Joyce Hodges-Hite: At 80-Years-Young, Still Doing Marathons
In 1949, then 12-year-old Joyce Hodges-Hite, living in rural Millen, Georgia, 50 miles south of Augusta, discovered she was a “naturally fast runner.” The sixth grader felt she was “pitiful” at every team sport she’d tried. But Hodges-Hite discovered that not only did she love this solitary exercise, but that her legs practically flew as she ran across the farm fields! The roadblock: “Daddy didn’t enjoy his daughter wearing shorts. But wearing a dress on the track slowed me down.”
It took 30 years before Hodges-Hite attempted to run again after her first husband, who was also her tennis partner, suffered a stroke. Unafraid to wear shorts, there was another roadblock: Only one other woman in town ran, and she was the subject of derision. In order not to be seen “in the same category as the ‘crazy lady who ran for fun’”, Hodges-Hite decided to run with a purpose: competing in races. She began training on her own – “I didn’t know anything about the right equipment. I ran in Converse shoes.” Alas, in 1980 she fell on the pavement and broke her hip.
Seven weeks later, sprung from the body cast, she decided to train seriously. With a coach at her side and wearing proper footwear, Hodges-Hite ran six days a week, including Sunday mornings before church. She began winning races and the respect of her community.
She ran her first marathon in 1983 at the age of 46, finishing in three hours and 52 minutes at the Hunter Air Force Base in Savannah, Georgia. “I was very proud.” She did two minutes better at her next marathon in 1984. In 1988 she was “mad as spite” that she clocked in at four hours and 13 seconds at the TCS New York City Marathon.
All thoughts of her running time evaporated a short time later because her husband died.
When she was ready to date again, her friends set her up with a fellow runner: Jim Hite. They married in 1991 and ran races together every Saturday. “Right after the wedding we went to Albuquerque,” Hodges-Hite explains, adding, “Jim did a 5 K, and the next day I did a 50 K – 31 miles. He drove his car along the route and offered support to me or any other runner who needed it.”
She says simply, “There are so many things you share with a runner: truly understanding if you didn’t have a good race or if you had a great one; empathy if you have an injury…”
Five years after their marriage, both retired from their jobs as schoolteachers and began running marathons together around the world from Scranton, Pennsylvania to Dubai.
In August 2013, at age 79, Jim Hite came in fourth in his age group in a Duathlon (run-bike meet) in Ottawa. A month later, after a physical therapy session and his daily four-mile run, he died of heat stroke.
Hodges-Hite says simply, “We were soul mates.” She wrote a book about their adventures together, We’re Going the Wrong Way Again, Jim. https://www.amazon.com/Were-Going-Wrong-Way-Again/dp/1633384861
It never occurred to her to stop running after her husband’s death. “People thought I did it to keep Jim alive but really, it’s been my raison d’ëtre since 1980.”
Now, when she travels, sometimes her granddaughter tags along. This past May the two traveled to Prague where the 25-year-old cheered on her 80-year-old grandmother. Hodges-Hite’s time was seven hours, three minutes. Why did it take that long? “We ran on cobblestones.”
Hodges-Hite has come a long way since the days when she raced to avoid being thought of as a crazy lady. “I enjoy a certain amount of respect, particularly from my former students and runners I have coached.”
Running helps her to stay healthy. “I know my quality of life is boosted by my physical activity.”
During training periods her days are centered on working out: an hour on the treadmill, one half hour on the Chuck Norris Total Gym machine,10 minutes on the exercise bike and plenty of stretching. And of course, running. “You’ve got to have discipline. Yesterday I ran on the track in the rain. It felt silly but I had to do it.”
The main difference she has noticed as a senior runner is that her stride has shortened. “I used to be very fast at short distances. Not anymore.”
On November 5th, nearly 30 years after her first race in New York, she returned for the marathon. She had no expectation she’d do anywhere near the four hours and 13 seconds she did in the 1988 marathon. “I’d love to do in the low six’s, it will probably be under seven hours.”
The reality: It was a struggle. At mile 19 the marathon staff tried to usher her into the “sweep bus”. She wouldn’t be swept off the field. A young girl running alongside held Hodges-Hite’s arm for the last seven miles. After crossing the finish line at 8:52, Hodges-Hite fell over backwards, hitting her head and breaking her wrist and elbow! “In the past I’ve had to be forced into an ambulance. This time no one had to force me.”
The accident has put a little crimp in her style: “I was planning to set two records back in Georgia on Thanksgiving Day and run a 12 K and 6 K race…” She adds mischievously, “Maybe they can tie my arm to my body and I can still do it!”
Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW is a NYC-based therapist, speaker and author of four books, including How Does That Make You Feel?: Confessions from Both Sides of the Therapy Couch and The Complete Marriage Counselor: Relationship-Saving Advice from America’s Top 50-Plus Couples Therapists. Her website is www.marriedfaq.com.