Joseph Diehl didn’t know if he’d make it past the age of 72. After all, to his knowledge, very few people in his family ever had due to heart conditions running strong in his bloodline. At the age of 73, however, Diehl has not only surpassed generations before him, but he is running strong.
In fact, on Oct. 7, Diehl will toe the line of the Moab 240 with the goal of being the first person his age to complete the distance.
Diehl began running as a teenager on his high school track and cross country teams. Not only was he the team captain, but he even broke the mile record at his school. Running was just one of those things that stayed with him through his twenties and thirties, where he competed in several marathons including 5 Rock and Roll Marathons during its beginning years.
However, as time went on, like many do, Diehl’s lifestyle migrated away from running as he settled into family life and career. During those years, Diehl said that his health started to deteriorate. He said that had developed an affinity for junk food, and as a result, in his late sixties, he found himself in his doctor’s office facing a fate all too familiar.
“I went to see a heart specialist, and she said, 'Why are you here? When was your event?’ To which I retorted, ‘What event?’ And the doctor replied, ‘Your heart attack.’” Diehl recalled. “I told her that I was just here to prevent a heart attack. Two stress tests later, I found out my arteries are clogged up more than the I-5 freeway through downtown Seattle.”
Diehl explained that he had a friend who reminded him about his years as a runner, and who invited him to start walking. The first walk he described as being discouraging, saying that he was “Tired after only one block.” Diehl’s wife of 28 years encouraged him to walk two blocks, which he did. Around the same time, his doctor told him about the benefits of HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training).
“I was told of the benefits of HIIT by my heart specialist,” Diehl said. “She then explained that men in my age group, on average, have a 62% blockage. Well, it didn't sound like good news to me. I started running harder, longer and doing HIIT to reduce plaque buildup.”
Coupled with a new lease on life and blending the old self with the new, Diehl went full force losing 46 pounds and regaining his love for running long distances. Just last year, in fact, Diehl ran five marathons. It was during one of those marathons that he found himself needing a little help.
The light in the tunnel that opened up a whole new world
“I ran a marathon that went through a 2.4-mile tunnel through a mountain at Snoqualmie Pass, and we were told that we would need a light,” Diehl said. “I really didn’t pay much attention to that part, and figured I would be just fine. When I got to the tunnel it was pitch black. I couldn’t see anything. I was literally running into the wall. A woman with a Kogalla light came up to me and had me run with her. She had to slow way down for me, but she stayed with me the whole length of the tunnel, and it was unlike any light I had experienced.”
Diehl said that this woman spoke about running ultramarathons, and that conversation intrigued him. Not only did he get himself one of those lights, but he decided that he wanted to get better at running and enter into the world of ultrarunning.
“You know, you need to have resources and tools to be able to get better at things,” Diehl said. “That light was a tool to get me through the tunnel, and so was the runner who had it. I started to think that maybe having a coach would be another resource to help improve my running, so I hired one.”
Diehl said that when he hired his running coach, he told her about his interest in running ultramarathons, and her response surprised him.
“I told her I wanted to do ultramarathons, and she was like, ‘I’m going to be honest with you; the races out there are geared toward younger runners.’” Diehl recalled. “I didn’t know what that was supposed to mean, but it was then when she told me about cutoffs. She had just completed the Moab 240 in 2021, and noted that it was the more experienced runners who ended up having the fortitude to finish - assuming they could make those mysterious ‘cutoffs.’”
In most ultramarathons, runners need to arrive at aid stations by a certain time or they will be removed from the race. This is in an effort to keep track of all of the runners, as well as to stay in line with permit rules. This much was explained to Diehl, but it wasn’t until his first experience with said cutoff, when he knew exactly what his coach was talking about.
DNF’s and a mission to ‘let us finish’
As Diehl began his entrance into the ultramarathon world, he quickly learned that even if you felt fine enough to continue on, that didn’t mean that you would be allowed to.
“You get to an aid station, and they say, ‘OK, you aren’t going to make it.’” Diehl said. “I said (to the race officials) ‘What do you mean? I’m on my way. You know I’m feeling great!’ And then they say, ‘No, we have to pull you from the race and we’re going to take you to the finish line in a car, and you’re going to have what they call a DNF which is, did not finish.’”
While Diehl has several “DNF’s” next to his name on race results, he said it hasn’t deterred him from continuing on. Not only that, each unfinished race has sharpened his resolve to both finish what he started, and to also let race directors know that “old people” like him want to finish.
“During the Cascade 100, I was doing really well,” Diehl recalled. “I got to mile 36.5 aid station, and they said they were pulling me. I told them that I had 63.5 miles and 20 hours to do it. I told them that I could do this, but they told me that they had to pull me.”
“Older runners should be given a little bit of slack, right? We don’t mind finishing with nobody around and there’s no hoopla, applause and bands playing. Just give us a chance because we’re prepared to finish.”
Diehl said that he realizes that race directors have to follow protocol with permits in order to keep runners safe and liability low. He acknowledged that some race directors will let runners start a few hours ahead so that people can finish in the allotted time. One time, however, despite being told he couldn’t complete the race, he still managed to trek the entire course.
“At an ultra at Tiger Mountain here in Washington, I got to an aid station and I think I was at like maybe mile 42 or something, and was told that I didn’t make the cutoff, so I ripped my bib off and handed it to the RD and I said, ‘OK, I’m on my own then, right?’” Diehl recalled. “So I handed them my bib and I followed my All Trails app to the finish line. There was nobody there when I crossed the finish around dusk, and I looked around and got to my car. I had to get back there anyway. The RD called me later that night and told me why he needed to follow the rules. I told him that he had to do what he had to do, but I was going to keep running.”
“For many, a DNF is a curse, but for me it’s a badge of honor. I’ve been writing letters and talking to race directors, telling them, ‘Hey, you know what? We are the ones who are in our sixties and seventies who really started the races that you are profiting from, right? So, we are really the ones that, you know back in the 1960's and 70’s signed up for these races and they became popular, including the Boston Marathon and other major marathons, right? So it’s like, respect your elders.’”
On a quest to earn respect.
Author Ari Brown is a mom of nine, trail and ultra runner and freelance writer who has had articles published and syndicated in national publications. In her free time she likes to ... Wait! What free time?
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October 24, 2022
Thanks for sharing your story.