For half-marathon runner, age is just a number

At 84, Ella Jane Custer runs to inspire others that being older doesn't mean fading away

A terrifying thought crosses Ella Jane Custer's mind once in a while.

She pictures someone sitting in a chair all day, watching life go by from inside an empty house. It lingers as her deepest fear.

At the age of 84, she knows this is what's expected of her. In the eyes of so many, people aren't supposed to do certain things past a certain age. They aren't supposed to get out of that chair and be constantly active. They aren't supposed to run every day. And they're certainly not supposed to participate in a half-marathon, let alone two in one month.

Take a quick tour of the Pittsburgh Marathon course

Mara Spisso, charity coordinator, offers a runner's perspective of the 26.2-mile course for this year's Dick's Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon. (Video by Steve Mellon; 4/28/2014)

Then again, Mrs. Custer is not like most 84-year-olds.

The Wheeling, W.Va., resident will be running in the UPMC Health Plan Pittsburgh Half Marathon Sunday, the next event in what has become her journey to defy both time and conventional wisdom.

In her running career, she has been a part of more than 200 races and, miraculously, she has found a way to keep going.

"I hang on because I'm trying to get the people out," she said. "Just because you're older, they think you have to sit in a chair, and that's just not right. I want to be there to help people."

That personal mission to aid and inspire others is not limited to a single Sunday morning in Pittsburgh. On May 24, she will run in a half-marathon in Wheeling, the 33rd time she has done so in the past 37 years. Later this year, she will run in the Columbus (Ohio) Half Marathon for what she said will be the last time.

The races are an important part of Mrs. Custer's life, but there's more to that life than running 13.1 miles every few weeks. There is the training that goes on for weeks and months, the kind of work that makes what she's accomplishing at her age that much more impressive.

She exercises almost every day, be it running, walking or weightlifting. On Sunday, as a final tune-up for the half marathon, she ran 10 miles at what she estimated to be a 13-minute-mile pace. Monday, she spent two hours on the track with an instructor. She ran five miles on both Wednesday and Thursday.

"It's a challenge, it is," said Mrs. Custer, who worked as a pet groomer for much of her life. "But at 84, what else would I have to do?"

While it would seem like so much physical activity would put a strain on her body, Mrs. Custer rarely has to deal with anything worse than the occasional aches and pains after a run. She describes herself as "one of the lucky ones," someone who has been able to pursue what she loves without the chronic knee and joint problems that have derailed so many others who have tried.

It seems like a fitting descriptor, but in many ways, it's also a strange one. In her life, Mrs. Custer has been diagnosed with breast cancer, ovarian cancer and melanoma, all of which she has overcome.

Some may call her survival luck, but those who know her well chalk it up to something else.

"She has an attitude of somebody who's going to accomplish something," said Jana Shubat, president of Ohio Valley Runners and Walkers Club. "If she wants to do it, she's going to do it. She thinks like a person much younger than her.

"She is very blessed -- and probably because she has taken such good care of herself -- to be in good shape. She doesn't have osteoporosis or arthritis. She had her fair share of things in her life. She's a cancer survivor, but she chooses to survive and just forges on. She's a good testament to someone who has taken care of herself for so many years."

As emotionally charged as her running career has become, Mrs. Custer doesn't recall exactly why she started running.

It all began with a 1978 half-marathon in Wheeling, the same one she will be running later this month. From there, her interest and involvement only grew, especially because she was able to do it with her husband, who passed away a year and a half ago.

Over the past 36 years, she has collected 250 shirts from races, from the New York Marathon to Pittsburgh's Great Race, which she has run almost every year from its inception in 1977.

The first woman to become a member of the Wheeling YMCA, she also has used running as a vehicle for greater change. Upset by the fact that females were not offered awards for winning races like their male counterparts were, Mrs. Custer once organized a protest before a race, one in which every participant sat down when the starting gun went off, vowing not to run until the rules were changed. Eventually, they were.

This year, she hopes to run the Pittsburgh Half Marathon in fewer than three hours, but regardless of how quickly she finishes, she'll be doing it for the same reasons she has the past several years.

"I do it for myself, but I also do it for other women to show them they can do it, too," she said.

Mrs. Custer said she hopes to continue running races until she's 88. Given her track record, it's hard to bet against it.

There's a story that Mrs. Shubat likes to tell about the woman she helps train. Last year, at age 83, Mrs. Custer finished a half-marathon in Parkersburg, W.Va., on an August day with a high in the 80s on a course constructed almost entirely of hills. After making the nearly two-hour trek home, Mrs. Shubat brought Mrs. Custer to downtown Wheeling, where she competed in a 5K that night.

Like so much of Mrs. Custer's life, it almost seemed too hard to believe.

"That's Ella Jane," Mrs. Shubat said. "That's her in a nutshell right there. She's just not your typical 84-year-old."

Craig Meyer: or on Twitter @CraigMeyerPG.

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