The thrill of victory: Competition still drives Decatur runner Cocciolo at age 77

By Bruce McLellan | Living 50 Plus

The only thing Tony Cocciolo of Decatur loves more than competing in running events throughout north Alabama at age 77 is winning his age division in them.

So he paid close attention during a pre-race chat several years ago when an unfamiliar runner divulged his age. Cocciolo realized the other runner was the member of the Birmingham Track Club expected to be a top contender in their age group for the race of 5 kilometers (3.1 miles).

“The biggest mistake he made was telling me how old he was,” Cocciolo said.

Near the end of the race, the competitor passed Cocciolo. But Cocciolo had waited for that moment and had energy in reserve for a fast pace to close the race.

“I got him in the last 100 meters,” Cocciolo said. “I only beat him by four seconds.

“I said, ‘You shouldn’t have told me how old you were. I wouldn’t have found you.’”

Cocciolo is no stranger to victory. In the last seven years, he’s competed in 250 races and won his age division in all of them except a couple.

“Third is the worst I’ve done,” he says.

In June 2018 he won the USA Track and Field South Region and Alabama championship in the 5,000 meters, or 5K, by running a time of 29 minutes, 27 seconds during a meet at Birmingham-Southern. He’s also run 1,500 meters, which is known as the metric mile, in 5:45.

He prefers shorter races to the 26.2 miles of a marathon or the 6.2 miles of a 10K.

“I’m more of a 5,000 meters (runner),” he said. “And now I’ve found out I’m 1,500 meters, too. I didn’t know I could run that fast.”

Cocciolo attributes his continued success in running to his training methods. He runs six days a week, going about 3 to 6 miles a day and 20 to 30 miles in a week.

“Tony is very dedicated to his training routine,” said Jon Elmore, president of the River City Runners, Decatur’s track club. “He rarely misses a day of running and can be seen circling Delano Park or running at Point Mallard.”

Cocciolo said that on at least one day each week, he’ll mix in faster paces at different intervals.

“You need to do a little speed work,” he says. “One day a week, you’ve got to have some type of interval (training) to race.

“Some of the guys, they can run 100 miles a week, they’re my age, and I blow them out in the race (because of interval training).

“At 75 (and older), it’s very hard to have a second speed. I found that out. They say you lose 1½% a year in speed.”

He also does other types of fitness training that he recommends to fellow seniors. That includes using an indoor Concept2 rowing machine, loop exercise bands and the plank exercise in which you place your body in almost a push-up position but have your elbows and forearms on the ground.

He does recommend that anyone starting a workout regimen consult a physician first and possibly have a stress test.

“You have to have your heart checked,” he said.

Eating right

Cocciolo says he includes a lot of protein in his diet, relying on dairy products and yogurt rather than red meat. He credits his diet and workout routine with allowing him to continue running.

“I haven’t had a stress fracture,” he said. “I haven’t gotten that badly injured.”

His only serious injury came a couple of years ago in a race at the old rough and rocky cross-country course at Huntsville’s John Hunt Park. While descending a hill, a female runner wearing cleats was able to stop suddenly in front of Cocciolo. He was wearing only regular-sole running shoes and couldn’t stop quickly in them. He crashed to the ground to avoid hitting her.

“That was the only race I never finished,” he says. “I was bleeding a little from the nose.”

He also injured his shoulder and was prescribed about a dozen physical therapy sessions to help it heal. The injury didn’t impair his running, however.

“I was out the next day,” he said.

Cocciolo said he began running when he was about 15 or 16 at Polytechnic High in San Francisco when students were given fitness tests.

“They had a mile run time,” he said.

Once he started, he never stopped running and has now been participating in the activity for more than 60 years.

“I’ve had an addiction to running,” he said.

His best time in a 5K came 37 years ago when he finished in 15:01. He still posts strong 5K times for his age. He won his division in the 2019 River City Run in 29 minutes, 19 seconds; and he won the Brooke Hill Run’s 70-plus age group from 2016 to 2018 by finishing in under 28 minutes each time.

“Tony was a national class runner in his younger years, competing against Frank Shorter and other great runners of the 1970s,” Elmore said. “In his 70s, he is one of the fastest 5K runners internationally. He has a competitive spirit and loves to race.

“I’m sure last year was hard on him with most in-person races being canceled.”

Evolutions in running

Cocciolo has seen several changes in the sport of running over the years. One is that more attention is paid to keeping runners hydrated during a race by offering water stations along the course. The variety of race distances also has evolved.

“Most of the races were 10,000 meters” in the 1970s and ’80s. That was No. 1,” he said. “Now it’s more 5,000 (meters). And, of course, a lot of people run the marathon.”

After high school, Cocciolo studied electronics engineering at Compton College in California. He retired as network administrator at Riverside Community College in his native state and moved with his wife, Mary, to Decatur in 2004. They have three children: Laura Killen in Arlington, Virginia; Julie Cocciolo in Huntington Beach, California, and Anthony P. Cocciolo in Brooklyn, New York.

“Tony is always ready to talk about running and gives great advice on how to be a better runner,” Elmore said. “I look forward to many more years of seeing Tony run.”