Dixon Hemphill is running out of competition.
At age 97, it’s hard for him to find anyone to race in the 95-to-99-year-old division. But that hasn’t stopped the Runner’s World+ member from continuing to train to the best of his ability. After all, in his illustrious masters career, he’s racked up world records, hundreds of road races, and even some viral fame. Not bad for a near-centenarian who is still a relative newcomer to running.
Hemphill’s athletic pursuits date back to his days at Middlebury College, where he enrolled in 1946 following a three-year stint as a U.S. Navy officer during World War II. At Middlebury, the Pawcatuck, Connecticut, native won the College decathlon and earned a bronze medal in the pole vault at the Millrose Games in 1949. After graduating, however, Hemphill put sports aside in favor of raising a family and furthering his career in the boiler industry. As his four children—and later, nine grandchildren—became the focus of his life, his fitness largely fell off.
But then, in his 50s, Hemphill began getting the competitive itch again. He started out by racing a mile for fun at a local meet. Months later, after some consistent training, he anchored a team to victory in a 20-kilometer relay race. From that point forward, Hemphill had a new passion. “I got a medal and thought, ‘Well, this is fun.’ That was 50 years ago, and I’ve been running ever since.”
Find friends who will fuel you
To feed his running fix, Hemphill joined the Potomac Valley Track Club (PVTC), a running club in the Washington, D.C., area, in 1972. Since then, Hemphill has regularly trained with the team and competed in hundreds of road races, like the Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run, and ran 12 marathons, earning a 3:44 PR at age 70. Hemphill also competed in triathlons—finishing 60 in his career—but in the last 20 years, he has focused primarily on shorter distances.
Hemphill knows his body can’t handle long races anymore, so these days, his racing distance peaks at a mile. He consistently participates in PVTC-hosted track meets and travels with the team to competitions like the National Masters Indoor Championships. In fact, he and his PVTC teammates set two world records at the 2015 edition of the meet, in the indoor 4×400-meter and 4×800-meter relays for the 90-to-99-year-old division. Both records still stand today. In 2016, Hemphill even received the Outstanding Athlete Award from PVTC.
To prepare for races, Hemphill often trains by himself at the indoor track at nearby George Mason University. “They treat me well,” he says. “I’m actually the only person who’s allowed to run who isn’t a student.” For decades, the university would let community members run on the track for a small one-day fee, but after they restricted access to only students, Hemphill protested.
“I asked the manager if I could run because the track wasn’t that busy in the morning,” Hemphill says. “He told me ‘no.’ So I went back the next year and said, ‘Since I’ve last seen you, I’ve been a member of a relay team that set world records.’ And that impressed him enough to let me run for an hour or so in the mornings. I’ve been doing that ever since.”
Hemphill’s presence in the running community has extended beyond the track, too. In the 1980s, he owned the Fairfax Running Center, where he sold shoes and uniforms in two northern Virginia locations before retiring in 1991. He’s also coached adult marathoners and regularly hosted runs around the nearby Burke Lake on weekends.
Smile through the struggles
Still, for all of his successes in the sport, Hemphill has suffered a few setbacks. In 1999, at age 74, he was hit by a car while riding his bike, which left him with a collapsed lung, broken ribs, a broken pelvis, and a 41-day hospital stay. Hemphill had to stop running for about a year—a hiatus he says permanently sapped some of his fitness. In 2018, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, though he never had to undergo chemotherapy or radiation. He’s now in stable condition under the supervision of his oncologist. And then came COVID-19, which again forced Hemphill to temporarily refrain from running for a year.
“The pandemic set me back a lot, no question about it,” he says. He wanted to avoid exposure to the virus, and George Mason’s track was closed. “When I decided to start running again, my legs had atrophied and lost their strength—much more than I realized. In fact, I was walking with a cane and walker around the house. It surprised me that I had to do that, but my legs wouldn’t hold up.”
Hemphill went to three different physical therapists to help him regain the lost strength in his legs, which helped, but he still regrets pausing his training. “I’m not back to where I was three or four years ago,” he says. “So what I’m hoping for now is just to enjoy running and race as well as I can.”
Despite the hiccups, Hemphill has always remained resilient. “I’ve got a positive outlook, which I think has helped me a lot,” he says. “I’m an optimistic person, and that’s what has kept me going.”
Don’t stop searching for an edge
While Hemphill often wins his age group by default, he’d rather be pushed to win. “I don’t have much competition, and I like competition,” he says. “I’d like to run against somebody my age just to see how I’m doing.”
Still, his team, PVTC, consistently stays competitive. When Hemphill participated in the 2022 USATF Masters Indoor Championships, he took a slightly different approach to his normal regimen. There, he competed in his usual running events: the 60-meter dash, 200-meter dash, and 400-meter dash. But Hemphill—hungry to maximize points for PVTC—also tried the shot put, long jump, and high jump, even if they proved to be difficult. While he admits he “just can’t do [those events] anymore,” thanks to his efforts, PVTC ultimately finished second out of 74 teams, narrowly behind the So Cal Track Club.
Hemphill has publicly displayed that fire in the past. In 2017, he went viral alongside the late Orville Rogers—seven years his senior—when USATF shared a video of them racing each other in the 60-meter dash at the Masters Indoor National Championships. Rogers narrowly beat Hemphill by 0.05 seconds, spawning a new rivalry. The race earned national attention, including on ESPN, which covered their rematch the following year. Hemphill evened the score in their second clash, edging out Rogers at the line.
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Rogers passed away in 2019 at the age of 101, but Hemphill may have another rival in Cincinnati’s Richard Soller, a new entrant to the 95-to-99-year-old age group who beat him in two national races earlier this year. Hemphill knows Soller is faster than him now, but that isn’t stopping him from training to perform his best. “It’s really discouraging to slow down, but I’m hopeful that I’m going to get faster.”
While the odds may seem stacked against him, Hemphill has beaten them before, which he chalks up to his late start in the running game. And for what it’s worth, Rogers and Soller also began racing into retirement.
“Fortunately, I started late at age 50,” Hemphill says. “I have friends who started earlier, but their knees gave out on them. And I have other friends who also started at 50, and we’re still running. So there’s something to be said for starting a little late.”
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Theo Kahler is the membership editor for Runner’s World, Bicycling, and Popular Mechanics.
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