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The Unstoppables | MARGARET DAVIS / AGE 84 / THE RUNNER

In training for her next adventure

March 26, 2007

"IF not now, when?"

Back in 1989, that became the motto of Margaret Davis and her adventurous new husband, Ed. "Heck, we had to do something to kill time," jokes the now-84-year-old, a retired schoolteacher and former City of Hope administrator from Azusa. So after 45 years of virtually no athletic activity, save chasing around four kids and nine grandkids, attending PTA meetings, trimming hedges, playing for three years on a softball team and doing the occasional Jack LaLanne TV workout, she got moving. She went skiing. She tried bungee jumping in New Zealand. And snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef. White-water rafting the Zambezi River in Africa. Travel to Israel, Denmark, Bulgaria.

To stay in shape between expeditions, Davis, at age 66, began competing in 5-kilometer walking races in Griffith Park -- and winning her age group. "People made such a fuss about me -- and it got me so motivated that I started running the Santa Anita 5K." She won her age group five years straight.

Even better than hearing her sons-in-law and kids endlessly brag about her running prowess was seeing how it was changing them. "The effect on everyone around me is really what kept me going, gave me an even greater purpose."

That's why Davis set her sights on a far bigger prize: the 2002 Los Angeles Marathon. "When I signed up for a marathon training class at Citrus College, I kept it a secret from the family," she says. "I didn't want anyone telling me not to do it."

When Davis won the 75-to-79 age group in 6 hours, 3 minutes, even beating the men, the cat was out of the bag. She and her youngest daughter, Colleen Heublein, now 51, began training together in earnest, starting with a climb up Mt. Whitney to celebrate Davis' 80th birthday that August.

Eight months later, after running side-by-side the whole race, Davis dropped Colleen at mile 22 and won the 80-and-older age group at the 2003 marathon in an eye-opening personal record of 5:37:15, again beating all the 75-year-olds, men and women.

Since then, Davis has run five more marathons -- three L.A.s and two San Diego Rock 'n' Rolls -- and 10 half-marathons. Her time of 5:42:49 in 2005 was recognized as the fastest marathon in history for any 82-year-old in the U.S. A few weeks ago, in what many are calling the hardest L.A. Marathon in history, she ran a 6:07:56, finishing two hours ahead of the runner-up in her age group.

Davis says she can't afford to slow down. "I hear rumors of a woman up north who can run a sub-five marathon -- and she's 84 too. She'd clean my clock if she came down here."

She credits her fast times, lifelong health and svelte form -- 10 pounds lighter than she was in her 20s -- to a sensible training plan, a good diet and good genes. She keeps in shape with 5 miles of running and two days of yoga and Pilates classes per week, adding 2 miles each week after Christmas to prepare for marathon season.

Her "alternative" diet, as she calls it, includes her own granola mix, little sugar and desserts and a two-thirds reduction in her consumption of all meats from earlier years. She hasn't cut back on dairy, however, regularly having cottage cheese, butter and 2% milk.

"My real secret is cod liver oil," she says. "When I was 12, it cleared up the terrible psoriasis we'd get in the cold New Jersey winters. Ever since, I've taken a couple spoonfuls of the cherry flavor nearly every morning -- and haven't had an outbreak since."

Apart from a bout of hepatitis in 1950, her only visit to a hospital came two years ago after a half-marathon, when she felt faint and was reluctantly whisked away when race aides called 911.

"I told them I was fine -- it was so embarrassing," she says. "There was nothing wrong -- maybe a little dehydration. But it was a good way to get $13,000 worth of tests done for $300 [the insurance deductible]."

A positive attitude may be her biggest trump card. Outliving two husbands, she surrounds herself with her "young, vibrant" family, is active socially at the Pasadena Nazarene church and is forever looking forward to new athletic achievements.

Last year, she went skydiving with her grandchildren. This year, she and her daughter plan to complete the three-race Triple Crown Half-Marathon series.

"I'm busy. I don't have time to slow down," she says "And you know what they say: The best defense is a good offense."

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