Toshiko D’Elia, who broke many age-group world marathon records for women over 50, died of brain cancer on February 19, 2014. She was the first woman over age 50 to run a marathon in under three hours, in 2:57:25 (August, 1980) and the first woman over age 65 to run under 7:00 minutes in the mile (1997). She won 29 age-group marathon championships (six in New York, eight in Boston, five in the Jersey Shore Marathon, and ten at the Twin Cities Marathon). She did not start running until she was 44 years old.
Toshiko Kishimoto was born in Kyoto, Japan in 1930 and suffered incredible hardships during the war years. She said, “After World War II, we starved. My mother would stand on food lines all day and come home with a cucumber to feed a family of six.”
She studied special education for the deaf in Tokyo and won a Fulbright scholarship to study at Syracuse University in the United States. There she married and had a daughter. Her husband left her soon afterwards, so she returned to Japan with a six-month old child. Her father would have nothing to do with her, saying that she had disgraced her family. She returned to the United States and taught at the New York School for the Deaf in White Plains, N.Y. She married Manfred D’Elia, a piano teacher and pianist who helped to rescue Japanese girls disfigured by the atomic bombs.
First Race at Age 44
In March 1974, D’Elia’s daughter Erica asked her mother to run in a high school cross country race with her. Incredibly, this 44 year-old woman finished third in the race for teen-age girls (won by her daughter).
D’Elia began to run longer and longer distances. In January 1976 she planned to run only half way in the Jersey Shore Marathon because she had never run more than 15 miles. As planned, she stopped at the 15-mile mark, but nobody came to pick her up. It was very cold that day and she was afraid that she would suffer a drop in body temperature, so she resumed running. She finished in 3:25, which was fast enough for her to qualify for the Boston Marathon. In April, 1976, she came in 15th out of all the women in the Boston Marathon.
Now she was hooked on running and upped her training to 90 miles a week. At age 49 (April, 1979), she won her age group in the Boston Marathon (2 hours 58 minutes 11 seconds). Soon afterwards she had surgery for cervical cancer. Four months later (April, 1980), she ran the Boston Marathon in 3:09:07. One year later, she won the world masters championship in Scotland (2:57:20). Her husband, who was also a runner, supported her throughout her spectacular running career. He died of Alzheimer’s disease in 2000.
At age 75 (2005), D’Elia fell during a 12-mile race and broke her arm. She finished the race, holding her broken arm with her other hand. In 2008 she had open-heart surgery for an aneurysm in her heart. She resumed running soon afterwards and kept on running until she was diagnosed with brain cancer two months before her death. When she was in her eighties, she was also swimming a mile every day, running in the water for 45 minutes and taking a yoga class. Each afternoon, she ran three to five miles.
Healthful Life after Early Deprivation
D’Alia was five feet tall and weighed less than 100 pounds. Her severe-food deprivation during World War II may actually have improved her potential as a runner. There is weak suggestive evidence that food restriction can help delay aging by improving circulation, which would make a person a better runner.
There is strong evidence that regular exercise helps to prevent certain cancers and increases survival, but we still have a lot to learn about what causes cancer. Both exercise and a healthful diet are known to reduce cancer risk, and may have helped her to live into her eighties. Her cervical cancer was probably the result of an infection. We have no idea what caused her aneurysm, a ballooning of the walls of her heart. It could have been from the extreme deprivation of vitamins and other nutrients she suffered in her early years.
Inspiration for Everyone
This is a story about an incredible person who suffered extreme hardships early in life, started training for competitive sports at age 44 and went on to break world age-group records in her sport. You too can start training for competitive sports at any age, and even if you don’t break world records, you can still compete in your sport and be more healthy and maybe live longer as a result.
January 2, 1930 – February 19, 2014