Lives: Hedy Marque, long-distance runner through her 80s

December 20, 2013

Hedy Marque, then 84, at the Avon Baltimore 5K, where she came in first in her age group with a time of 31:34. (George Banker/George Banker)

In the gloomy darkness before dawn one morning in April 1999, mother and daughter Hedy and Marjorie Marque sat in their car under the 14th Street Bridge as a light sprinkle threatened to downpour, contemplating whether to run the annual 10-mile Cherry Blossom race. They had brought along plastic garbage bags to wear over their cotton shorts and T-shirts. But in a hard rain, their clothes would be water-logged before they hit Mile Marker 1.

Without a word, Hedy got out of the car. The two made their way to the starting line. In minutes, the skies opened up. Marjorie, who ran faster, was drenched. She remembers hoping her mother would drop out and return to the car.

One hour, 37 minutes and 12 seconds later, a determined Hedy crossed the finish line, looking, Marjorie recalled, like a wet dog. Hedy’s time put her in first place in her age group. She ran at a faster pace — 9 minutes 43 seconds per mile — than many runners a quarter her age. She was 81.

As they sloshed back to the car, Hedy, a woman of few words, turned to Marjorie and in her heavily German-accented English said only: “I was better last year.”

The previous year, running 5 minutes 48 seconds faster, she had set the American masters road record for 80-to-84-year-old women in the Cherry Blossom race. That record still stands. As does her under-two-hour finish in her final Cherry Blossom race in 2005, when she was 87.

Hedy still holds seven USA Track & Field masters records. She was named USATF’s Masters Athlete of the Year 13 times for her age group. Some of her age-graded performances put her in the top five finishers ever recorded by women of any age anywhere in the world. In 2012, just a few months before she died at age 95, Hedy was inducted into the USATF Masters Hall of Fame.

The German immigrant of Polish descent, born Hedwig Falkowski in Berlin, didn’t start running races until she was 64. And only then because her daughter asked her to.

Hedy hadn’t run since she was a girl before the war in Germany and belonged to a sports club. That’s where she, a Catholic, met Gerard Marque, a Jewish man who would become her husband for 52 years until he died in 1999. Until that first race, Hedy’s only exercise had been using a push mower around the family home in Novi, Mich., that she and Gerard, who had worked in the Jewish resistance, immigrated to in 1947.

Hedy won her age group in that first race, the Diet Pepsi 10K in Wichita, where Marjorie lived at the time, and qualified for nationals. The barely 5-foot, 100-pound Hedy and the economical way she ran “like a tank” soon became a well-known fixture on the local racing circuit.

But ask people what drove her, or what she was like, and no one can say. She had no close friends. A hearing problem kept her isolated from others, Marjorie said. At races, she would dutifully appear on stages to collect her medals, but would say little or deflect praise. Then she and Marjorie would go home.

Hedy ran because it was something Marjorie wanted to do. “She never let you know what she wanted. But if it was something I wanted, she’d do it,” Marjorie said.

Like many immigrant families, the Marques had always kept to themselves. And for Hedy, life centered on her daughter. In Michigan, Hedy spent long hours, year after year, sitting in frigid ice rinks on the outskirts of Detroit, quietly knitting and watching Marjorie, her only child, learn to become a competitive figure skater. She sewed Marjorie’s clothes, cooked and cleaned and kept house, things she continued to do after Marjorie was grown and working for IBM. By then, Hedy and a retired Gerard moved in with their daughter, first in Florida, then to a house in Alexandria when Marjorie was transferred to Washington in 1986.

Hedy ran because it was something Marjorie wanted to do.

“She never let you know what she wanted. But if it was something I wanted, she’d do it,” Marjorie said.

For more than 20 years, Marjorie pulled out a calendar every January and suggested races the two could run together that year. They didn’t carbo load or stock up on protein shakes or recovery drinks. She and Marjorie didn’t own waterproof, thermal or technical gear, as most runners do. Instead, Hedy wore any old T-shirt she’d pull out of a drawer. They didn’t do track workouts or run hills. Their only training was an hour-long run at dawn a few times a week, at their separate paces, on the Mount Vernon Trail along the Potomac River or on the dirt paths in Huntley Meadows Park.

Marjorie and Hedy last raced in 2005, when Hedy was almost 88. Then the two began to walk. Even as Hedy’s mind slowly succumbed to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease, the two walked two to five miles a day until February, when Hedy lost her eyesight. She died two months later.

Of all the races they ran together, so many that they have become a blur for Marjorie, it is a Mother’s Day run at Hains Point that comes to mind most often when she thinks of Hedy. It was Hedy’s favorite. Marjorie doesn’t remember if Hedy set another record that day. What she does remember is the two of them sitting on top of the picnic tables on a beautiful spring morning after the race was over.

“We never really ran together,” Marjorie said. “She’d run alone. I’d run alone. But we were always a team.”

Brigid Schulte is a Washington Post staff writer.

For more in the Lives issue, read about:

- Realtor and single mother Rita Devine

- Herven Exum, Tuskegee Airman

- Rick Dreyfuss, drummer of Half Japanese

E-mail us at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

For more articles, as well as features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit  WP Magazine.

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Brigid Schulte writes about work-life issues and poverty, seeking to understand what it takes to live The Good Life across race, class and gender.
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