MIDLIFE: Training for the long run

  • Article by: CHRISTY DESMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 29, 2014 - 10:14 AM

Howard Ojalvo started running in his late 50s. Six marathons later, he reflects on the benefits of arriving late to the sport.

Howard Ojalvo ran along Minnehaha Parkway in Minneapolis.

Photo: JOEY McLEISTER • Special to the Star Tribune,

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Harold Ojalvo, 61, completed his first footrace in February 2012. Just two and a half years later, Ojalvo has already completed six full marathons, including an international race in Italy.

“When I decide to do something I go all the way,” huffed Ojalvo as we jogged through Minnehaha Park on a pleasant evening in June.

A computer programmer for Thomson Reuters in Eagan, Ojalvo likes to stop by this Minneapolis park for a post-workday run. The exercise breaks apart his long commute home to Shoreview, more than 20 miles from the office. Running also gives Ojalvo the opportunity to socialize with his new running pals — they’re always training for some race or other.

What compelled him to become a marathon runner in his late 50s? Above all, says a beaming Ojalvo, the inspiration came from his children. As we ran north along the Mississippi River, Ojalvo outlined the accomplishments of his six adult children: One is a doctor, another a nurse. One became a computer programmer like his father. Another earned her Ph.D. in physics. Two are still in college.

What’s more, four of Ojalvo’s six children are committed long-distance runners. Most took up the sport as adults. But it was Stephen, age 24, who really got Ojalvo going. Stephen was the first member of the Ojalvo family to take up running. Now a student at Dakota County Technical College, he was once a promising member of Concordia Academy’s high-school track and cross country teams. Ojalvo observed Stephen earn many ribbons and medals, and saw him celebrate these accomplishments with teammates from the St. Paul school. “And basically marathoners are no different,” confessed Ojalvo. “We also like the attention. We like the camaraderie.”

Going the distance

Running is now a passion shared by much of the family. Ojalvo was even invited to run the 2013 Maratona di Roma (Rome Marathon) by his daughter Isabel, the physics Ph.D, who works for the world-famous CERN laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland. Ojalvo has also completed the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon twice and Duluth’s Grandma’s Marathon three times, not to mention countless 5Ks, 10Ks and half marathons.

Running isn’t a passion shared by everyone in the family, noted Ojalvo. “My wife has already said, ‘Next time we go to Rome, it won’t be to run a marathon,’” he said with a good-natured laugh.

Stephen and Howard Ojalvo have managed to milk plenty of father-son time from the sport. Ojalvo’s first race was the 2012 Securian Winter Run Half Marathon in St. Paul, which Stephen also completed. That event inspired the pair to start training for marathons with the Minnesota Distance Runners Association (MDRA), an organization popular with runners of all ages.

MDRA offers various group training programs, from running for beginners to 18-week programs to prepare for various marathons. MDRA trains hundreds of runners every year for both Grandma’s and the Twin Cities. Runners are assigned to MDRA training groups according to speed — never by age.

Ojalvo fell in with the “Terrapins,” a MDRA subgroup for marathoners averaging 10:30-minute miles or slower; Stephen ended up training with a faster group. Ojalvo most recently trained with the Terrapins for Grandma’s Marathon on June 21, 2014. His goal? He hoped to finish in 5 hours and 15 minutes. But training proved especially difficult this year, owing to Minnesota’s brutal weather. The Terrapins started training way back in the polar vortex of February. They ran when it was 20 below and again when it was 85 and humid. Ojalvo found himself despairing over these challenging conditions. “Between the cold and the heat, I started to feel I couldn’t do it,” he recalled.

Then came race day, with a cool mist blowing off Lake Superior. After a grueling training season, Ojalvo felt energetic and strong for the duration of the 26.2-mile race. He sailed to the finish line in 5 hours and 12 minutes.

“Running should be getting harder as I get older,” he later said. “But Grandma’s was easier than ever. It went so well I thought, no, I’m not going to quit.”

Benefits for late bloomers

Before he became a runner, Ojalvo kept in reasonably good shape. He hit the elliptical trainer or the StairMaster at his local gym four or five times a week, plus he did a little lap swimming with his wife, an avid swimmer. But running was the first fitness regime to push his physical and cardiovascular strength to new heights. “I’m in the best shape of my life,” said Ojalvo as we walked through Minnehaha Park as part of our cool-down.

Sure, Ojalvo isn’t going to break any speed records, but he does see some advantages to adopting running later in life.

“I don’t have those legacy injuries,” he said. But he sees a lot of his friends from MDRA contending with chronic injuries, especially knee problems and tendon tears.

Running also provides middle-aged athletes with a sense of accomplishment, something they might not get from their careers. “Let’s face it, I’m not necessarily going to have any great breakthroughs,” said Ojalvo, who is perhaps selling himself short — he has several patents to his name. With running, Ojalvo is always challenging himself to new goals and often celebrating his accomplishments, plus he’s never tempted to compare his running accomplishments with others.

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