Age is just a number for 80-year-old Bob Dolphin, who will run his 456th marathon Sunday.

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Bob Dolphin really is in it for the long run.

On the morning of his 80th birthday, Oct. 4, he woke up early, got together with a good friend and went for a run — 26.2 miles in the Portland Marathon.

The wow factor only grows: That was his fourth marathon in a five-week span. The man is in octogenarian overdrive.

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On Sunday Dolphin will be among 2,564 runners lining up near Seattle Center at 8:15 a.m. for the 39th Seattle Marathon — his 25th since 1984. (The only Seattle Marathon he didn’t finish was in 2004, when an injury forced him out at mile 15.)

It will be the 18th of 20 marathons he will run in 2009. And it will be the 456th marathon of his career, a total that includes 44 ultramarathons ranging from 31 to 101 miles.

All this from a former Marine lieutenant and a retired Department of Agriculture research entomologist/lab director who did not run his first marathon until age 51.

The inevitable question: Why?

“I do it for the sense of self-satisfaction running gives me,” said Dolphin, a Massachusetts native who was transferred to the Northwest in 1984 (“One of the best moves I ever made,” he said) and now splits time between homes in Renton and Yakima.

“It helps me stay trim and fit,” he said, “and it gives me the challenge of meeting goals that most people consider fairly difficult.

“I like the difficulty, the competition in my age class, the sociality among runners, the satisfaction I feel when I complete a race. That’s when I feel most of my runner’s high — when I can sit down and rest and don’t have to count down the miles anymore.”

His goal: Run marathon No. 500 in 2012 and do it in the Yakima River Canyon Marathon, the event he and wife Lenore (known affectionately in the Northwest marathon community as Team Dolphin) have hosted since its inception in 2001.

Jim Boyd of Ballard shares Dolphin’s long-distance fascination (Boyd 67, has run 315 marathons, 31 this year) and figures every local marathoner is rooting for Dolphin.

“He’s admired by all,” said Boyd, “not only for his achievements but for his just-right nice nature. He’s always ready to assist, share knowledge, mentor and give praise to other runners.”

Other than regular treatments for skin cancers, a bum hip in late 2004 and prostate cancer surgery last year (he ran a marathon three weeks after the procedure), Dolphin has avoided major health setbacks while averaging 16 marathons per year (with a high of 24) during his running career.

That career began one winter day in the late 1970s in Columbia, Mo., when a blizzard made roads impassable. Dolphin decided to walk the 2 miles to his lab.

“It felt good,” Dolphin said. “Running was still gaining popularity then, and I saw people running in the neighborhood. So I started running home from work, then running both ways. I lost a few pounds, and I liked it.”

He ran his first marathon on Labor Day 1981 and two years later ran his first Boston Marathon. (He has competed in 10.) He logged personal bests in 1988, at age 58, running 3 hours, 12 seconds at Seattle’s Emerald City Marathon. One week later he ran 3:04:25 in Boston.

He’ll be back in Boston in 2010. “I always run there when I move into a new age class,” he said. “It improves my chances of winning a medal.”

He has run marathons in 37 states (“It’s an excuse to travel,” he said) and likes to find reasons to push himself. In 2007, at age 77, he ran seven marathons in seven weeks just for the novelty of it.

Lenore, a nonrunner who is Dolphin’s second wife (his first died of cancer after a 40-year marriage) and a longtime finish-line volunteer, sees no signs that Bob is losing his fire for running.

“When someone is running their first marathon, they usually don’t sleep much,” she said. “Bob is still that way. If he ever loses that, he won’t want to keep running. He likes the challenge and the camaraderie. He’s been a goal-oriented person all his life.”


• The oldest person to ever run a marathon? Andy Milroy, a British author (“The Long Distance Record Book”) and a founding member of the nonprofit Association of Road Racing Statisticians, says it was Dimitrion Yordanidis of Greece, who in 1976 ran the Athens Marathon in 7:33 at age 98. For women, 90-year-old Jenny Wood-Allen ran the 2002 London Marathon in 11:34. The fastest marathon ever run by an 80-year-old? Robert Horman of Australia, at 80 years and 23 days, recorded a time of 3:39:18 in the 1998 Brisbane Marathon.

• The Web site of Northwest-based Marathon Maniacs includes a Team Dolphin link that lists all 455 of Dolphin’s races. The site’s “InSane Asylum” lists 116 members who have accumulated 100 or more career marathons. Raymond Scharenbrock of Wisconsin (631) tops it; Dolphin is seventh.

Dolphin’s marathon milestones
Race No. Milestone Date Age Location Time
1 First marathon Sept. 1, 1981 51 Columbia, Mo. 3:53:45
56 Fastest Boston Marathon April 18, 1988 58 Boston 3:04:25
116 Longest run (101 miles) June 14, 1992 62 West Seattle 24 hours
317 Last time under 4 hours June 28, 2003 73 Eugene, Ore. 3:59:01
453 Fastest 2009 race Oct. 11, 2009 80 Victoria, B.C. 5:22:19
456 25th entry in Seattle Marathon Sunday 80 Seattle #
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