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Go, Granny, Go! : At 70, Running 373 Miles in Six Days Is Nothing Unusual for Helen Klein

January 08, 1993|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At 9:15 on New Year's morning, while couples fought at home over the TV for bowl games and the Rose Parade, Helen Klein and 21 others began running along a one-mile paved road around a lake in West Sacramento.

Thursday morning, they finished.

In wind and rain, through temperatures ranging from near 60 in the daytime to 28 at night, Klein would run four laps and walk one, eating as she walked and occasionally stopping to sit in a portable spa, shower, change clothes and nap for as long as an hour before beginning again.

At the end of the Gibson Ranch Multi-Day Classic Run, she had completed 373 miles, most among the field's four female runners, all of whom finished.

Helen Klein is 70.

"But I feel 30," she says. "And I'm known as looking 20 from the back."

She has four children, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren who call her "Grandma Runner."

At 5 feet 5, 109 pounds, with a slight frame and gray only now infiltrating her brown hair, she eats constantly to get the reserves to run long-distance races. In 15 years, she has completed 46 marathons, with a best time of 4 hours 7 minutes, and 78 ultra-distance races of 50 miles or more.

She never ran a step until she was 55.

"I grew up in an age when women didn't participate in such things," she says. "I was an emergency room nurse and then went to work with my husband, who was an oral surgeon. I worked and cleaned my own house and raised children. Working with him, we were together 24 hours a day for several years and that was enough.

"I quit."

At about the same time she resigned, Norman Klein, 15 years younger than his wife, was challenged by a friend to run in a 10-mile race. Helen decided he shouldn't do it alone.

They lived in Kentucky at the time and started by running around their house.

"We ran a fifth of a mile that first day, then added a fifth of a mile a day," she says. "After 10 weeks, we were running 10 miles. It took me two hours to run the 10-mile race.

"At the end of the 10 miles, I thought I'd never run again."

Instead, she has been running ever since.

After Helen had run in the Western States 100, a race from Squaw Valley to Auburn, Calif., Norman Klein gave up his dental practice and they moved to Rancho Cucamonga. They have become professional race directors, setting up tents and timing equipment and organizing as many as 1,300 volunteers for runs.

"I could qualify for a stevedore union card, I spend so much time loading and unloading boxes of T-shirts into trucks," Helen Klein says.

The Gibson Ranch race is theirs, and this year's was the third. Norman Klein seldom runs anymore, race work involving his time.

Helen Klein ran 340 miles in the first race, then spent the second helping Norman.

"I did the cooking," she says.

Six days of providing pasta, however, convinced her that there was a better way to spend her time.

"I decided to run this year because cooking is harder than running," she said.

She runs 10-25 miles a day, three or four days a week, working with weights for upper-body strength three days a week. But she would rather race.

Last September, Klein completed 354.9 miles in a six-day event in Australia, setting a 65-69 age-group world record.

She ran 280 miles in a five-day race in Flushing, N.Y., in 1987.

On Dec. 6, she ran a marathon, and on Dec. 19 a 50-mile trail race in Huntsville, Tex. She and Francoise Le Motte of France have traded the 24-hour track world record for age 65-69.

Klein now holds it at 109 1/2 miles.

"There are no ratified records for age 70, so I guess I just set it," she says.

But Klein is a paradox, mentioning records in passing, because, she says, "I do not compete."

For one thing, there is no one in her age group to compete against. For another, "by not competing, I can run a relaxed race," she says. "I don't get injured that way. I can run the entire race loose. If you are competing, you run the race tense and you have trouble and can be injured more easily."

She may be deluding herself, says Jim Raia, a free-lance journalist and runner in the Sacramento area.

"Mentally, I think she's as competitive as anybody, but maybe not physically," he says.

"Well, I'm well-known as a serious athlete, but I don't have the feeling I am," she says. "I'm not the type that I want to improve my personal best every time I run. I never expect to be the overall winner. I don't really have anything to prove."

Except to those who would use their senior years for bingo and talking about the old days. She spends hours exhorting groups her age.

"I do want to inspire older people to at least do some exercise," she says. "You don't necessarily have to run. Walk, ride a bike. Do something. Get off the couch."

Maybe they would if they saw Helen Klein.

Says Al Howie, the overall Gibson Ranch race winner with 483 miles: "There's nothing about her that's 70, except that she's lived 70 years."

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