Tuesday morning, George Etzweiler laced up his shoes and headed out for a run, just like he does three times a week.
The retired Penn State engineering professor heads up Laurel Run Road in Rothrock State Forest, near Tussey Mountain. The run is 2.5 miles one-way, five miles round trip, and rises nearly 800 feet in elevation. He gets up to the top of the ridge, where the road intersects with the Mid-State Trail, then he turns around and heads back down the hill.
That’s the easy run.
Ten days ago, Etzweiler became the oldest person to run up Mount Washington — again.
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The State College resident continues to defy time.
The 96-year-old summited the highest mountain in the northeastern U.S. in the annual Mount Washington Road Race for the 11th time on June 18.
The race is far from the typical 5K most runners know, uphill pretty much the entire length of the 7.6-mile road to the 6,288-foot summit. The elevation gain over the course is 4,727 feet, with an average road grade of 12 percent, increasing to 22 percent for the final 100 yards to the finish line.
And yes, he won his age group. He’s the only one competing at 90-plus. Three others in their 80s also were among the 1,153 who made it to the top on the beautiful blue-sky day in northern New Hampshire.
Etzweiler finished in 3 hours, 23 minutes, 16 seconds. Joined by his son, Larry, and grandson, Robert, the time was a nearly five-minute improvement over last year’s 3:28:41.
The winner, by the way, was Joseph Gray, who finished in 58:17.
Because so many runners try to enter the race, a lottery is now held for starting spots. Etzweiler is so loved, however, he has an open invitation every year, and the three-hour cutoff to get to the finish line doesn’t apply to him. Other than that, and whatever in-race support he needs, Etzweiler gets no other special accommodations, according to race press liaison Paul Kirsch.
“He still impresses us with his times every year,” Kirsch said in an email.
Etzweiler attributed the time improvement to a change in workouts. In addition to his runs in Rothrock State Forest with friend Julian Maynard, he also has been doing strength training. He has noticed a difference in his balance and posture.
He also thinks it will get him to the next goal: run up Mount Washington in 2020 at age 100. Then, he told race organizers, they should have a hearse ready to haul him away after the race.
“I can’t think of any better place to die than on top of that mountain,” he laughed. “It sure would make a splash.”
The mountain has been a part of the family since they began taking vacations up that way in 1981. He figures he has hiked that mountain 15 or 20 times, and has climbed to the top of all the mountains of New Hampshire with summits of 4,000 feet or higher.
For someone who had never run even a mile before age 49, when he admits he was overweight, his lifestyle has certainly changed. After reaching the Mount Washington peak, he went for hikes each of the next three days with other family members. None of the hikes were as challenging as Mount Washington, but he had plenty of stamina.
He’s now preparing for the 10K race as part of the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts in July.
Keeping his mind sharp along with the body, the electrical engineer works the numbers as he runs, figuring out how much oxygen he burns for the Arts Fest 10K compared Mount Washington.
“I’m always looking at the numbers,” Etzweiler said. “When I get tired I usually get the numbers wrong.”
He also plans to run once again in the 50-mile Tussey Mountainback Ultramarathon this fall. He is part of an eight-man team — The Old Men of the Mountains — that has competed each year since 2007. Last year, the youngest of the group was 69.
He’s a little worried about continuing to compete, however.
About a week before the New Hampshire race, his right knee began to bother him. He was told he was starting to get arthritis in the knee, and a cortisone shot got him ready for race day. He’s worried it will become more of a problem before hitting that 100-year goal.
He’s also had heart bypass surgery — in 2000 — and a few years ago got a pacemaker.
They are all minor concessions for continuing to chase a passion.
George Etzweiler is 96 and still running up mountains.
“Fortunately my heart is good,” he said, “or I would have been dead long time ago.”