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

Wed, 17 Sep 2003 09:03:56 -0400

On the Road Again


Highway 169 in Iowa passes near the bridges of Madison County. The book and movie by that name were make-believe, but the bridges themselves are real.

I paid a brief visit to 169 this summer, not to view a covered bridge but to touch a highway once traveled by an amazing friend of mine. Paul Reese ran along this road while crossing Iowa, south to north, in 1995.

Five years earlier, Paul had run across the United States. Age 73 at the time, he was then and still is the oldest to make this journey. (A feature article in the October Runner's World lists other trans-Americans but fails to mention Reese.)

The next-to-last line in Ten Million Steps, Paul's book about this trip, read, "One of the secrets of aging gracefully is always to have something to look forward to." Always have an "agenda," he wrote elsewhere.

His next one was to run across each of the states he'd missed the first time. This he accomplished in two stages: west of the Mississippi, then the eastern states plus Alaska and Hawaii.

He'd passed his 80th birthday before bagging his final state. Two more books -- Go East, Old Man, and The Old Man and the Road -- came out of those trips.

By then he and wife Elaine had sold the motor home that she had driven all those miles in support of Paul's efforts. "This was always a team effort," he said, and it looked like such big efforts had ended.

Paul's sights lowered, but still were plenty high for someone past 80. He several times completed his "last marathon" at Honolulu.

Last year's marathon seemed that it really would be his last. Soon afterward he ruptured a disk in his back. This put him on crutches through March and walking with a cane through April, the month he turned 86.

Paul's first career was as a Marine officer. I once referred to him as an "ex-Marine," and he firmly informed me, "There are no EX-Marines." The toughness that carried him through two wars still serves him.

While injured, he plotted his next campaign. "One of my regrets," he says, "was that I had not traveled by foot from Canada to Mexico. That regret evaporated in May when Elaine decided we should acquire a camper van and embark on more road adventures."

After they bought a Road Trek, Elaine said to her husband, "I suppose now you will want to do your Canada-to-Mexico thing." To which Paul replied, "Brilliant suggestion!"

On July 18th they stood at the Canada/Montana border. Twenty-six days and 292 miles later, they reached the southern end of that state. The others will follow in separate stages.

"This trek reeked with conservatism," says Paul, "for the goal was walking a mere 11 miles per day. But since the longest distance I had gone since the Honolulu Marathon in December was eight miles, and that only once, I was uncertain how I'd fare.

"My hope was that the walk would be good therapy for both my physical and emotional health. (No way, if staying home, would I have done so much exercise.) This proved to be true. As the days accumulated, I did get stronger, and was even able to do some running."

He adds, "Montana was a party for me. Having been semi-crippled the first four months of the year, I reveled in just being able to walk. Being vintage 86, having lost three close contemporary friends in the past five months and having seen other friends of my age beset with physical problems, I savored being alive and in control of all my faculties."

The lesson from Paul Reese's latest adventure is how big a blow it takes, at any age, to knock us out for good. The back injury wasn't his final hit.


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