NEW YORK — When more than 45,000 runners begin to race through the streets of New York City on Sunday, somewhere between the elite athletes and the weekend warriors will be a 70-year-old retired music teacher who has finished every New York City Marathon since 1976.
Almost 400 people competing have completed 15 or more New York City Marathons. But Dave Obelkevich is the only one to finish so many in a row, according to Sarah Huvane of the New York Road Runners, which organizes the race.
“Back then it was four loops around Central Park,” Obelkevich, who lives in Manhattan, said about being inspired in 1972 after watching the winners interviewed on a morning-after television talk show.
“I don't think I did any races before I watched that program,” he said.
The following year Obelkevich, who was already a swimmer and a cyclist, hopped in mid-race. His first finish was in 1974 and in 1975 he got dizzy and dropped out.
“My actual streak starts in '76,” he said, the same year that the 26.2-mile [42.1-km] course extended out to the five boroughs of the city.
“I've finished every single year since then,” he said, noting that 2012 doesn't count because the race was canceled in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.
Obelkevich said his yearly ritual hasn't changed with time, but his goals have.
“In my 30s I thought if I can't run faster than the year before there's no point in finishing it,” he said. “Now I just want to finish. That's my goal.”
He likens his running history to a bell-shaped curve. His first finish was 4 hours, 20 minutes, then he got faster and faster until he peaked at 2 hours, 40 minutes in 1982.
“I was very proud of that,” he said.
The next few years he ran under 3 hours, then under 4 hours in the following 18-20 years. Now he's satisfied to be under 5 hours.
“There are lots of people ahead of me but there are lots of people behind me as well,” said Obelkevich, who has also run marathons, sometimes more than once, in South Africa, Japan, Switzerland and London.
Still an avid swimmer and cyclist, Obelkevich trains for the race by running 35-40 miles (56 to 64 km) a week, with a long run added in once or twice a month.
Back pain has sidelined him for the last week or so.
“But if it happens that the day before the race I still have pain, I'm pretty sure I can run 26.2 miles,” he said.
Dr. Walter Thompson, a professor of kinesiology and certified program director at the American College of Sports Medicine, said people like Obelkevich are fine, if rare, examples of what one can aspire to.
“He's been doing it for a long time. He knows how to train,” said Thompson, “but he's so atypical [of people in his age group], probably less than 1/10th of 1 percent.”
Florida-based fitness and wellness expert Shirley Archer notes that what the aging body loses in speed and power, it can gain in endurance with proper training.
“Physiologically, as we age, we actually lose fast-twitch muscle fibers and therefore increase proportionately our slow twitch or endurance-oriented muscle fibers,” Archer said.
Fast-twitch muscle fibers are engaged in high-intensity, short burst activities and low-twitch fibers release energy gradually.
This is why, she said, with proper training, we can enjoy endurance activities, such as marathon running, even as we age.
Obelkevich said he is 10-15 pounds (4.5 to 6.8 kg) lighter than he was in high school. He credits running with keeping him in such good shape.
“You can run at any age,” said Obelkevich. “I'm never going to break a world record at age 70, so I run the race for fun.”