Planet Talk: Jonathan Mendes, Oldest Marathon Runner

Jonathan Mendes doesn’t tire easily. He was slated to run in the 2012 ING New York City Marathon—the day after his 92nd birthday. The oldest of this year’s participants in the 26.2 mile event, Mendes lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, on the edge of Central Park, where he trains daily.

This retired Marine Corps Colonel, who flew missions with John Glenn and Ted Williams and helped them transition from flying propeller planes to jets, is a graduate of the Harvard Business school. He worked as an investment banker before starting his own corporate financial consultancy firm. In retirement, he skiis all over the world and looks forward to hitting the slopes in Colorado this February.

We spoke with Mendes by phone about what keeps him running.

Jonathan, have you been running all your life or were you a late starter? 

When I was 46, my doctor convinced me to stop smoking, and I quit cold turkey.  A friend got me to jog with him early in the morning around the reservoir in Central Park—now I’m twice that age. After a couple of years, I started going around the whole park – 6 miles instead of around the reservoir. In 1977, I did my first marathon at the age of 57.  Since then, I’ve done a dozen New York marathons and two Marine Corps marathons.

What’s your training regiment?

To this day, every morning when the weather is good, I leave the house at 7:15, go around the reservoir and have breakfast.  It’s about a mile and a half.  I also take another walk in the afternoon to my son’s apartment, so that’s about 3 or 4 miles of walking a day. I found that was sufficient for last year’s marathon and the one the year before.

Last year, you set a record as the oldest person to run in the Marine Corps marathon, and you said it was your swan song.  What happened?

I changed my mind.  I feel so good and healthy.  I was out this morning, my legs are in terrific shape and I feel great.  In life, you always have to have goals—things you aspire to achieve; that you look forward to.  If you don’t, you fall apart— life becomes meaningless.  At this point, I’ve accomplished a lot and also failed.  This is a simple goal of putting one foot in front of the other.  It’s something to look forward to. You have to have goals, but you don’t have to achieve them.  It’s like that expression: There’s no disgrace in not achieving, in failing; the disgrace is in not trying.  This is one of the principals I’ve taught my children and my grandchildren.  My grandson, Daniel Marks, he’s going to do the marathon with me.  He’s 20.  It takes about eight hours—I walk it.

You finish so late. Is anyone there to cheer you on at the finish?
In Washington, no one was there at the finish except my family. In New York, they were already folding everything up, I came so late.  We walked to Central Park West, got in a taxi and came home.

How do you stay so healthy?

People ask me, “How do you account for your longevity?”  My real answer to happiness and longevity is, everything in moderation; nothing to excess.

What’s been the biggest surprise for you in your life with digital technology?

There are a few things that absolutely amaze me.  One is the cell phone and the other is the Internet on the computer. The third thing is digital pictures.

I knew Dr. Land, who invented the Polaroid; he was a friend of my professor giving a course in the development of new technology at the Harvard Business School. He had just invented the Polaroid and he came and demonstrated his murky brown photos. He didn’t think he’d ever get it off the ground. Thirty years later in the 70s, Polaroid had a market value of 5 billion dollars. I advised him to diversify because he was a one-product business.  But he had a disease called NIH—not invented here.  If he hadn’t invented it, he wasn’t interested. As a result, Polaroid doesn’t exist; that was the birth and death of a great technology.

I use my cell phone all the time; and I would be lost without my computer. It keeps me in touch with what’s happening in the financial industry. But I’ve reached the stage where I no longer look forward to learning new things. My son gave me a new digital camera and I haven’t unpacked it. I don’t have the motivation to take on new technology. I’ve very comfortable with things I know.

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