Jack Eckenrode, 94
Some athletes inspire others with their ability. Others inspire just by their example.
For cyclist Jack Eckenrode, it has taken 17 years of competing to win his first National Senior Games gold medals at the 2022 Games held this year in Fort Lauderdale. But Jack has a happy army following his healthy example, including 12 children, 42 grandchildren and 48 great-grandchildren who are keeping active like him. His son John is an avid cyclist who has run several endurance events including two Boston Marathons, and other “kids” have done road races and triathlons. He has had more than one grandchild complete Iron Man races.
The Pittsburgh area native and his first wife Margaret were both avid recreational cyclists when they heard about National Senior Games coming to the City of Bridges in 2005. A new world opened up and they both enjoyed traveling, competing and making friends every two years at Nationals. When Margaret passed in 2021 some were concerned that Jack might not rebound. But as you will read in the following edited conversation, a strange coincidence opened a new chapter, and he is now remarried and living in his dream house in Washington County nestled next to a public trail where he enjoys riding and meeting others who pass by.
Jack has dabbled with track sprint events, but cycling is what turns his wheels. The Korean War veteran bikes almost daily on the trail and rides up to 30 miles twice a week to train. He hopes to feel good enough to complete both the 5K and 10K Time Trials and the longer Road Races when the 2023 National Senior Games presented by Humana come to Pittsburgh. If he completes either the 20K or 40K race at age 95 he will become the oldest athlete to do so in the Games history.
His daughter Susan Rendulic says his National Senior Games competition experience ‘has been a true inspiration and motivation to keep him healthy and active.” While being physically fit is crucial to successful aging, that’s not the whole equation. Athletes who display our “Personal Best” qualities also show a positive attitude and engagement in life, and everyone around Jack points to his good cheer. His wife Eleanor sums it up by saying, “He’s just a happy person. I think he’s so healthy because he never is mad, never gets upset about anything. All he does is smile and he keeps me smiling. That’s why I love him so much.”
Happy Cycling, Jack!
Jack, how long have you been riding a bike?[Laughs] Since as long as I can remember. I went out for football and baseball in high school but I always biked when I was a kid. It was just something you did in the morning when you woke up and had breakfast and then you were on your way. You jumped on a bike to get there and everywhere else because it was the quickest way to travel. So I’ve been biking all my life.
I am biking everyday here and I’m putting in 18 to 30 miles a couple times a week. I live on a paved asphalt trail that’s 8 to 10 feet wide and it’s fairly level. You can go almost 40 miles on it if you want to.
Are you a native Pittsburgher?
I grew up in Mount Lebanon and have lived in this area my whole life. I’m lucky this time because I won’t have to travel too far to go to the National Senior Games! I’ve been to all of the cities all around for the past 20 years. I got to the point where I saw the same people every time which is nice.
Do you think it will be an advantage to have The Games so close to home?
Oh yes. The event is stretched out over two weeks and lots of times you can only go for a week, so there’s some races you want to compete in but you just have to go home. I can compete in everything I want this time because I’m local. So we cyclists have a big advantage here. We know the bike trails and we know the elevation before anybody else does. I hope to do the road races.
You must have brought 20 family members down to Florida for the 2022 National Senior Games. We even included a clip of them cheering in our latest Showcase Video. How many children do you have, anyway?
I have 12 children, 42 grandchildren and 48 great grandchildren. I am getting another great grandchild in February of next year.
Wow! Do any of your kids follow your example?
They’re all active. Most of them bike because I bike. I have some that did swimming in college. They’re now in that age group between 60 and 70 and can compete, which is going to be hard because they have great competition. Some of them want to start Senior Games.
You are among several Pittsburgh athletes who started in National Senior Games when we came there in 2005.
I was in my 70s at the time. My first wife Margaret and I started it together. She biked her whole life too. We were down on a farm in Greene County and used to bike hills there. That’s when we got interested in Senior Games.
She was very good biker. She was a gold medalist, which made me mad because I wasn’t that good. I’d get bronze or silver and she’d always get gold. Last year I got a chance to get 5 golds and I was so happy that I finally got some. Margaret died the year before so she didn’t get to see that.
We felt the loss too, Jack. We know the Eckenrodes were a popular couple at Senior Games. But you have remarried, right?
Yes, and it’s interesting how we met. Margaret and I were in the process of buying some property and putting in a double wide trailer on it out here in Washington County. We purchased the land from the couple across the street from us. Margaret died in May and the lady that sold me the property lost her husband in July. Eleanor and I became buddies. I helped her and she helped me get over it, so we got married. I was 94 and she was 82.
You wonder how did it happen, why did it happen? It was just one of those things.
Does Eleanor bike with you?
She doesn’t bike or anything and that is OK with me. We walk a lot of the trail together. She has a little bit of fear of falling off the bike. She knows how to ride, she is just unsteady. Maybe I shouldn’t be biking at my age either, but I just love it and have good balance and that’s the most important thing you’ve got when you’re older.
I love meeting people on the trail here. I installed a little water fountain out there for them to get water. They’ll stop to say hello and shoot the breeze. Anybody that rides a bike seems to be a pretty nice person. I talk to people of all ages. I have a big Senior Games banner on my trailer for everyone to look at. People will stop by say ‘Wow, what’s going on?’ and I’ll brief them about getting into them or just volunteering at the event. Sometimes I show them the garage with all of the medals Margaret and I won.
You must be asked all the time how you have stayed healthy.
I get that all the time. I tell everybody ‘I never smoked, I never drank and I don’t go out with wild wild women.’ [Laughs] That’s it.
No, I’ve never had much trouble with my weight. I get on a scale once a week and it’s steady 175. You must watch your weight. It is so important to do. When you bike a lot, you don’t want to be heavy. I do take vitamin supplements for my eyes. Some of my brothers had eye issues and I don’t want to have to go through that.
I had a lot of temptations to smoke while being in the service for 5 years, but I am so lucky I never did. That was one of the best decisions I’ve made.
So you’ve never had a major health challenge?
I had a broken leg when I was in high school, but I’ve been lucky to always have perfect health. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to go into the Air Force and be a pilot.
You were a pilot? What a great opportunity.
Yes, it was right around the Korean war. After I went to Duquesne University I joined the Air Force for five years. I was just a ‘noncom’ for one year and then went into flight school which took another year. I served three years of flying down in Texas, Oklahoma and Florida.
I give a lot of credit to the Air Force because when I went through their evaluation pilot cadet school I did a lot of calisthenics and keeping in shape for a whole year and I use those same calisthenics today. When I get up in the morning I do some stationary biking a little bit and then I do my exercise. Then I go out on my bike and ride 20 miles.
Is there any advice you share with others?
I always suggest being active. I go to a lot of senior centers and talk to people and notice what goes on you know. You see a lot of the older guys come to the Senior Center and they have a cane for the first time. I always ask, ‘What are you doing with that cane?’ and they will tell me that they fell. Then next thing you know, they get a walker and then a wheelchair. I say to them, ‘Your legs are so important for your balance.’
I’m not suggesting that you don’t have to jog or run but I know a lot of people that have a hip replacement or knee replacement and they did a lot of jogging and running when they were younger. If you don’t want that and you want to be active, the best thing to do is bike and swim. That’s good for your joints. You’re not going to have knee problems and hip problems if you take up sports like that.
So it’s safe to say Jack Eckenrode doesn’t sit around much.
No. I do not sit around much. I go to a church down at the end of the street here and they have services every Monday, Thursday and Sunday and I go to them. I just feel bad if I don’t because it’s a block away. My whole life I’ve gone to church and I feel good after I’ve gone.
I’m 95 years old and lucky I’m still in good health and still competing. I know that it’s getting thin on the end as far as having competition, but I’ve seen years ago what happens when people get older, they’re not competing on a regular basis or like in my case running and biking. I’ll keep going as long as I can.