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

Sat, 18 Aug 2007 05:04:02 -0400

Two Tourists


(Rerun from May 1998 RC as a tribute to Ralph Paffenbarger, who died this July at age 84. Our buddy Paul Reese passed on in 2004, at 87.)

Seeing them here, strolling toward a beach on the Big Island of Hawaii, you'd think they were just two more old tourists. These two walkers were friends and running-mates from California. But they were much more than tourists, and theirs wasn't a simple stroll to the beach.

Paul Reese was in Hawaii to finish what no one had done before. At age 80 he would become the first runner to cross all 50 states on foot.

He simply walked now -- at the end of the seven-year, 7600-mile odyssey -- so he could share this last lap with Ralph Paffenbarger. "Paff," at 75, is a world-renowned medical researcher and himself was a runner of note before his heart eased him down to walking pace.

Paul published books about phases one and two of his travels -- Ten Million Steps and Go East, Old Man. He's now completing the trilogy with The Old Man and the Road.

He writes in the third book, "Paff and I have run 1200 miles alongside each other in races -- including such famous ones as the Comrades (90-kilometer) Marathon in South Africa, the London Marathon and about 10 Honolulu Marathons. I was his pit-crew captain when at age 61 he set a 60-plus record of 22:03 for the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run.

"But that was then -- prior to his heart attack and subsequent operation. And this is now -- when Paff is limited to walking and, I suspect, grateful to be alive and capable of that."

Paff's heart problems were first detected in 1991. He underwent surgery three years later, and its complications included three cardiac arrests.

"All told I was in the hospital five weeks," he says in Paul's book. "After that my recovery was slow. It was six months before I was able to do daily walks of three miles."

Through it all his medical work continued. This is the same Dr. Ralph Paffenbarger, epidemiologist, who has studied the health habits of Harvard alumni. He has gathered the best evidence yet that exercise promotes longevity.

Paff still travels the world speaking about his findings. He'd been home from South Africa only four days before flying to Hawaii -- and in recent months he'd also spoken in Japan and Monaco.

Paul himself had traveled heavily in 1997 with his wife Elaine and their two Labradors, Rebel and Brudder. Hawaii was the 23rd and last state crossing of the year.

He too had reason to feel grateful for coming this far. All of the cross-state running has come after his successful treatment for prostate cancer.

"Each of us," he says of his and Paff's last day in Hawaii, "was grateful just to be alive, to be active, to be fully functional physically and mentally.

"Once again I marveled at how such a simple act -- doing this walking with a close friend -- could overflow my day with joy. Who needs drugs?"

Two strolling tourists? Yes, and much more.

These two, even more than other elders, are walking history books. Look past their well-worn covers and you see the wealth of experience that brought them to this place and time.

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