The following is an interview I did with Jerry Smartt, who extremely fit and a champion runner in his 70’s.
Jerry Smartt is a 77-year-old runner, who lives in Warsaw, Missouri, and has been running for 62 years. A retired English teacher, Jerry has loved footraces his whole life. He got his start playing tag and hide-and-go-seek when he was a child. His talents went untapped until he was a senior in high school, and some friends of his who were on the track team told the team coach that Jerry was one fast cat. Jerry joined the team, and with perseverance went on to win many races.
In 1952, he joined the Air Force and had great success as a runner. He even qualified as an alternate for the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.
Jerry continues to run and compete at the national level because he still loves a footrace, and because he feels it has given him the great health he currently enjoys. He keeps a scrapbook with media clippings from his running career. It currently weighs 40 pounds and in it he has eight aliases. His favorite alias is from a Finnish newspaper, in which he is named “Josef Smargg.”
Q: Being alternate on the Olympic team is a huge accomplishment, so do you consider that your greatest achievement?
A: Running races when I hit 100 years old would be my ultimate achievement. I have wonderful health and I don’t know how long it will last, but I plan on running when I’m 100. If something happens that I can’t run, I’ll walk. I saw an overweight young gal and she was walking three miles. I congratulated her and told her she needs to think about working up to walking three or four hours. She looked at me like I had just landed from outer space. Walking is great exercise, but most walkers don’t walk far enough to really get a workout.
Q: Given that you’ve been at it for 62 years, racing at 100 doesn’t sound unreasonable. How have you stayed with it for so long?
A: Of all the guys from the 1956 and 1958 national teams, I’m the only one who is still competing. The others may be doing things to stay fit, but they are not in the big meets, like nationals. Many of these guys gave up running in their thirties and gained weight. My mindset is what differentiates me from the guys who stopped running. I made up my mind a long time ago that I’m never going to voluntarily stop running. Running keeps me healthy and it’s no longer about the trophies. I’m still having fun.
Q: Is there anything specific you do in training that you feel is a key to your success?
A: I do resistance training; things that are really difficult. For example, I have an ATV tire with a rope tied to it, with the other end tied to an old shirt. I tie the shirt around my waist and run 100-yard sprints 30 times, with short rests. Sometimes I’ll do this while pushing a shopping cart full of concrete blocks. It looks kind of funny, but I gain strength and lung power. I also simulate altitude by holding my breath while I’m running. I’ll hold my breath for a couple hundred years, which forces my body to produce more red blood cells, like I’m training at altitude. I’ve been doing that for a long time.
Q: What are your goals and how do you set them?
A: In the past, my goals were to be ready to run nationals, beat a certain time, or to complete a tough workout. I used to run unbelievable workouts, like 40 times a quarter mile, or four times a mile in four minutes and forty seconds.
My goal now is to stay healthy and pace everything, so tomorrow I can be doing again what I do today. I still do races and I use those to stay motivated.
Q: Do you have any challenges?
A: My biggest challenge is staying healthy. I don’t train as hard as I’d like to train because I’ve learned that if I train too hard, I will get hurt. I run twice a day and my repeat 100- and 200-meter sprints feel rapid, but they are well controlled.
I pace myself and remain aware. I use a stopwatch, wear a GPS to measure my mileage, and I don’t knock myself out in workouts. When I was younger I felt bulletproof and ran really hard workouts. I did them because I knew that my competition wasn’t, and when I got in a race I knew I was going to perform well.
Q: Is there one particular race that you feel was a breakthrough for you?
A: When I was in the service, I was running well and ran a three-mile race in 15:05, which was an Air Force record. Shortly after that, I ran in an all-star meet with Army, Navy, and some Japanese runners. In the 5K, I looked up at the clock and saw my time at three miles was under 15 minutes, and I thought to myself that maybe I had something going. Fifteen minutes for three miles at the time was a big deal.
That spring, at the Olympic trials, there were some 35 guys in the 10K race and all the elites from the 1952 Olympics were there. I was not well known, but they had heard about my good times in the prior weeks. At one point in the race, I was in about 20th place when I started passing people. I passed one guy and he said, “Go on Jerry.” I then passed another guy, and he said, “Go Jerry,” and another and another. These were the former elite runners and they were cheering me on. I ended up in 4th place. I often think that if I knew these guys a little better, I may have finished even higher.
Q: Do you have a saying or motto that you live your life by?
A: When I was on a team being coached by the great hurdler Johnny Morris, we would have to drag this metal mesh around the track to flatten out the cinders. We would complain about that or about how hard a workout was, and Johnny would look at us and say, “No hill for a climber, young fellow.” He always impressed on us that, whatever the difficulty, we could overcome it. When I’m at races, I like to yell to the runners, “Run like the wind.” I have that on my medic alert bracelet along with my identification.