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Racing After Age 80? It’s Just Another Day for Della Works

Della Works' son inspired her to start running at age 49. Decades later, she still considers running and racing to be among life's greatest gifts.

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Her husband said it was crazy, which is exactly why she did it.

In February of 2004, Della Works boarded a Russian research ship and set sail for Antarctica. At 69 years old, Works was the oldest in a group of runners tackling 26.2 miles on the world’s southernmost continent.

“My husband was reading The Wall Street Journal when he was fishing,” Works said. “He came home and told me I had to read this article [about] a marathon in Antarctica. I said, ‘No way will I go to Antarctica. Will you go with me?’ He said, ‘I’m not going, but someday you will.’”

A few years after he passed away, his prediction became a reality.

“Antarctica was one of my favorites because of the scenery and the quietness. It was very special, mainly because of the camaraderie before and after [the race],” said Works, who ran in purple ski tights and a hooded windbreaker, which she purchased for $2 at a church thrift shop.

A sense of mutual support and companionship has motivated Works throughout her running journey. When she was 49 years old, her son Robert convinced her to register for her first race: an 8-mile run held by the Central Wyoming Fair and Rodeo in Casper, Wyoming. Only a few months later, 26-year-old Robert was killed in a plane crash in Alaska.

“My son died after he talked me into running,” Works said. “I feel that it’s a gift he left me because it makes me feel really good.”

Little did she know that those 8 miles would completely change her life and the lives of her five children and 14 grandchildren. “It became contagious,” Works said. “My daughters have done marathons and now I’ve got grandchildren running them, too. All of my grandchildren are active in some kind of sport. Whenever we run together, we do it in Robert’s honor for his great gift that keeps us healthy.”

Several years after her first race, Works was inspired to challenge herself through running again—this time by a senior athlete acquaintance who motivated Works to complete a half marathon. “She talked me into doing a half marathon, and then I beat her! And she said, ‘Now you’ve got to do a marathon!’” said Works, who went on to tackle her first marathon a few years later.

Running has taken Works all over the United States and around the world, from the Great Wall Marathon in China to the 100th Anniversary Olympic Marathon in Athens, Greece. Running also led Works to the Senior Games and the National Senior Games, a biennial competition that’s open to runners ages 50 and older.

Della Works at the Great Wall Marathon. Photo provided by Della Works.

After 28 years of participating in the Senior Games, competing in 14 National Senior Games and serving on her state’s Senior Games board, Works is currently preparing for the 2019 National Senior Games. In Albuquerque, N.M., this June, Works will compete in six events: the 200-meter, 400m, 800m and 1500m runs, in addition to the 5K and 10K. She takes a varied approach to training, incorporating cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the mountains outside her home in Casper, Wyo. She credits her husband with inspiring her love for the outdoors.

“He loved the mountains and he taught me to love the mountains,” Works said. “I have climbed 22 of the 58 “14ers,” as they call [mountain peaks reaching heights of 14,000 feet and greater] in Colorado. The highest one in Wyoming is just over 13,000 feet. I do it for cross-training and I enjoy it by doing it with friends. I also cross-country ski and race in the winter Games up here. I think the love of the mountains and the outdoors and being raised a farm girl is what has kept me healthy.”

Works has experienced some health concerns over the years, including atrial fibrillation. Since turning 80, Works no longer completes marathons, opting for the half-marathon distance instead. She also recently decided not to participate in the long jump, due to concern that she may injure herself. “I just count my blessings that at my age I still can move,” Works said.

For Works, running is not just about being able to train and compete—she is inspired by the camaraderie and friendships she has made along the way. “I keep going because of the people in these Games. It’s a wonderful community of people, and we all love the camaraderie. They say I’m inspiring, but it’s the people I meet that inspire my soul. They help keep me motivated.”

Della Works at the Antarctica Marathon. Photo provided by Della Works.