A Chat with Dick Wilkowski, Master Runner

An Austin runner shares his story

If you run regularly in Austin, there are all kinds of people you come to recognize on the trail or at a race, yet you’ve never met them. They may get a nickname or you may learn their identities from race results. Some become welcome faces while others turn into arch nemeses.

If you’ve been racing here over the last 30 years, you’ve seen Dick Wilkowski. Wilkowski (68) moved from New York to Austin in 1976 to work at IBM. In 1982, Wilkowski was “a little bit sluggish and a little bit overweight” when a friend at the office ran the Capitol 10K, inspiring Wilkowski to start walking and running. That October, he ran his first race, the St. David’s 5K, on the Roy and Ann Butler Hike and Bike Trail. Wilkowski recalled his time without hesitation: 26.41. “I caught the racing bug,” he said. When RunTex offered free training with Mixon Henry, around 1996, Wilkowski began serious workouts.

During that period Wilkowski raced 20 or more events a year; now, he’s cut back to some 15 races annually. His favorite distances are the 10K (6.2 miles) and 10-miler because they “give you a chance to gather your thoughts and collect yourself.” While he sometimes runs 5Ks (3.1 miles), he prefers the longer distances because “a 5K is a lot of work; you gotta go all the way.” Wilkowski has completed four marathons (26.2 miles): two Austin Motorola marathons, one LaSalle Bank Chicago marathon (1997, for a Boston qualifying time), and the Boston Marathon in 1999. “That’s it,” he said. “Now, a half marathon [13.1 miles] is a big deal.”

Wilkowski won his age group in last year’s inaugural half marathon track of the Austin Fit Magazine Distance Challenge (AFMDC). This year, Wilkowski and Austin-area athlete Walt Tashnick battled it out over the first two races, separated only by seconds. At the 2011 ARC Decker Challenge, “[Tashnick] eclipsed me,” said Wilkowski. Tashnick is a new competitor; Wilkowski has had a fairly constant set of age group rivals over the last 30 years, primarily Jon Wisser and Greg Evans. After Decker, Wilkowski had a cumulative time of 4:10:44 to Tashnick’s 4:03:52, putting Tashnick ahead. However, Wilkowski is in the half marathon track and Tashnick in the full marathon track, which means Wilkowski is again first place in his age group.

Wilkowski trained with Gilbert’s Gazelles but since 2008, he has run solo. He retired from IBM in 2007, returning to work the next month as a contractor. “Maybe when I retire for real, “ Wilkowski laughed, “I’ll get back to Gazelles and maybe do some yoga and stretching and Pilates.”

Wilkowski has had few injuries (two bouts of plantar fasciitis and two hamstring issues, none of which lasted longer than six weeks), and he wonders what role his training schedule might play in that statistic. He only runs three days a week—four days a week during marathon training…maybe. “I don’t know how to explain…what I’ve been able to achieve with the race results and what not,” he said. Wilkowski’s still running 22-minute 5Ks, though that is slower than his personal best, set 10 years ago when he had what he calls a “second peak.” That year, at age 57, Wilkowski ran an 18.57 5K and a 1:28 half marathon (at 3M—a 6.45-mile pace), which he attributes to the marathon training he did the year before. Since then, [Wilkowski] has seen slower times.

“It’s interesting,” he mused. “I expected times to drop incrementally, you know, little by little each year, but it’s like I went off a cliff about three years ago. I was 65, still pretty competitive, and I thought I was running fast times. Then I got injured, I can’t blame that anymore, but after that, my time just went off the cliff. Before that, I used to run 19-minute 5Ks all the time. Now, if I break 22, I’m happy.” While many runners would be ecstatic to see a 22-minute 5K at any age, Wilkowski has known faster times: “I’m getting slower and slower faster and faster.” He has promised himself “when I do 26.41 [his first 5K time] again, that’s when I call it quits and hang up the spikes.”

Now, Wilkowski sticks almost exclusively to the softer surface of the Roy and Ann Butler Hike and Bike Trail, running about 20 miles a week by mixing the loops and varying the directions. He mostly runs by himself. His wife, Vickie, and son, Chris, are very supportive. Vickie, who retired in 2009 after 30 years at HEB in the human resources department, doesn’t run but she works out every day on the treadmill. Wilkowski still loves racing and his goal for the AFMDC is simply to enjoy himself and stay healthy—his reasons for starting to run all those years ago.

Regarding longevity in the sport, he quoted the late Dr. George Sheehan: “Every runner is an experiment of one.” Wilkowski suggested “tempering” running: miles and years add up, taking their toll, he said, and he reflected on his three-day-a-week routine: has it helped him achieve 30 years of running success? “It worked for me,” Wilkowski said, “Will it work for everyone? I don’t know.” In the meantime, Wilkowski looks forward to the final races in the AFMDC and swears, “I’ll give it one more shot after I retire….”

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