The new study in fact grew out of an earlier scientific examination of the unexpected prowess of Tommy Hughes, an electrician from Northern Ireland, who set a single-age world record last year when he turned 59 and ran a scorching 2:30:15 marathon. That finish caught the attention of researchers at the Inserm research organization in France and other institutions who study elite athletes. They invited Mr. Hughes to their lab to delve into what had allowed him to be so swift.
Mr. Hughes owned, they found, an impressive, if front-loaded running résumé. As a young man, he had represented Northern Ireland in an Olympics marathon, but then quit running for 16 years to work and raise a family. After that hiatus, he nonchalantly signed up for the 2008 Belfast marathon and, with little training, finished sixth. From there, his speed and results only improved.
An almost preternatural aerobic capacity most likely aided him, the researchers found when they tested his physiology. At 59, his capacity remained exceptionally high for his age, despite years without running, which should have reduced his endurance more permanently than it had. His current approach to training was probably crucial, the scientists decided. Uncoached, he logged at least 100 weekly miles, running twice a day and entering local 5-kilometer and 10-kilometer races for speed work.
During this testing, Mr. Hughes mentioned that he and his 34-year-old son Eoin were planning to enter the Frankfurt marathon, aiming to break the Guinness world record for fastest parent-child marathon finish, which stood then at 5:02:12. Eoin, his father told them, had not begun running until he turned 30. Now, the two of them often trained and competed together locally. This would be Eoin’s first marathon.
The researchers quickly realized that the father and son represented a remarkable test case of how different trajectories and biologies affect athletic success, with one runner beginning young, stopping and returning, and the other not starting until adulthood. Plus, they were related.