PROFILE: Herb Townsend has been running for 45 years

Herb Townsend will be 85 in a couple of months, and he's still running about 35 miles a week--an impressive amount. His secret might be that he trains at a slower pace than most, as slow as 20:00/per mile. At the same time, he can still crank 12:00s if he decides to enter a 5K race. "I feel cheated if something (like travel or illness) prevents me from having my daily run," says Townsend, who splits his time between Ocean City, NJ, and Naples, FL. "Maybe it is an addiction, but considering the associated health and fitness benefits, I consider running to be a positive addiction."

Career-profession? After getting a PhD in Materials Engineering and Science from the University of Pennsylvania, I worked for 34 years in the research department of Bethlehem Steel as an Engineer, Supervisor, Division Manager, and Senior Fellow.  Following my retirement, I became an independent consultant to the construction and automobile industries, providing technical and expert-witness services on the corrosion performance of coated and low-alloy steels. 


When did you start running and why?  At age 39, I became concerned about my health as it pertained to providing for my wife and three daughters.  It seemed that the three most likely threats to my life were cancer, traffic accidents, and heart disease.  To minimize the risks of cancer, I went on a low-fat, high carbohydrate diet (studies at that time indicated environmental toxins and carcinogens tend to concentrate in fats). For traffic accidents, I began wearing my seat belt (believe it or not, many people, myself included, did not in those days).  And for heart disease, I took up running (The initial results of the Framingham study had indicated that anyone who qualified for the Boston Marathon was immune to heart attacks).    


How much did you run in your peak years?  At my peak, which occurred in my mid-forties, I was typically running 80 miles per week, although I sometimes ran 100 miles or more when training for a marathon.  


Top races and performances? Two highlights that always come to mind are my marathon PR of 2:40:42 at the 1984 Philadelphia Marathon, at age 44; and finishing in first place overall in the 1990 Great Valley Marathon in Chambersburg, PA at the age of 51 in a time of 2:51:39 

Do you have a total lifetime miles estimate? As of the end of 2021, I had run a total of 133,212 miles, more than 5 times around the world. 


How much are you running and cross-training now? I am currently running 35 miles per week, most of it at snail’s pace (20 minutes per mile), with a random amount of fartlek.  I also do light calisthenics almost every day, and work with free weights about once per week.  I do not stretch on a regular basis, only when needed to address a particular issue, such as a sore piriformis.  


If you still race, please provide a somewhat recent race result or two.  

My most recent 5K time was 36:37.  


Does it bother you that you are slower now? There is no denying that slowing down with time is a major issue.  There not much to do about it other than accept it gracefully.  When I started running, I could always improve my performance by increasing my mileage and speed workouts.  Then, there came a time that no matter how hard I trained, there was no longer any benefit, only increased risk of injury. Now, it is physically impossible to train with the volume and intensity that I once did, so reduced training plus advancing age is a double-barreled blast. 


My motivation to keep training is a firm belief that my health will deteriorate at an even faster rate if I quit.  Also, with some races offering awards in the 80+ age groups, there remains the lure of competition which provides an incentive to keep training. 


How have your diet and weight changed through the years, if at all?  

My diet has become gradually less restrictive with time, I now consume proportionately more protein and deserts, plus beer and wine. Although my running mileage is much less, I have managed to avoid significant weight gain by reducing the portions on my plate.   


My daily supplements include a multivitamin tablet, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, low-dose aspirin, and hyaluronic acid (which I believe has cured my osteoarthritis of the knees).  I also take prescription medications, including Atorvastatin to control cholesterol, Cialis for ED, and methenamine to minimize UTI.  


What injuries or other health issues have you faced through the years?

I have experienced most, if not all, of the usual running overuse injuries, including stress fractures of shins and metatarsals, as well as soft-tissue injuries like plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis, runners’ knee, torn hamstrings, shin splints, pulled groin muscles, and inflamed piriformis muscles. There are also the broken ribs and wrists suffered from falls while running.  These things generally correct themselves with time and rest.  Then there are age-related issues such as enlarged prostate, urinary tract infections, and most recently aortic vale stenosis.  The latter was recently treated by transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR).


An inspirational quote? I’ve read that Steve Prefontaine said, “It’s not the fastest one who wins the race, it’s the one with the most guts.”  Obviously less than 100% true, nevertheless it is a great motivating thought to invoke when dueling with an opponent! 


What 3 short tips would you offer to young/midlife runners who hope to continue running many years into the future? 


1--My daughter’s high-school cross-country coach told his team, “Don’t do too much, too  soon, too fast.”  This is great advice for avoiding injury, but it is up to the individual to determine what the actual limits may be. 


2--There is no such thing as the weather being too cold to run.  There is only the possibility of being under-dressed. 


3--Don’t be afraid to draft.  There is no better competitive tactic on a windy day. 


4--No matter how fast you are, the odds are overwhelmingly high that there is someone out there who is faster than you. 


How does running & fitness improve your life on a daily/weekly basis?  

I feel cheated if something (like travel or illness) prevents me from having my daily run.  Maybe it is an addiction, but considering the associated health and fitness benefits, I consider running to be a positive addiction.  Moreover, racing has taken me to many places in the world I would otherwise never have seen, and allowed me to meet many outstanding people.  


What are the biggest lessons (life lessons and running lessons) you have learned from running? Every person has a unique set of potentials for various types of accomplishment such as athletic, intellectual, and artistic.  The degrees to which these potentials are  realized depends in large on the effort they put into their development.  For example, I may not have as much potential speed as someone else, but if I have worked harder and reached a greater percent of my potential, I may be faster.  


I believe that life is meant to be enjoyed, as long as pursuit of your enjoyment does not harm others.  It is even better if your enjoyment also contributes positively to the happiness of others. 


Finally, the years have taught me that, in dealing with most people, positive reinforcement produces positive results, whereas negative reinforcement produces negative results.  There is a subset of people to whom this does not apply.  These are the people you want to avoid.