Like a Cheshire cat, his smile is the first thing you’ll notice about Phil DeMoss. Whether he’s charging through the finish line at a 5k or loping along with friends on a Saturday long run, he’s always smiling. This guy loves to run. What you probably won’t notice about him is that he’s legally blind. Yet that hasn’t stopped him from running and competing at the age of 74. Instead, it’s made him a more determined and inspiring runner.
Phil built his competitive running career around early successes. According to Phil, “When I was in 9th grade, I was the fastest person in the school.” Never mind that the Flint, Michigan public school he attended went from kindergarten to 9th grade. When he attended his first city-wide track meet that year, he learned an important lesson in humility and was astounded at how fast the kids from the other schools were.
He didn’t compete again until his senior year of high school (in 1961) when he tried out for the track team. When the coach asked what distance he wanted to run, he had no idea. He made the team by running the indoor — it was February in Michigan — half mile in 2:05, remarkably fast for someone who “didn’t run.” The coach recognized Phil’s potential and by the end of the season, after months of intense training, Phil was running the half mile in… 2:08, slower than when he had started. At least he got a varsity letter for his efforts. It also taught him another valuable lesson: forget training and just run like hell on race day.
Phil also ran the mile relay in high school. Before his first race, his mother — having never participated in sports herself — suggested he take a little bit of honey to give him a burst of energy. “Well if a little bit of honey would give me a little bit of energy, then a lot of honey would give me a lot of energy,” Phil reasoned. At the meet, Phil ran the second leg of the relay. His team was ahead as their first and fastest runner finished his leg. He handed the baton to Phil, who completely flubbed it. Phil finished his leg doubled over on the side of the track, his stomach roiling from too much honey. After high school, he decided that maybe this running thing wasn’t for him. He took a twenty-year hiatus while he went to college and started his career as an economics professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania.
It was his daughter, Jean, an accomplished runner and five-time Leadville finisher, who rekindled his interest in running. In the 1980’s, there were not a lot of road races open to the public, but a local 10k offered Phil the chance to race again. The course ran right in front of his house, so he decided “If don’t like it, I can always stop for a meal or take a nap.” There was no excuse not to do it. He enjoyed it enough that he ran the race again the next year, and the year after that. More races became available to the public and he started running those, too.
In the late 1990’s, Phil began participating in the Senior Games for athletes over 55. “That was old at the time” but his perspective has changed since then. The cost of registration covered participation in any number of events from the 100-yard dash to the 10k. “It made sense for me to do as many events as I could, so I did them all.” He added the Senior Games to the growing list of races he ran every year.
In 2011, Phil suddenly lost part of his vision due to a macular hole. The macula is the part of the retina which provides sharp images in the central field of vision and is critical for reading. “It’s tough to be a teacher when you can’t read.” He underwent a surgery which successfully repaired the hole but subsequently resulted in a detached retina. He then had four additional surgeries to repair the retina but none were successful. In a final attempt to salvage his vision, he retired from teaching in 2011 and moved to Denver where his daughter practices optometry. Despite being well connected to the top eye doctors in Denver, Phil remains blind in one eye.
Phil’s life was upended and the abrupt transition was difficult for him. He lost more than just his vision. He lost his identity as a teacher and was disconnected from his relationships with friends and colleagues which he had built over his 39-year career. He was looking for something to restore his “spark” when he came across an online ad for the Highlands Ranch Running Club. On his first night with the club, Phil showed up to the high school track where the club normally meets on Wednesday nights. There was nobody there. The workout had been moved to an alternate location but because Phil wasn’t on the email list yet, he didn’t know. Despite the inauspicious start, Phil has been an active member of the running club ever since.
Phil currently runs and lifts weights four days a week plus a long run on Saturdays. Track workouts are not the highlight of Phil’s training regimen. “Running in circles is boring for me.” What makes it worthwhile are the “terrific” people he runs with as a member of the running club. Phil now bikes wherever he can and otherwise relies on his wife, Cindy and fellow running club members to help drive him to races and practices.
Phil’s advice for anyone just getting started as a runner is simple: “Just get out there. You have to do it.” If you want to run forever, here are some more tips from Phil:
Never Overdo It
Phil credits his longevity as a runner to consistency and moderation. He recognizes his own limitations and has adjusted his expectations as he’s aged. He doesn’t heal as quickly from injuries now, making it critical to avoid injuries in the first place. That means backing off of intense training but he would rather sacrifice a little performance than get sidelined due to an injury.
Phil is a source of inspiration and he gives back as much as he receives from fellow runners. Running club member Larry Hoke has this to say about Phil, “Inspiring, uplifting and always a treat to be around…no one gives me more hope and belief that I can continue to run and run and run.”
Celebrate Your Victories
Continuing to win in his age group keeps him motivated too. Phil placed first in his age group at his last 5 and 10k races. At the same time, “You can’t expect to be a winner all the time” and it’s important to find motivation in your friends and enjoy the freedom of being outside.
Phil doesn’t complain about his impaired vision and he’s learned to compensate for it by focusing on the ground ahead of him. He regrets that can’t enjoy the beautiful scenery in Colorado while he runs. It’s a reminder to cultivate an appreciation for what we have and the joyful gift that is running.
When asked if he’ll keep running, Phil says, “I’ll keep running as long as I’m alive.”
Phil’s most recent accomplishments: