City Paper is not for tourists
Twenty years ago, doctors told Dixon Hemphill he would never run again.
He was riding his bike down a hill, going about 20 miles per hour, when “some character in a Cadillac” came up alongside him and sent him flying into the pavement. Hemphill, who was almost done training for his 15th consecutive Reston Triathlon, broke his pelvis, suffered a collapsed lung, and spent 41 days in three different hospitals following the event.
The surgery to keep his pelvis together resulted in a staph infection, further complicating his recovery. He was 74 at the time.
“I realized with this accident I had and so forth, it might be that my time was numbered,” Hemphill says. “I might not live too long if I didn’t exercise. It sounds kind of morbid, but I did feel that way.”
His wife, June, says she wasn’t even thinking about his running. She just wanted him to walk and feel normal again.
But Hemphill had other plans. He decided he could not stop running.
Hemphill’s hometown of Pawcatuck, Connecticut, sits across a river that separates it from Westerly, Rhode Island. The town is so small that he had to travel to Westerly to access the post office.
He grew up the middle child of three boys in the picturesque village known for its historic, Victorian-style houses, and spent his youth as a track and field athlete—minus the running. He pole vaulted, high jumped, and threw discus in high school.
After graduating, Hemphill, now 94, attended Amherst College in Massachusetts for a year. He admits he did “very poorly” in his academics.
World War II had started, so, like his father before him, Hemphill joined the Navy, and served from 1943 until 1946 on a cruiser in the Atlantic and a landing craft in the Pacific. He did not see combat, but completed three years of active duty and 17 years in the reserves.
When the war ended, Hemphill returned to school, this time at Middlebury College in Vermont.
He enjoyed the atmosphere there and competed in the pole vault, high jump, and discus. He also ran cross country for a few years and played football for one season. “You played in the whole thing, both offense and defense, the whole time” Hemphill recalls. “I was second string.”
According to his biography on the Middlebury website, Hemphill won the 1949 College decathlon and set a Middlebury school record in the pole vault, using a bamboo pole. He placed third in the pole vault at the Millrose Games, the world’s longest-running indoor track and field competition, in New York City.
Hemphill competed in a few decathlons after college, but it would be decades until he took running seriously. He felt he had more important things to focus on.
While working at General Electric, Hemphill met a woman named June in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he was training for a few months. Next January, the two will celebrate their 65th wedding anniversary.
Hemphill dabbled in tennis and golf after having children, but didn’t do much else for exercise. Raising a family and working in the industrial boiler business took up most of his time. One day, while sitting at home in his late 40s, he found himself gaining weight and decided to sign up for a local one-mile race put on by the Potomac Valley Track Club.
“I couldn’t finish it,” Hemphill remembers. “I just went out and ran half a mile and started walking.”
Motivated and embarrassed by his result, he vowed to return and run other meets. About a year later, the club invited him to compete in a relay race at Hains Point. His team won.
“I was hooked after that,” Hemphill says.
June, 93, prefers to spectate her husband’s races instead of running. Through the years, she’s watched as Hemphill has gone from a runner who could barely finish a one-mile race to an owner of a running store company, Fairfax Running Center, a race director, and a world-record setting masters runner (the classification for participants 35 and over in track events and 40 and over for distance-running events).
The two have four children and nine grandchildren and still live in the same Fairfax Station house that they bought more than five decades ago.
In 2017, Hemphill went viral for his thrilling 60-meter race against against 99-year-old Orville Rogers at the USA Track and Field masters indoor championships in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (He lost by five-hundredths of a second.) In a drawer in their living room, Hemphill keeps printouts of newspaper clips about his running exploits as a masters runner.
“I think it’s great,” June says of the attention Hemphill has received. “I’m basically rather shy and I wouldn’t want it on myself. I couldn’t handle it, so I’m happy he has it.”
Hemphill’s daughter, Chris Wheeler, recalls that her father once told her mother that he didn’t like the attention that came with his accomplishments. “Yeah you do,” June responded with a laugh.
Over the years, Hemphill has pushed through several physical setbacks. He had his right hip replaced in 2008 and was diagnosed last year with stage 4 prostate cancer. He doesn’t have to go through chemotherapy or radiation, but gets a prescription drug injection every three months. His last shot was two weeks ago.
“I was concerned, but it’s very slow. It’s the best cancer you can get,” he says with a laugh, “because it’s very slow. Older people who have it usually die of something else.”
Hemphill describes himself as a “glass half full” type of person and cites his optimism and diet as reasons for his longevity.
“In other words, have a goal,” he says. “That to me, that’s very important. Just have something to look forward to.”
He avoids fried food and drinks plenty of liquids, including a bottle of Samuel Adams every night and the occasional glass of red wine. “I used to drink martinis,” he says, “and they’re pretty potent. So that’s a big change.”
At an age where his peers have slowed down, Hemphill is finding more ways to stay busy. He dreads the thought of ever having to move into a retirement home. “That’s the last thing I want,” he says. “Here we have a house. We’ve got an upstairs and downstairs, got a nice yard that I take care of, got a shed out back where I build things.”
About four years ago, he picked up a hobby of fixing clocks, taking old, key-wound clocks and reassembling them into battery operated versions that are displayed all over his home. Sometimes he’ll build his own clock frames and sell them to friends. He also builds furniture in the shed behind his house and recently started taking painting lessons.
“I just enjoy it,” Hemphill says. “I just like to do something. I can’t sit home and do nothing.”
He fits that in around track workouts at the George Mason University Field House three times a week. He drives the 10 minutes down Route 123 by himself, and once at the track he does a regimented warmup routine before going into 100- or 200-meter sprints.
He writes down copious notes of each workout and often runs under the watchful eye of his coach, Alisa Harvey, a former professional runner from Arlington who he’s worked with for the past year and a half.
“Oh my gosh, the duration, the fact he still has the drive, he still has the ability and drive to push himself at an amazing age of 94, people are in awe when they see him,” Harvey says.
Exactly eight months after his bike accident, Hemphill ran the Race for the Cure 5K in D.C.
“That was the happiest day in my life,” he says. “’Cause here I was back running again. I didn’t care how fast I was running, but I was running.”
Twenty years later, Hemphill is still doing what he loves the most: running and competing. Each time Hemphill enters a meet, he has the goal to win his age group. And on Sunday, he will line up for the fifth edition of the Navy Mile on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. This year’s race will have special meaning for the World War II veteran. The 70-and-over heat has been renamed the Lieutenant Commander Dixon Hemphill heat.
“That meant a lot to me,” he says of the honor.
Also running will be three generations of the Hemphill family. His son, Pete, will be competing and so will several of his grandchildren, including Lisa, who says her grandfather has guided her through her own races.
“It’s great,” says Pete. “It makes me want to keep going and keep active like him.”
“He’s like a running rock star,” adds Lisa. “He’s the biggest celebrity in our family. Everyone’s super proud of him. We post his articles and viral videos and send it to our friends and stuff. It’s just really cool.”
Hemphill runs, in a way, for them. He says he’s looking forward to turning 95 in January and moving up to the next age group (95 to 99) and wants to run at least “another two or three more years.” Maybe even until he’s 100, he adds.
“I’ve got a big family,” Hemphill says. “And I want to be around. I’m sounding dramatic, [and] I don’t mean to be, but that’s why I like to run, just to be around.”