Health First Marathoners Seher Swenson and Robert Sielski Finish ‘States’, Hightail It to London
By Space Coast Daily // April 7, 2023
Both Swenson and Sielski got into running later in life
‘That old belief that you shouldn’t run as you get older, it’s an old tale.’
BREVARD COUNTY, FLORIDA – They had heard the warning their whole lives, you slow down as you get old. They made it a punchline.
Seher Swenson is a Health First Clinical Documentation Specialist who turns 64 next month. Associate Chaplain Robert Sielski (pronounced SILL-skee) is an Associate Chaplain who’s 80. Besides their employer, they have three things in common.
■ Sielski has run full marathons and Swenson half and full marathons in all 50 states – nearly all within the last ten years.
■ Sielski and Swenson fly to England, next month to run the London Marathon.
■ Sielski and Swenson are emblems of the Health First slogan, the future is well.
Sielski has called running “an addiction,” and Swenson says she rises at 5 a.m. to train.
“You know, if I don’t run, I don’t feel good,” she says. “My legs hurt, my butt hurts. I have to run.”
‘Wherever You Live, You Can Find a Meet’
Both Swenson and Sielski got into running later in life. Sielski was an avid swimmer who took up jogging in his 40s because his pool closed for a time. He’d been having a nagging knee injury, and a physician warned him to stick with swimming because it was gentler.
“It was the swimming that was aggravating the knee! Kicking hard off the wall over and over,” he says. Today, “my orthopedist said I have the knees of a 30-year-old.”
Swenson said she got into running after walking, which she began when her daughter left for college and suddenly the day-to-day of transportation and parenting events evaporated.
“I was feeling so lonely, I started joining some friends from Cardiac Rehab who were walking across the causeway.”
Then, she had brain surgery and couldn’t walk for several weeks without assistance. She promised herself that if she ever got firmly back on her feet, she was going to take off.
She did, and walking led to 5Ks, which led to half marathons (typically, 13.1-mile distances). It also enriched her social life. She’s a member of the Space Coast Sole Sisters and a pacer – someone in a race who is clearly marked and who will run a specific and consistent speed throughout the race – for the Space Coast Runners Club.
“Being out there alone, running alone, can be dangerous, but if you are with somebody, it is much safer, and wherever you live, you can find a meet. You never have to run alone.”
‘You Have One Goal To Complete’
Running marathons in all 50 states takes time – training, traveling and running the race – but it also takes resources. Swenson says she can’t imagine doing 50 half and full marathons in 50 states as a younger person.
“Young people are busy with their families – they can’t commit to the traveling.”
At their most active, both Swenson and Sielski were running a race a month. In Swenson’s case, to meet the 50 states goal, she would run more than one race in a weekend. In fact, she ran races in Utah, Idaho and Wyoming – the Bear Lake Trifecta – on back-to-back-to-back days.
“We call this back-to-back states, and you can save money,” she says. “Everybody says, ‘You’re crazy,’ but you have one goal to complete.”
Swenson wrapped up 50 states with Detroit in October and Birmingham, Alabama, in November. Sielski finished with Anchorage, Alaska, in June and Honolulu in December.
The London Marathon stretches from Greenwich to Westminster along the River Thames and is one of the six World Marathon Majors (along with Chicago, Boston, New York, Berlin and Tokyo). Sielski says his goal is to come in under 7 hours – Swenson wants to beat 5 hours.
To say that either one will be gunning for strong finishes is stretching the truth and missing the point. The real goal isn’t a good time but a good time.
Running is best when time completely falls away.
“My mind floats off,” Sielski says. “One of the things they say about distance running is you should do it easy enough that you can carry on a conversation. I run alone. So when I run, I sing hymns as I go along.”
“Oh, for instance, ‘Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross’. No, not in my head. I’m singing it. Aloud.”
‘That Old Belief Is Changing’
The most difficult race Sielski has ever run is Crater Lake in Oregon. As the name suggests, it’s around and up the side of a volcano starting at a mile high and gaining another 2,000 feet. Swenson says hers was the Pike’s Peak Ascent in Colorado, a vertical climb of 7,800 feet, much of it along a trail, some of it small boulders.
Sielski has joked that he has a book on his shelf at home called “Keep Running Until You’re 100,” to which he says, Why should I quit at 100?
Sielski and Swenson dispute the notion that racers should be some particular class of athletes below some particular age.
“I think that’s an old tale – that you shouldn’t run as you get older. My group is 55 up to 72. Really, that old belief is changing.”
‘Enjoy Every Mile’
Recently, Swenson and Sielski met at Gleason Park in Indian Harbour Beach in full training mode. As they visited one-on-one, Louisa Khan stopped to chat. She’s a University of Miami undergrad training to run her first big race next month, the Cherry Blossom in Washington, D.C.
Khan saw Swenson’s 50 States Half Marathon Club t-shirt and asked about it. Then, she herself was asked if she would ever consider taking on “the 50 States”?
“I grew up with asthma, and I never thought I could run, but I’ve been training [for the Cherry Blossom] and I realize it’s doable.”
“Anybody can do it,” Swenson said. “I didn’t start until age 50. It’s just your mindset.”
“I only got serious about doing 50 states about six years ago,” Sielski said. “You have 60 years to do it, OK? You can even take a year off.”
Khan asked the two veterans for their best advice.
“Don’t train too fast – work up slowly. You’ll avoid some injuries,” Sielski said.
“Enjoy every mile,” Swenson said.
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