By Dan Walk
That fact that Francis Albaugh has qualified for more than 400 U.S. Masters All-American running competitions doesn’t stand out all by itself. A runner could qualify for 10 events over 40 years to accomplish that feat.
What sets the former Meadville resident apart from others is that he didn’t start competing in those races — which total 446 from 1979 to 2009 — until he was 57 years old.
And fewer than two weeks from his 90th birthday, Albaugh isn’t letting up. The man described recently by Ultra Running magazine as history’s oldest ultrarunner is now preparing to be a young gun, so to speak, in the 90- to 94-year-old age division in his 33rd year of track and road racing.
His running isn’t limited to just the U.S. Masters, however. He has also competed at the National Senior Olympics numerous times as an ultrarunner. Ultrarunners compete at distances that exceed the normal 26-mile marathons and sometimes include the competitors running for a specific amount of time, with the winner garnering the longest distance in the allotted time.
“During my 70s, there was no stopping me,” said Albaugh, who lives in Erie. “I was racing and having just over six-minute miles in my 70s.”
When the state Olympics were in Shippensburg, Albaugh said he would take first or second in five divisions every year in order to qualify for nationals.
Because of a few surgeries, Albaugh isn’t as fast as he used to be. But he has no interest in quitting.
Albaugh said that a tumor the size of a grapefruit was removed from his colon in 2009 and he also had hernia surgery a year ago. He completely recovered from the hernia surgery in just a month, but the colon surgery has knocked a few minutes off his mile time.
Albaugh still stays in shape thanks to working out for 80 minutes every other day at the Glenwood YMCA in Erie. On the off-days, he lifts weights at home.
“I feel good,” he said. “I would like to run every day, but I have more sense. My balance is as good as it was 30 years ago.”
Albaugh’s success has received national recognition over the years, including a recent mention in Ultra Running. The California-based publication said, “We suspect that Albaugh is now also history’s oldest ultrarunner, though records are perhaps a bit spotty on this score” in its December 2011 edition.
Albaugh’s appearance in the magazine came after he ran 28 miles in 12 hours during the annual Endurance Classic at Presque Isle in Erie last October.
One of Albaugh’s five sons, Daniel, has been on the Erie Runners Club board for about 20 years. The 62-year-old doesn’t run anymore, but when Albaugh was at his best, Daniel was unable to keep up, even if he is nearly 30 years younger.
“When I was running, I couldn’t beat him at that time,” Daniel said. “He’s just exceptional. He is dedicated, he takes care of himself and doesn’t miss a workout.”
Daniel still watches his father compete with those who aren’t his age.
“He’s slowed down, but he still beats people a lot younger,” Daniel said.
Even if he hasn’t been able to keep up with his previous times nowadays, one of the things that keeps Albaugh going is the competition.
“I’m not paying much attention to time,” Albaugh said. “If anyone in their 70s or 80s shows up, I would like to beat them.”
Albaugh’s only daughter, Dr. Mary Anne Albaugh, said that the family comes together during the Endurance Classic. Some family members run and walk the course, but most of them are there to cheer on Albaugh and his uplifting spirit.
“It’s amazing to me,” Mary Anne said. “He’s, I think, an inspiration for all of us. He has a very positive outlook and I think that he just looks at what he can accomplish each day.”
When he turns 90 on Feb. 3, Albaugh will enjoy lunch — not a party, he said — with his friends and family. But once the next day rolls around, he’ll return to the Glenwood YMCA in preparation for another year of ultrarunning.
He simply doesn’t feel as if his life should be lived in any other way.
“When I run, I feel good,” Albaugh said. “If I would stop running, I would just slow down physically and mentally. When I run, I’m awake and alive.”
Dan Walk can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Francis Albaugh, who is formerly of Meadville, now lives in Erie and works out at the Glenwood YMCA, turns 90 on Feb. 3. Send a birthday greeting to 430 E. Grandview Blvd., Apt. 310, Erie, Pa. 16504.