'Bustin' the Envelope'
How Jay Smith, 65 and still running, defies time and age
Jay Smith has a cold. This does not stop him from finishing his hill workout, eight hill climbs “very hard” at 45 seconds each, along Gimghoul Circle on a sunny but chilly Wednesday in late January, nor does it stop him from progressing to the final part of his workout: four 100-meter sprints, as fast as his body allows, on UNC’s powder-blue Irwin Belk Track.
“God, I’m whipped,” Smith, in a too-big black beanie, black tights and gloves, and neon green Sauconys, says in his high-pitched voice before starting the repeats. “I’m not kidding. I hammered that hill.”
He coughs. He’s been battling the cold for a couple of weeks now. No time to rest, though: He has a race – two of them actually – in 10 days, and he has to be ready.
So there he is, jogging toward the near corner of the track, coughing and grunting and sighing, before taking off on his first sprint. His arms swing wide; his legs, rail-thin and made even skinnier by the tights, move efficiently. “Huh, hey-huh,” he grunts, then coughs. He finishes, bends over, puts his hands on his knees, and yells angrily.
“You’ve probably never seen me like this,” he says, between breaths. “Jesus Pete. I’m not even thinking clearly right now. It’s kind of embarrassing. Seriously, it’s embarrassing.”
There’s something you should know about Jay Smith: He will not stop running. There’s another thing you should know about Jay Smith: He is 65 years old.
Before Smith started running, before he starting cranking out eight 95-second 400-meter repeats once a week, before he became a symbol of health and hope after your hair starts falling out and your eyesight dulls, he was relatively normal. He grew up outside of Fayetteville, N.C., playing basketball and softball — “in an amateurish sort of way,” he emphasizes — and running only for those. In high school he was a member of an informal basketball team that often scrimmaged the junior varsity team, and often beat them. After high school he came to UNC.
Smith lived in Aycock and majored in business. “It was not named Kenan-Flagler [Business School] in 1971,” he says after finally finishing the workout, more relaxed now, with soft blue eyes peering through clear glasses, his age more apparent with the beanie off and the energy of running gone, “but they assured me I could cite that on a resume.” He takes casual sips from his water bottle, tidily packed in a blue lunch box, on his feet rocking back and forth inside the Eddie Smith Fieldhouse. “There’s a somewhat infamous quote when that thing first opened: ‘Don’t let anybody from the English Department come out and see this,’” he says of the current behemoth business complex. This was after he polished off his FRS energy drink, which he calls “my brew.” (“Frankly, it’s probably a waste of my money,” he says. “Like most energy drinks.”)
UNC athletes, in Smith’s day, lived in Ehringhaus, and they were allowed to compete in intramural sports. So when Smith and his Aycock “dorm rats” beat E-Haus in the softball championship one year — riding the arm of the best pitcher in the league and a strong defense — it was, in Smith’s eyes, legendary. He has always loved to win.
After graduating in 1971, Smith worked for two or three years in Chapel Hill, and met his wife, Pamela, a nurse at UNC Hospitals, before he started work in the office of UNC’s president and becoming the associate vice president for finance. He also picked up tennis, because “I lived in some condos that had tennis courts.”
He began running to stay in shape for tennis but soon realized his game had peaked, so one day he came to the track and ran. He was 50 when he entered his first race, the Franklin Street Mile, and after that he was hooked by running's cathartic rhythm and refreshing simplicity. “You either get to the finish line first, or you don’t,” he says. “The clock doesn’t lie.”
So he started training. Hired a coach, started doing workouts, introduced structure to a mostly lawless sport. Running provided perspective and sanctuary, especially when he was working a 9-to-5. “It’s definitely a good place to go,” he says. “It was always a thing to look forward to at the end of the day: Close the office door behind you, and either the track or the trails are calling.”
They called him after he retired at 62, too. It was January 2011, and cold, when Smith approached Kristin Sellers, then a 22-year-old graduate student, during her workout on UNC’s indoor track. He asked if he could trail her on the workout; Sellers said yes. So was born one of Chapel Hill’s more unique training partnerships.
They would run together one to two times a month, at the track or cross country course, Smith’s speed complementing Sellers’ endurance. “Anyone who wasn’t a regular at the track probably looked at us like, ‘What is going on?’” Sellers says. She provided pacing, and Smith introduced her to the running community. “All of the regulars know him,” she says.
More alluring than training, though, was racing. In August 2012, he medaled for the first time, grabbing third in the 800-meter race at the U.S. Track and Field Outdoors Masters Championships. His time was 2:31. He’s run a mile in 5:51; 3,000 meters in 11:24; 5,000 in 21:10; and 10,000 in just over 45 minutes in various Masters meets.
Two years ago, Smith hired Andrew Allden, a renowned running coach and assistant at South Carolina, to coach him. A typical week of training: three workouts, three 45-minute recovery runs and one 60-minute long run, for about 30 miles a week, all documented on a digital running log. “Sometimes Jay takes my advice too well,” Allden says. “If I ever have a typo, he’ll do exactly what’s in the log, without question.”
Here’s a question: Why do you run? Smith knows he’s an anomaly, a 65-year-old mix of permanence and grace who defies stereotypes and refuses to yield to Father Time’s restrictions. This is a question many runners can’t answer. Smith is thoughtful. He pauses for a few seconds, and begins.
“I think a big part of it is it’s something you can do basically all of your life,” he says. “And the health aspect is a driver, because I feel better exercising. And to have something you actually enjoy doing while you’re exercising motivates me — I like that idea. The other thing is, even though I’ve always been extremely mediocre in sports, I do like the idea of competition. I like the camaraderie in the running community particularly, because at least in Masters track we’re very supportive. We compete like hell between the start and finish line, but when it’s all over, it’s all congratulations.”
But he knows time and age will, one day, slow him. He’s just prolonging the ride.
"Every day is a gift,” Smith says. “Because we don’t know when this will be our last workout. And it is true. We all have our little ailments also. And not just runner’s ailments — they’re naturally aging ailments, because I can tell you the Masters runners that I know, we’re probably pushing ourselves too hard. Runners at all ages do that, but we don’t give ourselves a break just because of age. We’re bustin’ the envelope.”
Like he did during the hill workout. He jokes that he had to pay extra attention running across the road to get to the track, because he was “almost incoherent.” There is one route that never fails to make him feel like this: Hard Climb Hill in Duke Forest.
“If I die at my desk, pray for me,” he used to tell his wife. “If I die running up Hard Climb Hill, celebrate.”
He smiles. Jay Smith will keep running on.