PICAYUNE PEOPLE: 83-year-old Mary Kaplan has won races in every Texas county, every state
Mary Kaplan didn’t start running until she was in her 40s, when the Air Force made her. Now 83, the Sunrise Beach Village retiree has run 1,761 races (mostly 5K), placing first in her age group in 1,527 of them — at least as of November 2022.
Included in that ever-growing total are races run and won in every state in the United States and each of the 254 counties in Texas. Having reached those goals, she’s now searching out races in uniquely named Texas towns. So far, that’s included Notrees, Tarzan, Uncertain, Weeping Mary, and many more.
“I don’t plan to stop until I have to,” Kaplan said. “It’s a good life. It allows me to eat what I want to eat and stay in good health.”
An early riser, Kaplan runs at least 4 miles or an hour a day every day but Friday, no matter the weather. Husband Hal, 92, rides a stationary bike at home to keep in shape. He also accompanies her on all of her race trips.
“He’s my support team,” Kaplan said. “He was never a runner. He played a lot of sports, but he never ran. He takes pictures, holds the water and clothes, and keeps the stats — for me and anyone else who needs any of these services.”
Hal and Mary met at Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin before it was transformed into Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. She was an OB-GYN nurse and he a surgical tech. Hal retired after 28 years and Mary after 30.
Air Force regulations required 3 miles of exercise a day, a mile and a half of which could be walking. In 1983, the requirement changed to running all 3 miles.
“My comment was, ‘I’d die! I can’t do that,’” Kaplan said. “I went out and ran three miles. When I got home, Hal said, ‘This will last two weeks and you’ll be done with it.’ Here we are 43 years later, and I’m still running.”
She attributes that to consistency, commitment, and a late start to a sport in which she has been relatively injury free.
“I think part of it is starting at an older age,” she said. “People who start as kids or in high school often have injuries and bone problems. I guess those of us who started in our 40s and 50s and 60s, I guess our bones have matured enough. I’ve been very lucky. I’ve only had minor irritations.”
Both small in stature, the couple eats frugally, mostly skipping desserts and sticking to fruits, vegetables, and meat.
In her quest to race in every county, Mary ran into a big obstacle: Not every one of the state’s 254 counties had a competition. With a little help from her friends, she formed the Texas 254 Running Club to organize races in counties without.
Her favorite is a race that has become an annual event in Mentone, the county seat of Loving County.
“It’s as far west as you can get,” she said.
In 2014, Loving County Judge Skeet Jones and his family helped organize a race with the Texas 254 Running Club. The judge, sister Mozelle Carr, who is the county clerk, and 30 other family members all joined in the run. Judge Jones started the race with a cowbell. A horse rider led the runners along the route.
“They have done it every year since, and we make a point to go,” Kaplan said. “It’s a really great thing.”
Since starting the club, four people have completed runs in all 254 counties. Three more are actively working on it. One, an 88-year-old man from Georgetown, died 25 counties short. Now, other club members are running to complete his challenge.
“When we run a county he needed, we wear two bibs: one for him and one for us,” Kaplan said. “He gets the credit for it. We keep his wife and daughters informed. We hope to finish it up next year.”
Not all club members are in their 80s, Kaplan said.
“Our youngest member is in his late 50s,” she said. “Most are in their 60s and 70s. I’m the only one in my 80s. We had a couple of teenagers once, but with all the traveling, they just couldn’t do it. We’re all mostly retired folks.”
Although Kaplan most often runs 5K races, which are 3.1 miles, she occasionally takes on a 10K (about 6 miles) and has run a half-marathon (13.1 miles). She’s also raced a lot locally, running in several competitions in Burnet and Llano counties. She ran her hometown’s first annual Wobble Before You Gobble Walk on Thanksgiving Day in 2022.
“They’re calling it a walk, but I’m going to run it,” she said before the event.
The couple has been stationed together in Germany, where she ran a couple of races, and Spain along with many towns in the United States. Hal was deployed in Vietnam for a time, but Mary stayed stateside. After retiring to San Antonio, they took a look at the Hill Country and decided to make Sunrise Beach Village their permanent home in 1996.
“Our whole life is running,” Kaplan said. “Planning to do it, doing it, and coming home to write it up so I remember what happened and can review it and see if I want to go back to that race again.”
Kaplan belongs to three running clubs and has been highlighted in Runner’s World magazine, Texas Runner & Triathlete magazine, and many local newspapers. Now, she can add The Picayune Magazine to that list as she continues to run rings around uniquely named Texas towns. Next stops: Klondike and Friendship.