A Q&A with the New York Marathon’s Oldest Runner

By Chaya Rappaport

Sheldon Zinn completed the 2010 New York City marathon in just over 8 hours.
Sheldon Zinn completed the 2010 New York City marathon in just over 8 hours.

Sheldon Zinn, 87, a retired ophthalmologist, was the oldest person to complete the 2010 New York City marathon last weekend, finishing in just over eight hours. Zinn, who says he is “a believer in staying in shape,” ran his first marathon at age 73, and has run in more than 20 since then.

Always an athletic type, Zinn played racquet sports until a rotator-cuff injury forced him to consider other options. The director at his local YMCA in Arizona—Zinn has divided his time in recent years between Phoenix and Brooklyn–encouraged running, and Zinn’s youngest son, after completing a New York marathon, urged his father to do the same.

Zinn ran his first dozen- marathons with his wife, Joan, who died in 2005. In 2008, Zinn married my grandmother Judy, 76, who is not a runner, but is supportive of her husband.

A religious Jew and a humble man, Zinn began his day on Nov. 7 by praying with other marathoners who are members of JRunners, a Jewish runners club. He began the race in the late morning, and when he crossed the finish line in Central Park, very cold and tired, it was nearly 8 p.m. Judy met him at the finish line and took him back to their Brooklyn apartment, where he fell into bed and slept for five hours.

D&S: How did you train for the marathon?

Zinn: It was self-training. Most marathon aspirants get into programs where they’re part of a group and they train with coaching and the like. My training consisted of a weekly routine of running a track in the high school, tracks in the city, building up to the point where you knew you could at least do 20 miles.

D&S: Has marathon running gotten harder as you’ve aged?

Zinn: For sure. Age is going to take its toll. I think the peak, for the pros, those who really are into this, which I’m not, those who actually train and run for the monetary reward that they might get, I think the peak is in the early 30s, and after that it drops down.

D&S: Are you usually the oldest marathoner?

Zinn: I did one New York marathon in which a fellow from India, who was 92, he was in the marathon, he came in at over nine hours.

D&S: What are the perfect conditions for a marathon?

Zinn: I ran one marathon in Chicago where I remember it being cold, but the wind was at your back and Chicago is flat, and I said to myself: “If the world record is broken, this would be the condition,” and it happened that very marathon—the world record was broken that day.

D&S: As a doctor, what do you consider the health benefits of running, especially at an advanced age?

Zinn: The internists, they’ll tell their patients, go out and walk, get a little exercise, do something, don’t just eat and sit and sleep and do nothing.

I remember it was in Wisconsin, I ran into this fellow, he was from New York, and he told me that he was running a blood pressure of 160. The doctor put him on medication, but said, he could try running. [This fellow] he got rid of the medication just from running.

But there are a lot of individuals who should not be running, and you do see them on the track. The first marathon that I did was in New York—two people died. (12 seconds)

D&S: What are your goals as a marathoner?

Zinn: You know, everybody chitchats. They’ll talk about “well, how many states have you done?” You know, a lot them want to do all 50 states. It’s a goal: to do a marathon in every state in the Union. It takes a lot of money, a lot of them do it.

D&S: What was your most interesting marathon experience?

Zinn: They were all interesting, every single one of them. Washington, D.C., it was called the Marine Marathon, put on by the Marines and it was the week after the 9/11 and it was amazing, you walk, you run by the Pentagon, it’s bombed out, and they tell you no photographs. Alaska… Hawaii..Hong Kong, they were all amazing. In Philadelphia, you run across the Schuylkill River. Did one in Las Vegas. Idaho… beautiful; some beautiful scenery out there, I never realized it.

D&S: Will you run another marathon?

Zinn: I don’t know, people are telling me to do it. I was thinking in terms of dropping back to half marathons. But Simchi [Zinn’s son] told me to go for the marathon again.


Correction: May 8, 2013

The original version of this article stated that Sheldon Zinn is a retired optometrist. Zinn is a retired ophthalmologist.