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Fri, 6 Nov. 2009 - 11:58 a.m. MT

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Imme Dyson: Running for Joy

By Jeff Venables

 

            Runners come in many varieties, as well as change over time into different versions of their past running selves. And it might be argued that within each of us there are elements of the competitor, the nature-lover, the disciple of fitness, and a dozen other running types. But for some, the sheer love of the act—of simply putting one foot in front of the other—comes to the fore as the defining trait, revealing an almost mystical joy that can seldom be adequately described.

            AMAA member Imme Dyson, a 72-year-old masters champion and grandmother 16 times over, without question falls into this latter category. Although as a competitor Imme is one of the most formidable runners in her age group—a casual glance at her race times online reveals a lot of 1s in the “Place” column—it is the underlying love of the run that keeps bringing her back to the starting line. “I think I really sort of became a different person. I became more self-assured, more satisfied,” she says of her discovery of running. So when and how did this love affair begin?

 

A postwar dream

            Born in Germany in 1936, Dyson became enchanted with the United States largely through books, and in 1957 decided to travel here. “The United States was such a mystery country to us,” she says. Her plan was to take a Greyhound bus across the country, alone, and to pay for that, she explains, “I then had to pass myself off as a governess for kids, which is essentially what I did.” The second child of four, she was the only one in the family who settled here. Still married to the renowned physicist and relentless autodidact Freeman Dyson, she sums up the story of their romance thus: “I fell in love with the man whose kids I took care of.”

            Settling in Princeton, NJ, where the Dysons still reside, she soon found an intriguing cadre of intellectuals around in what became a groundbreaking time in physics. As the Institute for Advanced Study established itself as a prestigious think tank, Freeman Dyson both shaped and witnessed this advancement. Though Einstein had just died when Imme arrived, the Dysons were long-time next-door neighbors of the Oppenheimers, and have there remained for over 50 years with the “same old house falling on top of us,” Imme says. “It’s such a lovely neighborhood, and we are pretty simple people and so we’re perfectly happy here.”

            So how did a German-born governess and later wife of a prominent quantum physicist become a masters marathon champion? For the devoted mother of six who did not herself want a nanny, a moment came when her work was more or less done. “I’d raised my kids,” Imme says, and so when they were teens, she took up swimming recreationally. The Institute had a pool the Dysons could ride their bicycles to, and she swam during the summers, beginning sometime in the mid-1960s, eventually working up to 100 laps or so at a time.

            One summer, while Dyson was doing laps, an oncoming freestyler accidentally knocked her on the head. “I thought I was all right,” she says, but after making it to the poolside and out of the water, “I must have passed out. For a long time after that I had headaches and I certainly didn’t want to go back in the water.”

 

Taking to land like a fish in water

            Soon, Dyson realized something was missing from her summers, and her daughters urged her to take up running. “I went out and I loved it,” she says. She then wrote to another daughter, who was living in California. A gifted triathlete while at Stanford University, Emily, now a cardiologist, sent her a training schedule, even replete with intervals and hill repeats. At the bottom, she’d written, “Ma, remember, if it doesn’t hurt you didn’t work enough.” Dyson adds, “I took that to heart. I really took that to heart.” The race times prove as much. But for Dyson, it really is about recreation, that something missing from the swimming days—not merely restored, but surpassed.

            Back then, a common experience for distance runners was that of those in your immediate family thinking you’re some kind of oddball. Dyson says, “My mother—in fact my whole family—was actually poo-pooing it altogether. They thought I was totally crazy.” They simply did not understand Imme’s “mad wish to go out running no matter what.” And: “My mother, of course, apart from thinking that it was just nutty, also thought that I was killing myself.”

            Then one year mom came to visit from Germany and the family took her to one of the races in New York City (Dyson currently races for the Raritan Valley Road Runners). “It was a very hot day and I came in sweating but I was feeling so happy with myself. I always smile at the finish line,” she admits. “My mother said, ‘You know, there were all these people coming in, and they looked so exhausted and they didn’t look as though they enjoyed it, and then you came in and you were smiling.’ And from that moment on, she supported me forever. She realized it was something I really needed. I had her on my side.”

            Explaining the common aversion to running in non-runners, Dyson feels that a lot of people don’t get past the initial pain of beginning running from a detrained state. “The first two weeks that I ran I was hurting, truly hurting…Now I might have some pains and aches, but I never have to go through that [initial phase] again.” That knowledge can itself be a very motivating thing: Why put your body back through that phase once past it?

 

The affair continues

            The human form has evolved to run longer distances than nearly every other species, and this is a fitting observation for anyone who feels naturally drawn to it. Dyson is fond of a book called Why We Run, written by Bernd Heinrich, a naturalist in Vermont who himself held the 100-mile record for some time. And like many of us, Imme is clearly more fond of outdoor running than treadmill workouts, but dutifully puts in the time by breaking these workouts into segments.

            Lately, though, traveling with Freeman has made training a bit more difficult. Imme has been sticking to shorter distances, but this did not stop her in March from stepping off a plane from Kazakhstan and running a 20K in Central Park. And this year she ran unofficially in Boston, accompanying a friend as he completed his 30th race there. Again, she surprised herself: “I thought, if this finish line was not the end and they said you had to do three miles more, I probably would.” For anyone who has completed Boston or really any marathon, this might well seem an astonishing statement. It appears that this human form, in particular, has certainly evolved to run.

 

            Imme’s father was a physician in Germany, as were and are many of her family members. It’s fitting, then, that she would discover AMAA, and she is an avid attendee at many of the symposiums. But these days Imme’s passions remain her running and her grandkids. “The one thing that I truly want is to be able to run until I just die off. And I want to make sure that people know that my running shoes must be put into my coffin,” she says, “because that track up there on the clouds will be the softest I’ve ever run.” You might say Imme Dyson and running are a match made in heaven.

 

Jeff Venables is the editor of Running & FitNews, and a regular contributor to the AMAA Journal.



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