Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Fri, 7 Dec 2001 12:25:50 -0500

Old Men Walking


In certain running circles, walk is a four-letter word. Reacting to the growing popularity of walk breaks, some purist runners have taken to equating this practice with cheating. They claim that walking within a run is only for the untalented and undedicated.

To walk is to wimp out? Two good old friends of mine could argue that point, but let's have their efforts speak for them.

Their average age is nearly 80. One friend had run all his life, and achieved more than most of us could ever dream, when all running suddenly stopped. The other friend waited until his mature years to start running, raced faster by his early 70s than most of us go at any age, then found he couldn't run as often as before.

When running declined or stopped for them, running's closest cousin started looking much more attractive. One became a full-time walker who covers enormous distances in his 80s. The other became a part-time walker who could set marathon records in his mid-70s.

TED CORBITT had more to lose than any of us, because he ran more than almost anyone, when the great fear of runners came true for him. He found in the 1970s that his asthma made running intolerable.

This loss could have devastated Ted, an Olympic marathoner in his youth and later a renowned ultrarunner. He could have descended from high activity to none.

Instead he transitioned smoothly into walking. Not strolling through his New York City neighborhood but a different way of traveling the big miles that he'd long covered.

This summer he averaged 50-1/2 miles per day in a six-day race named for him. Now he writes to me about his current walks as his 83rd birthday approaches.

"Since I stopped running, I sometimes walk around Manhattan Island, which is 31-plus miles by the route I take. I've probably run or walked this more than 100 times.

"In fact, I had planned to walk it the day of the terrorist attacks -- and would have passed the site of the World Trade Center after its collapse.

"Of course I changed my plans. I decided to walk another 30-mile course, going up the Hudson River and back."

Ted added that "most of my walks are 10-milers." Running or walking, he remains a beacon for aging actively.

JOHN KESTON became, at 69-plus, the oldest marathoner to break three hours. At 71 he ran the fastest time (3:00:58) for anyone past his 70th birthday.

The record-breaking abruptly stopped for John when he fractured a hip in a bicycling crash. Soon after that injury healed, he broke a foot while building his own home.

Both times John returned to running. But he went several years between marathons. The professional stage performer was relegated to singing the National Anthem at races.

At the recent Portland Marathon he doubled. After his solo performance of the Star-Spangled Banner, he stepped in among the runners.

John ran 3:22:59 at Portland. At two months shy of his 77th birthday he became the oldest runner to break 3-1/2 hours.

This was a final test of his new training method, which had led to a summer of age-group record-breaking at shorter distances. For one-half of his mileage, John walks. He doesn't mix walk breaks into his runs but mixes walk and running days.

"I predicated the concept of this kind of training that body-builders use," he says. "They base their approach on the premise of never working the same muscle more than every third day. I figured that I could save my running muscles by just walking two days in a row (usually five to six miles each day) and then running long (typically 14 to 17 miles) on the third day."

John adds, "I'd like to see this system tried on some younger runners, since I believe that most youngsters overtrain." We don't have to wait until our 70s to find that walk is not a dirty word.

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