RIDGEWOOD, N.J. – Kyoto-born running phenomenon Toshiko D’Elia, 77, who has consistently placed at or near the top of her age group in U.S. and world competitions for the past 30 years, says the secret to her remarkably long running career is to “run to live, not live to run.”
In 2006, D’Elia set age-group records in the 10-km (55 minutes, 13 seconds) and 25-km (2:29:33) races and was awarded the Outstanding Athlete Award for the 75-79 age group by USA Track and Field.
D’Elia also received the age division Runner of the Year Award from the 40,000-member New York Road Runners club for an unparalleled 26th time in March.
Despite countless honors, D’Elia insists she is not a thoroughbred. Speaking recently at her New Jersey home, D’Elia recalled how she took up running at age 44 to build stamina for mountain climbing.
Born Jan. 2, 1930, as Toshiko Kishimoto, D’Elia graduated from Tokyo’s Tsuda College and developed a passion for teaching the deaf following her encounter with an orphaned deaf boy at a Catholic convent in her hometown.
But training for special education was nonexistent in Japan immediately after World War II. Following an expert’s advice, D’Elia went to Syracuse University as a Fulbright scholar in 1951.
“It was like reaching out for the moon,” she said, referring to the ban on the Japanese from traveling overseas at that time.
In two years, D’Elia received a master’s degree in audiology. She also got married to an American, but the relationship soon broke up and she became a single mother in 1955.
On a visit to Japan with her 6-month-old daughter, Erica, D’Elia’s parents gave her an ultimatum — give up the baby for adoption and remarry a Japanese man, or leave.
Determined to keep her daughter, D’Elia returned to the U.S. once she secured a contract with the New York School for the Deaf, where she would teach until her retirement in 1991.
She met her second husband, Manfred D’Elia, through a mutual friend in 1960. He was deeply involved in a movement to rescue Japanese girls disfigured by the atomic bombs.
He was an Italian-American pianist with a passion for climbing, a hobby that took the couple on numerous hiking treks all over the world.
On a visit to 4,393-meter Mount Rainier in Washington state, Toshiko failed to make it to the peak, collapsing from altitude sickness.
“I had no stamina . . . so he hired a guide and ordered me to descend,” she said. “I never forgot that misery.”
Following the advice of a climber friend, D’Elia began running 1 mile (about 1.6 km) a day under the supervision of her daughter, who was a member of the first girl’s track team at Ridgewood High School.
Then, in March 1974, her daughter begged her 44-year-old mother to run with her team in a cross-country meet after her friend insisted that she did not want to be the last one on the team to finish.
D’Elia agreed and joined the competition, just trying to keep her daughter’s friend in sight to the finish line. But without realizing it, she paced well and finished third.
“Erica was shocked,” she said. “Sometimes, ignorance was bliss. You don’t know what you’re in for.”
D’Elia’s first full marathon was similarly serendipitous. She was asked to keep a friend company in the January 1976 Jersey Shore Marathon, held on an extremely cold day.
“At that time, my longest run would be 15 miles (about 24 km). I said I will run 15 miles and you can do the rest yourself.”
As planned, D’Elia stopped at the 15-mile mark and waited for a change of clothing to arrive. But somehow, it was never delivered and her sweat began to turn into ice.
“Knowing the mountain climbing experience, I will get hypothermia if I stayed, so I kept moving. Then someone said, ‘Toshi, you’ve got only 2 miles to go!’ My goodness, I just picked up my pace and ran real hard.”
D’Elia finished what turned out to be her first full marathon in 3:25, a time that qualified her to run in the Boston Marathon.
The rest is history. Later in 1976, D’Elia came in 15th out of only 28 women who finished that year’s Boston Marathon, and finished third woman overall in the New York City Marathon. In 1979, she ran her first sub-3:00 marathon in Boston at 2:58:11 when she was 49.
But later that year, D’Elia was diagnosed with cervical cancer. The news was devastating, but D’Elia put the disease behind her quickly and ran another Boston Marathon in April 1980, just four months after cancer surgery, managing to finish in 3:09:07.
D’Elia continued to break age-division records. In August 1980, she became the first over-50 woman in the world to run a sub-3:00 marathon at the World Veterans Championships in Scotland. In 1997, she became the first over-65 woman to break 7 minutes per mile.
But, behind the glory,D’Elia nursed her husband, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, for six years until he died in 2000.
Having retired from full marathons three years ago, D’Elia now trains for half marathons, incorporating some deep-water running into her regimen to protect her joints. But she says she is not frustrated by aging.
“I ran to live happily. It gave me strength. I was able to teach better, I was able to be a better wife and a better mother. . . . Running has always served me as a support and therapy for a happier life.”