1. Life & Culture

Documentary 'The Human Race,' which has Tampa Bay ties, celebrates running in 50s and well beyond

An 80-year-old woman runs half marathons to stay one step ahead of Alzheimer's. A man in his 50s runs his first 5K. A cancer survivor celebrates her 60s by running the U.S. perimeter.

Welcome to The Human Race, an upcoming documentary celebrating seniors happily running for their lives.

Directed by former Tampa resident turned Hollywood actor Liz Vassey, The Human Race also features five members of Run Tampa, a group led by Debbie Voiles, one of the documentary's producers.

Currently in postproduction, The Human Race already has an interested distributor but no deal. That hasn't kept Voiles, 64, from making plans.

"We've been kidding around about what we'll wear on the red carpet," she said by telephone.

"It's great to take people in their 60s, 70s and 80s and make them feel like stars. What could be better?"

Voiles and Vassey "fell madly in like with each other," the actor said by phone from Los Angeles, with mutual interest in running's benefits and combating stereotypes of aging.

That's an occupational hazard even at age 45 for Vassey, whose credits include regular roles on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and All My Children. "L.A. is where ageism comes from," she joked.

An avid runner, Vassey found comfort through the exercise after her mother's death in 2012, and the origins of The Human Race.

"Running gave me something to do in the morning that I could count on," she said. "It helped me get through the loss of one of the most important people in my life. I started thinking if it means that much to me emotionally, I wonder how much running means to other people.

"Then I turned 40 and started wondering: How long can I do this? When am I going to have to take it down a notch and be a mall walker?"

Not as soon as Vassey thought, after researching Stanford University professor James Fries, whose 13-year study concluded that running can delay age-related disabilities for two decades and doesn't erode joints. Fries concluded that running makes participants half as likely to die early as nonrunners.

Voiles shares Vassey's belief in Fries' research, chipping in her experience as a 40-year runner and certified coach. She organized Run Tampa in 2010, growing its ranks to nearly 300, with an estimated 50 members age 55 and older. Several joined Voiles and Vassey at the recent Humana Iron Girl 5K and half marathon in Clearwater.

"We end up being an anomaly; not that many people my age run as much as I do," Voiles said. "But I don't want it to be that way."

No, Vassey said: "She wants to stretch middle age to the end of our lives."

Voiles said Run Tampa members are mostly middle-aged and older, many of whom haven't been physically fit for years. She has a reply ready for anyone claiming they can't run.

"I always ask, 'Can you run 15 steps?'?" Voiles said. "They look at me and go: 'Well, yeah.' Okay, then let's start there, then. Nobody can argue that. It doesn't matter where you start. The critical thing is to start."

From there, Voiles coaches a patient progression in running distance, starting with those 15 steps then walking the rest of a mile for starters.

"When that gets easy, bump it up to 20 steps," she said. "When that gets easy, make it 25. It might take six months, might take a year, but you're eventually going to be running a 5K nonstop. And it'll never be miserable.

"The number one thing ... is to help them understand that it took a long time to get that far out of shape, so we shouldn't rush to get back into shape," she said. "I'm not in a hurry to see them run a 5K. I'm far more concerned with keeping them healthy so they don't quit."

Such commitment by seniors is what The Human Race is all about: an octogenarian widow training for a marathon after a double mastectomy, a retiree running because doctors said he wouldn't after breech birth disfigured his legs, stories making the simple wish to lose a few pounds seem easier to accomplish.

"In order to maintain any commitment you have to feel it in your heart, which I know sounds corny but it's the truth," Vassey said. "There has to be a reason.

"Everybody has a why. If you focus on the why you can be motivated for the rest of your life."

Contact Steve Persall at or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.