72-year-old New London man reflects on nine marathons in 10 years

  • John Raby, 72, of New London placed first among runners over 70 in the NH Marathon on Oct. 1. —Courtesy

  • John Raby, 72, of New London placed first among runners over 70 in the NH Marathon on Oct. 1. —Courtesy

  • John Raby, 72, of New London placed first among runners older than 70 in the N.H. Marathon on Oct. 1. Courtesy

  • John Raby, 72, of New London placed first among runners over 70 in the NH Marathon on Oct. 1. —Courtesy

Monitor staff
Sunday, October 16, 2016

John Raby ran his first Boston Marathon more than eight years ago at age 63. He ran his second in 2012.

And since taking up running competitively at age 49, he has run a total of nine marathons in five states: Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

“Do I feel it was worthwhile? Absolutely!” Raby, now 72, said, while overlooking the breathtaking view of Mount Kearsarge from his hilltop home in New London.

Raby last ran the New Hampshire Marathon on Oct. 1 in Bristol, where he broke the record time for runners his age at 4:37:30. The second place runner in his age group finished the race an hour later.

Raby ran to benefit the American Friends Service Committee’s work for the abolition of nuclear weapons, a cause important to him, and brought in about $500.

When he reflected on the race two days later, foremost on his mind was how his legs cramped up at mile 19, forcing him to walk portions of the remaining few miles. Despite the record he set, he was disappointed in his performance, which he called his worst yet.

“At the time, of course, I was growling. I said, ‘Oh gee, I would have gotten it all if my legs had not betrayed me.’ But, fair warning to my body, I guess,” Raby said.

Raby questions if the latest marathon will be his last. When asked what caused his legs to cramp, he said with a laugh, “Old age.”

But even as the marathoner plans to retire his title, Raby isn’t giving up competitive racing altogether. Not yet anyway.

“It’s good to stay fully alive as long as you can.”

As a child, Raby daydreamed about running. He recalled reading a book in school about a Kansas City runner who overcame great physical limitations and almost broke a four-minute mile.

“It was a lesson in what you can overcome, and it always stuck with me.”

Raby started running recreationally in his 20s to stay fit, never thinking that decades later he would compete in races. But his philosophy changed when he started coaching cross country at the New Jersey school where he taught high school social studies for more than 40 years.

And then his son ran Boston in 2004. Raby could not shake the desire to do it, too.

“I decided that before I got too old, I ought to try to see if I could qualify,” he said, noting that he did just that in Philadelphia in fall 2007.

In Boston the next spring, the running conditions were ideal, Raby recalled.

“It’s nice to feel you can do something with your body. If I could do something respectfully with some sort of grace and coordination, I think that’s worthwhile.”

Raby used to run every day, but his chiropractor recommended long ago that he modify his schedule to every other day.

To prepare for marathons, he includes short, medium and long distance runs into his training plan. His short run ranges anywhere from four to eight miles and his long run anywhere from eight to 20 miles.

In addition to running, he also does hip exercises, lifts weights to strengthen his ankles, eats sensibly and tries to get plenty of rest. Unfortunately, no matter how much he eats, he still loses weight.

“I’m down to what I weighed in ninth grade,” Raby said, adding that he is trying to gain some of the weight back. “I have the metabolism of a rabbit.”

Raby said running has kept him young in his later years. His body, though, still finds small ways to fight back. In the past three years especially, his hips have given him trouble during marathons, but seem to withstand the shorter distances without complaint.

“I’m grateful for the chance to have done what I’ve done, and it was enjoyable,” Raby said, as he looked back on his nine marathons.

When his teaching colleagues used to ask him why he ran, Raby would often answer that he liked the scenery, to train on the road, and the feeling of being in shape.

But running is more than that, too, he noted: It teaches life lessons.

“I like a sport that teaches people that you can be tough without being cruel, you can be competitive without being vicious, and you can be brave without being violent. It teaches us the ability to cast off fear in the face of odds, and that’s a pretty powerful thing.”

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, adandrea@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)