The Long Run with Joe Bolster (Competing at 90)

The Long Run with Joe Bolster (Competing at 90)

Posted by Nick Kafker on Oct 16, 2019

I’m in my twenties, and I run every morning. When I’m out on my loop and cross paths or exchange a nod with a runner in their seventies, I always say a little prayer to the God of Healthy Knees and Long Running Careers in hopes that I may be out there continuing to plod at that age. 


Runners who log miles into their later years inspire us younger runners every day. In this week’s Long Run, we have the story, and a short conversation with Joe Bolster, who’s training to race the 100m at the Penn Relays this April. Joe will be 91 and competing in the 80 + Masters Division - his goal: cross that line in under 30 seconds - that’s 8:00 mile pace or faster. 


If you’re not familiar with the Penn Relays, it’s America’s oldest track and field event, having been run continuously since 1895 with over 100,000 fans attending almost every year. The masters heats of the 100m are always some of the week’s loudest moments. Just take a look at this video of current over 80 world leader Bill Bittner as he smashes the 100m in less than 16 seconds.


The big stage at Franklin Field - that’s what Joe is training for, but let’s go back to the beginning of his track career. Joe first laced up a pair of running shoes at Pittsfield High School in Western Massachusetts. After graduating, he served two years in Occupied Japan before returning to study at Princeton University on the G.I. bill. He became a standout half miler and core member of their distance relay team. 

Joe Bolster (center) in the Tigers Singlet on the eve of an Ivy League meet, 1952


In 1950, running took him to England when he sailed with a united Cornell & Princeton squad to do battle with the students of Oxford & Cambridge in the Transatlantic University Series. On the ship over, he met Sarah, whom he would later marry. 


Joe specialized in the half mile, so he usually ran in the open 880 yards and the 4 by 880 relay, but on the day of the meet, the american miler Rob Akeley scratched the event. Joe moved up to the mile. He took the line with his teammate Ron Wittreich, a Cambridge student named Clarke, and a tall, unassuming young man from oxford by the name of Roger Bannister. Joe would finish fourth, clocking a respectable 4:38 behind Bannister’s 4:13. Next year, Joe and his 4x880 team would become All Americans on the track at Madison Square Garden. Three years after that, Bannister became the first man in history to run a mile in under four minutes. 


The Bolster family recently acquired this annotated program from the race in 1950. Until then, there were doubts about him having truly raced Bannister. 


After college, Joe and Sarah would have 14 children, which didn’t leave him much time for running, but in his 80’s, his son, also Joe, became a track coach. The sport wandered back into his life, and Joe Sr. came out of a forty-six year running-retirement. The 100m felt like a good race to concentrate on, so he entered some local races, and found he still had speed in his legs. Another of his sons, Andy, took him to see the Penn Relays last year, and after watching the 80+ heat of the 100m, Joe. turned to his son and said, “next year, I want to do this!”


So, training is in full swing. Joe Jr. writes the workouts; “Recently, I’ve been coaching him to do twice a week sessions of 6x30m hard with 100m walk in between. By the way his form is impeccable - a classic Pocket to Socket sprinter.” He’s also been taking recovery and injury prevention seriously so that he can run a Decade’s Best at Penn this April. 


To recover post workout, Joe walks the entire distance of the intervals he’s just done at a much slower pace. And, if pain ever flares up, “I just stop. I always test the area where I thought there was trouble in the next workout.” Joe pulled out of a race earlier this fall after feeling a twinge behind his knee. He’s 100% committed to being 100% healthy for the Relays.


When I asked Joe if he ran to inspire others or to make some kind of statement about age or longevity, he responded exactly as I imagine he would have in 1950 when building up to race the best miler in the world: “no, I’m just running for a personal best.” 


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Here’s a clip from the 1950 meet at White City in London and a recent race where he broke 30.  


Runners from each of the four schools warm up on race day. Joe’s Teammate is in the black singlet.

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