Written by Kelly Joy
“With the marathon you must struggle, you have to move to a painful place.”Erica Szilagyi 1.24.2020
Erica Szilagyi strides out to meet me, expressive hands waving, her voice warm and loud. She is such a petite little thing, but there is no hiding her open, all-encompassing presence, it pretty much socks you in the mouth and then hugs you better. I am quickly guided into her bright and airy conservatory, the evening Florida sun dancing on her fledging paintings, a new skill she is dabbling with. The serenity of the room is an interesting contrast to the woman who has just scooped me up at the front door and thrust a red tea in my hand.
OK let’s stop there! I think before I move on, I need to do a quick Erica statistical run down for you, so you can truly comprehend how epic one woman can be.
Erica in Numbers:
Years running – 46
Total Marathons – Erica Szilagyi, teacher and mother of three grown women herself, has run 34 Marathons. Yes, people you heard correctly THIRTY-FOUR MARATHONS. WOWSERS!!
Boston Marathon – 12 of those marathons have been at the breathtaking, revered Boston Marathon – The world’s oldest annual marathon established in 1897, which makes it an astonishing 123 years old.
Fastest Marathon – 3 hours 13 minutes – fast.
Fastest 5K – 18 minutes 50 secs – even faster.
Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that at 59 ½ years old (her own words, by the way she does not look a day over 50) that Erica is an animated bundle of running knowledge, a force to be reckoned with, all cemented in a heart of gold. PSSST on another aside, she turns 60 the day before she runs the Gold Label Chicago Marathon, the perfect way to celebrate a new decade of life, don’t you think?
As you can imagine, I was excited to sit down to chat, pick her brain and dig down to the core of what makes Erica tick. Eager to discover the drive that has kept her running all these years, since that day when she first laced up at age 14 years old? To be honest, there is pretty much nothing Erica does not know about running and especially the marathon.
Originally, a native of Philadelphia Erica did most of her growing up in the urban landscape that is Detroit. But, at the fresh-faced age of 20, as the eighties hit; the age of computers, conservatism and end of the cold war, Erica chased the sun and headed south to land in Naples. Via a sojourn in Texas where she went to college and earned her degree in Biology and Nutrition. Her path led her to become a teacher of AP Environmental Sciences and then on to study a master’s degree in counseling. Which is where her skillset now lies, helping teens to become the best possible versions of themselves. What better role model, than Erica herself?
My question to her was, why running? Sure, we could discuss her recent race, the Jacksonville marathon, where she ran a 3 hours 38 minutes with change (impressive). We could chew the fat about her big races of years past. We could skip along her athletic journey. But what I truly want to comprehend is why Erica runs, what keeps her running as she grows older and as her body changes? How does one move through time, life and keep being able to bound through marathon after marathon, still relishing the journey, the struggle and achievement? Of course, with age we slow down. We may peak in our 20’s or 30’s, and then we must adjust our goals or reason to run. Or maybe the reason has always been a constant, never wavering, concrete?
Erica was not a college runner, but she always ran. It was a part of her day, her routine, her wellbeing. I mean, there was no cross-country girls’ team in her high school and with there being no set path to her education, she flitted to different colleges as her degree focus shifted, Erica never settled in a track team. Remember these were different times, Title IX was only introduced in 1972, which brought about equality in sports and increased athletic opportunities for females; hence let’s have a female cross – country track team!
Now comes the history lesson –
The following is the original text as written and signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1972:
No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.
— Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute (20 U.S. Code § 1681 – Sex)
Did you know It was not until 1967 that Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon. She was subjected to disgruntled officials trying to shove her off the course, because at the time women were still deemed unable to compete at these distances.
Did you know that a female was not allowed to run an Olympic marathon until 1984? It was at the L.A games and the race was won by the phenomenal Joan Benoit in a time of 2:24.52
Yet, Erica kept on running. And at age 24 years, completely self-trained, she ran her first marathon. It was in 1984 at the NYC marathon, the same year Joan Benoit ran her first Olympic marathon. Serendipitous? I think so.
Taking another sip of delicious tea (I am British after all), I ask her what it is about that distance she holds so dear? She goes on to explain that the beauty of the marathon for her is, “We have everything in life all laid out, but in the marathon you must struggle, you have to move to a painful place and reemerge to finish. Every time you run one you learn something new.” Erica carries on expressing that running is not something she “needs” but, “it is a part of my life. I do not feel good unless I run. So, I run.” It is a parallel to breathing, eating and being. Without it, things stop ticking over and equilibrium is disrupted.
After Erica’s recent impressive time at Jacksonville, she will be running Boston again for 2020, this will be her thirteenth time, almost four months shy of her sixtieth birthday. How has her training changed? How has she coped with slowing down? Erica confesses, that yes, it is difficult mentally, not to be as speedy as she was in her twenties, but it is the process of the run that is the challenge and the drive, not necessarily her speed. As you can see, she is still kicking ass in her age group. She goes on to explain that strength training has become a greater focus as she has aged, because with age, we lose muscle mass. It is also about respecting her body, avoiding injury and letting her muscles and mind rest. She now does yoga to help with her strength and flexibility. All of this has meant she can still do “that thing” she loves.
If you know Erica, you know you cannot have talk about her running, without discussing Boston, her heart race. I ask her what it is about the Boston that she finds so beautiful and engaging that it keeps drawing her back? She explains that on top of it being the oldest marathon in the world, when Boston is run on Patriots day, the whole city stops, the whole city comes out to cheer, it is a holiday, a tradition and it is a tough course with those hills. Erica’s feet have pounded the course from Hopkinton to Copley Square in 1988, 1994, 1995, 1997, 2000, 2001 and then she decided to try her hand at triathlons for 10 years (as you do) and then continued her streak every year from 2012 – 2017, 2019 and now 2020. Need a blow for blow account of running Boston, Erica Szilagyi is your number one resource.
What I love about Erica is her openness, her resilience, her passion and that there is an innate gentleness simmering underneath. This makes her quick to care, nurture and to see the good. She strives to be better. There is so much more to her than what you see. For instance, she paces every year at the Naples Half Marathon, pushing others to achieve their own goals, a pursuit she finds enriching. I want to know more. We move into her five-year plan. What does she have left to achieve, when you have already achieved so much, and this is where you truly see the woman that is Erica Szilagyi?
5 Year – Run Plan
Run the Comrades Marathon (55 miles) in South Africa, it is the world’s oldest and largest ultramarathon established in 1921. Women are currently excelling at these longer distances; I am excited to see her knock this out of the park.
To stay healthy and continue to run.
To continue to run Boston. (You know she will and continue to strive.)
5 Year – Life Plan
To explore, express and celebrate her creativity with her painting and writing. Erica also would like to join the Peace Corps. I could not think of a more perfect person to travel the world and help others.
While interviewing Erica, I certainly did not have enough time, and I most definitely do not possess the adequate vocabulary to give her the written justice she deserves. How can one condense her journey so far, her commitment to her sport, her successes, her challenges in to one article? She is strong and has so much to give. Just like in her twenties, she is still growing, changing and evolving in life and her sport. For me though, I will remain an interested bystander, watching in fascination and delight as she pursues her goals. She will most certainly still crush the marathon. But to see her attempt a longer distance is something I cannot wait to witness, because for Erica Szilagyi even though her speed may be winding down, I believe her true potential is only just beginning to shine through. Erica may be turning 60 years old in 2020, but her running journey is far from finished and may even be just truly beginning.
MORE Erica Szilagyi stats
-Favorite sneakers – Training – Saucony Kinvara, Racing – Nike Vaporfly.
-Fuel – Gu, Sports Beans.
-Trademark – A big smile and positive outlook.
-Inspirational figures – Betty Lou Tucker from the Gulf Coast runners, still running in her eighties.
-Thing most people do not know about her – She loves to paint, journal and garden.
-Special power – Experience, talent and grit.
-Furthest run – 50K.