Hugh Campbell, 88, breaking records just two years after taking up running

Hugh Campbell crosses the finish line in the Rothman Institute 8k last month. Island Photographry / Phila. Marathon
Hugh Campbell crosses the finish line in the Rothman Institute 8k last month. Island Photographry / Phila. Marathon
Posted: December 03, 2012

Hugh Campbell started running for the same reason many of us do. "I just got a bug in my sod about trying to run," he said.

He mapped a 0.75-mile route near his house in Wilmington, ran it, and then ran it again. And again. He kept adding distance until he worked up to three miles, after which he ran a 3k.

One big difference, though: Campbell was 87 when he got that bug in his sod.

Now, he's considered a world-class runner for his age group. At 88, Campbell has set U.S. records in the 5k and 8k distances for male runners ages 80 and up.

Two weeks ago, he broke the USA Track and Field 8k record for his age group at the Rothman Institute 8k in Philadelphia with a time of 47 minutes, 40 seconds, as part of the Philadelphia marathon racing weekend.

Campbell, a Canadian who moved to the United States in 1948 to pursue a graduate degree in organic chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has the compact, lean build of an elite distance runner, but as a young man he chose golf instead. He played almost every day from college through a long career at DuPont and into retirement.

At first, he didn't think running would take. After those first 0.75-mile runs, he developed leg and knee pain.

"I asked the doctor, 'Am I too old to do this?' He told me to try swimming," Campbell said, his laugh echoing through the living room of his home, which is decorated with items from Japan, Germany, and Ireland, tokens from all the places he lived and saw while working for DuPont.

Instead, he went through physical therapy and hasn't had a problem since.

He ran his first 5k in 2011 with his son by his side. "I'd never run a race before, and I didn't know what the hell I was doing," he said. He also had no idea how good he was until Rich Szymanski and David McCorquodale from the Pike Creek Valley Running Club, a New Castle County running group, told him.

"I thought at first it was a mistake," Szymanski, who is the USATF coordinator for the club, said of the first time he saw Campbell's sub-30 minute time. "I let it go, and then in the next race, I saw it again."

The pair tracked down Campbell to see if he wanted to join their team. "That must be how college recruiters feel when they're going over to recruit their star," Szymanski said.

First-place finishes in any age group mean points for a team in local USATF competitions.

Campbell said he'd give it a try and joined both USATF and the group.

"Being part of that club makes running more enjoyable," he said.

In September, Campbell ran the National Masters 5k Championships in Syracuse in 26 minutes, 45 seconds, which broke the national USATF record. In November, he set another record in the Rothman 8k.

He hasn't changed his training too much over the last two years, though now he runs a paved, 1.75-mile loop at Delcastle Recreation Area in Wilmington, which is a 10-minute drive from his home, over and over again three times a week, usually for three to five miles on each trip. The hills, he says, help him get faster for races that are run on flat surfaces.

Still, he insists he's a novice despite his world-class status.

"I haven't learned how to run yet because I do it on my own. I'm stubborn," he said.

He'll run his next race in the spring.

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