds ahead of her nearest competitor.
As she sprints around the track in a video of the race, it’s clear the other lady runners in her age category never had a chance.
“There never is,” Smith said. “They probably hate to see me lined up at the start.”
She’s a regular at the Rampart track, where she listens to country- western music on her iPod shuffle during thrice-weekly 45- to 60-minute workouts designed by her coach: five 20-meter fly-in sprints, pogo jumps and other leg work, and in and outs, which resemble intervals. Twice a week she hits the Life Time gym, where she lifts weights — Bulgarian split squats, lat pulldowns, 145-pound deadlifts, which are down 20 pounds due to a back injury.
“She’s what most people can achieve,” said Dr. Larry Cohen, an emergency room doctor at UCHealth Memorial Hospital. Smith regularly attends Cohen’s Walk With a Doc program on Sunday mornings in Cottonwood Creek Park. “Just because you’re getting older doesn’t mean you can’t be active and vibrant. Not everybody can run as fast as her because not everybody is genetically inclined, but I see people older than her who start changing their lifestyle and their chronic diseases get better and even their medicines drop off.”
Smith is a late bloomer when it comes to running. She didn’t start until she was 65, when Cohen’s wife encouraged her to try it and accompany them to races. Smith’s zest and aptitude for the new hobby surprised even her.
“I used to try to run, but hated it,” she said. “I never got interested in it. I can’t believe how much I love it now. I love these workouts I get.”
When an early running buddy noticed how fast Smith was and told her she should run track competitively, Smith simply laughed off the idea. The suggestion stuck, though, and she eventually began training with her friend’s husband, a USATF-certified coach. Under his tutelage, and before he died in 2013, Smith broke a Mid-America Running Association record in Fort Collins, which encompassed eight states.
Shortly afterward she met Deb Brown, her current sprinting coach.
“She’s an amazing athlete,” said Brown, a former sprints coach at Liberty and Doherty high schools. “Talent only takes you so far, but the work ethic she has — not a day goes by when she isn’t trying to improve on breathing, strength and coordination. She is constantly working toward her end goal of a fast 400.”
Reluctant to attend her first national competition in 2015, Smith pretty much talked herself out of it: It was too far away, she didn’t know how she’d do, she wasn’t going to gain anything. But she relented when her running buddy offered to go with her to the USATF Indoor Track and Field Championships in Albuquerque, N.M. It was a monumental decision, as she wound up running against the world record holder in the 400.
The day of the event didn’t go smoothly. Even though she knew she was faster than the record holder in the 75-79 age group, Smith was a nervous wreck. She could barely speak, lost her shoes and got a bad case of cotton mouth.
“I was a basket case,” she said. “And they’re lined up on the track waiting for me. I did find my shoes, ran over and got in line. Once that gun goes off everything changes. I’m not nervous.”
She now holds the American record, after passing the record holder within 20 meters. She’s gone on to compete around the U.S.
“I’ve won a bunch of national races,” Smith said. “I’ve never been beaten.”
Smith can only speculate about why she’s so fast, though she has a theory: “I must have fast twitch muscles. That’s usually what sprinters have.”
And though she’s not a fan of endurance running, her first race was the BOLDERBoulder, the annual Memorial Day 10K in Boulder. Sixty-five at the time, there were 75 people in her age group.
“I was up all night worrying about it. I’m such a worry wort,” she said. “But I came in fifth and thought woah, this is fun.”
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