Betty Holston Smith pays close attention to Udai Singh’s posture and the mechanics of his stride on a treadmill in a small Rockville gym before heading outside to watch him run on a chilly Saturday morning last fall.
“Lean, lean, lean!” shouts Smith, clapping to encourage the 17-year-old Poolesville High School cross-country runner who was looking for tips to improve his form. “Everything should be heading in the direction you are heading. …That looks great!”
For more than 10 years, Smith has evaluated the techniques of other runners as a volunteer at a monthly running lab sponsored by the Montgomery County Road Runners Club (MCRRC), offering advice honed by her years of long-distance running. Smith has so much wisdom to impart that she often continues working with runners in the parking lot long after the clinic has ended and other volunteers have departed. Udai’s father, Kush Singh, says Smith is the go-to person for running advice in the club and that her expertise helped him shave nearly 45 minutes off of his marathon time. “Everybody knows Betty,” he says. “She’s a legend.”
At age 79, Smith runs at least 60 miles a week and regularly teaches deep-water running classes. She has completed 85 marathons on six continents since 1988 and 39 ultramarathons (races that are longer than regular 26.2-mile marathons) since 2007. In 2002, she ran a race on the seventh continent—Asia—finishing a half-marathon along the Great Wall of China. In November, Smith completed the 144-hour Icarus Florida UltraFest, running a total of about 130 miles by completing 200 loops on an asphalt trail over six days.
“My focus is on the start line. I do everything within my power to be ready so I don’t worry about the finish line,” says Smith, who often listens to an instrumental version of the blues-rock song “Get Ready” while running.
For strength, Smith says she draws on her experience as one of the first two black students to integrate Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1956. She recalls crying nearly every night after being spit on, ignored at lunch and harassed by other students during her first year. “If you went through all that at B-CC, there isn’t anything you can’t do that you put your mind to,” says Smith, who lives in Rockville. “It made me realize who I was and what I was capable of doing.”