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At 86, Racing the Fifth Avenue Mile to the Marathon is Still “Euphoria”

Ginette Bedard is a local New York running celeb. She’ll be among the oldest runners on Sunday at the Fifth Avenue Mile.

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It doesn’t matter how far away it is or how fast she gets there—masters runner Ginette Bedard still loves a finish line. She hopes to see yet another one on Sunday at the Fifth Avenue Mile, a race she has done every year since 2002.

“The finish line is beautiful,” says Bedard, 86, who holds the U.S. marathon record for 75 to 79-year-old women, a mark she set in 2008 when she ran 4:08:31 at the New York City Marathon. “If you don’t race, you don’t see a finish line.”

She will be among the oldest competitors—man or woman—but such a distinction doesn’t faze Bedard, whose drive remains strong. Not content to merely participate, Bedard wants to win the 80-plus age group and expects to feel her usual race-day jitters before sprinting down the avenue.

“The shorter the run, the faster you have to run,” says Bedard, who grew up in France before moving to Queens in 1972. “It’s stressful, but it’s beautiful. Everyone is applauding, and oh la la, it’s euphoria.”

She’s learned a lot since that 2002 race, when she wore a wig. It didn’t go well.

“Biggest mistake,” she says. “I had to hold my wig while I was running, and it slowed me down. Never again did I wear a wig.”

Despite the hair fiasco, she ran 7:27 in her first one-mile race.

A relentless competitor

After the Fifth Avenue Mile on Sunday, Bedard has no plans to take a break. Bedard is gearing up for the 2019 New York City Marathon on November 3, a race she has completed 16 consecutive times. Once again, she will be the oldest competitor.

“I’m 86, but I don’t feel 86,” she says. “I have no health problems whatsoever.”

Bedard has always been a masters runner. She didn’t start running until she was 68, urged on by some coworkers while working at an airline at JFK Airport.

Bedard soon discovered that she not only loved it, she had untapped talent. At the 2005 New York City Marathon, Bedard, then 72, ran 3:46:18, setting a U.S. record for 70- to 74-year-old women.

That mark stood until last year, when Jeannie Rice, now 71, ran 3:27:50 at the Chicago Marathon. (Rice’s performance remains a pending age-group record, according to U.S.A. Track and Field records.)

Bedard says she cherishes her records, but she accepts that they won’t last forever.

“That’s what you call progress,” she says. “There is always someone who is better than you.”

Beyond the marathon and the Fifth Avenue Mile, she has become a bit of a local celebrity over the years. Bedard remains one-of-a-kind, says Christine Burke, an executive with New York Road Runners. Since 2001, Bedard has finished 341 NYRR races.

“Her pace would be respectable for someone half her age, and she won’t be kept sidelined by even the most challenging New York City weather conditions,” Burke says. “I dream of having her running longevity.”

A simple plan

Far away from the bustle of Central Park she enjoys on the weekends, Bedard usually trains alone near her home in Howard Beach, Queens.

She keeps training simple: Wake up early, head to the beach, and run for two hours on the sand. She goes home, eats a fried egg, drinks coffee, and takes a nap.

“If I don’t run, I’m depressed,” she says. “I do my run, I come home, and I’m very happy.”

She lives with her son, Gery Bedard, who not only chauffeurs his mother to races, but also runs alongside her. Since Ginette’s husband died five years ago, they are especially close.

“She’s my role model,” says Gery, 54. “I’d like to follow in her footsteps as far as physical fitness. I believe trying to keep up with her improves my time. It’s a morale booster, and it helps both of us.”

In the 2016 New York City Marathon, he caught up to his mother halfway and they finished together. He will join her at the marathon again this year.

As far as Ginette Bedard can tell, November’s finish line will just be one of many more to come.

“I am going to do it until my body gives up,” she says. “Running is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Bedard as the oldest competitor at the 2019 Fifth Avenue Mile. Juanita Alleyne, 88, was the oldest female runner and Jonathan Mendes, 98, was the oldest male competitor.