Found on RunnersWorld.com and written by Roger Robinson
Leaders in the sport may also be advancing a social revolution in active aging.
When a Runner’s World feature (October 2015) identified the “50 Most Influential People in Running,” one of the selections was the prolific author and online coach Hal Higdon. His inclusion was for his innovative contributions to running as it is today, not his long-term legacy as one of the creators and chroniclers of the early running movement 40 or 50 years ago. The short profile spoke of Higdon’s “staying power,” but rightly avoided making a big deal of the fact that his current initiatives, which include training apps, digital publications, and a stream of new books, are coming at age 84.
The Higdon recognition appeared just as I sent greetings to another old friend, Bruce Tulloh in England, for his 80th birthday. Tulloh, too, is busy taking initiatives and creating challenges. His latest idea was a high-profile 80-mile walk from his home in Wiltshire to the middle of London, an energetic celebration of the birthday, and also a way of publicizing his latest online book, a manual about exercise and diet for older people, defiantly titled How to Avoid Dying (For as Long as Possible).
The brisk 80 miles at 80 years old made his point. Tulloh was European 5,000 meters champion, broke the American Coast to Coast record in 1969, and brings to his coaching and writing the insight of a skilled scientist. When we talked about his walk, he was more excited that an athlete he coaches, Jenny Spink, had just run a personal best marathon and qualified for a Great Britain team. Tulloh confessed to sneaking in a few running sections during his 80-miler, “when walking all day got too boring.” Usually he prefers to scamper a session of repeat 200s, barefoot, as he always raced.
In the same week I had business with the Boston Athletic Association, and spent time with the always helpful and expert Gloria Ratti, one of the most active and full-time vice presidents on the B.A.A. board. Ratti serves as collector and curator of the association’s priceless archive of memorabilia, as welcoming VIP hostess, and as an untiring advocate for women runners. With Higdon and Tulloh in mind, I was tactless enough to ask her age. No way would you guess it: Ratti is 86.
Three in three days seemed more than coincidence. Was a pattern revealing itself? Higdon, Tulloh, and Ratti are significant figures in today’s international mass culture of running, not as octogenarian athletes, like Ed Whitlock or Betty Jean McHugh, but as engaged and influential leaders. So I looked around to see if maybe running as a movement might be redefining the later decades of life in wider terms than physical activity and achievement. That redefinition has been dramatically done by Whitlock and others, causing a groundswell of change in thinking about the physical possibilities of advanced age. What I was noticing is something connected, but different—creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship, high-level management work, industry leadership, or just getting the job done.
Below is a select list of mover and shaper octogenarians whom you might meet along the roads of today’s running world. All are prominent among the people who make our sport happen and keep it progressing.
Before you come to the names, I have an important request. Please don’t read these brief profiles with that unconsciously patronizing, “Oh, wow, that’s so amazing at that age” approval that we too habitually use to condescend to people who do great things in their later years. That still stereotypes them as old. As do laudatory words like “undiminished,” which imply the expectation of diminishment. We need to grow beyond those attitudes, just as we have (mostly) moved beyond thinking that high-achieving women are exceptions to the norm.
If 80 has truly become the new 50 or 60, if the running community is shaping a culture where people contribute well beyond previously assumed ceilings, the rest of society will catch up with us in 30 years. That’s how it worked with understanding the benefits of hard exercise. The social implications are enormous.
So I offer this short international list of high-performing octogenarians, not to show that the people on it are extraordinary, but the opposite—because I suspect they are becoming the new normal.
Walter Bortz II (b. 1930)
Walter Bortz is perfect to head this list, the most important pioneering researcher into the connection between exercise and positive aging, and fully active as a scientist, speaker, author, and marathon runner. He is a clinical professor at Stanford University School of Medicine, specializing in gerontology—the science of old age. When I last met him, in San Francisco in August, Bortz was just back from lecturing on “the science of longevity” on another international tour. Roguishly vital as always, he kept the dinner party interested with statistics about our aging population and the importance of exercise. “More people in America are turning 90 than are being born.” He kept us utterly enthralled by his argument that active sexuality is also essential throughout life. He was 20 years ahead of Tulloh in inventing a defiant book title, with Dare To Be 100, published in 1996, now also the title of his weekly blog for The Huffington Post. He’s working on his ninth book, Aging is Negotiable.
“It emphasizes that most of our future is ours to create. I’m also hyped by the publication of a major paper on why exercise is good and lack of exercise is bad for everything,” Bortz told me. His classic book We Live Too Short and Die Too Long (1992) encapsulated his mission that old age should not be the process of long decline and loss that is our society’s norm.
Doug Clement (b. 1933)
Sports-medicine pioneer and Olympic 400-meter runner Doug Clement is in his 51st year as chair of British Columbia’s Achilles Track and Field Society, which puts on the annual Harry Jerome Track Classic, one of North America’s prime track meets. Track meets take a lot of work and superlative leadership.
“The Achilles group of volunteers helps all athletes by producing competitions,” is Clement’s understated description of his work. With his wife, Diane, also an Olympian, he founded the Richmond Kajaks Track Club and was a founder of the hugely successful Vancouver Sun Run, which now supports the Jerome meet. A lifetime elite-level coach and sports-medicine specialist, Clement recently competed as a power walker in the “Forever Young” 8K masters race in Vancouver.
“The decline in work-related physical activity with the digital revolution increases the need for each individual to create incentives for exercise,” Clement said.
Bob and Lenore Dolphin (both b. 1930)
The husband and wife “Team Dolphin” of the popular Yakima River Canyon Marathon (Washington) are probably the oldest race directors in the world. More important, they have a remarkable gift for friendship. Every step in the race organization process, from inviting entries to giving out the awards, is done with personal warmth. Their own home is race operations base and many runners are welcomed there. The race itself is like an annual family reunion. Fifty-Staters and Marathon Maniacs are always prominent. Running more than 500 marathons, as Bob has done, and being a super-competent volunteer at just as many, like Lenore, does tend to make you known in the running community. Their race is well conceived (low entry fee, scenic course, good guest speakers, no big sponsor, no ads on the T-shirts), and smoothly executed. The only sign you see of the directors’ age is that Bob does sometimes nod off during the awards party. But because he completes the full marathon every year as well as sharing the organization, that’s understandable.
George Hirsch (b. 1934)
Since 2005, George Hirsch has held one of the most important and demanding jobs in running, chair of the board of New York Road Runners. On a daily basis in that challenging city, and through sudden major crises like Superstorm Sandy, Hirsch has worked closely with former CEO Mary Wittenberg and with city officials, like mayors Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio, in decisions that impacted the public reputation of running, and the well-being of New York itself. If running as a whole, and the New York City Marathon in particular, are flourishing, Hirsch is a significant contributor. He is currently overseeing the transition following Wittenberg’s departure in mid-2015. He also remains active as a publisher, and as a runner, ranking in the top six nationally in his age group, according to the annual Running Times listings.
Hirsch’s colleague Michael Frankfurt (b. 1935) is another key New York figure—secretary to the New York Road Runners Board, and even more significantly, chair of the hugely impactful Armory Foundation. The refurbished indoor track facility in the old 168th Street Armory, which houses the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame, puts on the annual Millrose Games as well as provides track opportunities to tens of thousands of New York kids. It has become the mission of Frankfurt’s already accomplished life. He too stays in running shape, especially for his long-beloved cross-country races in Van Cortlandt Park.
Coaches: Joe Vigil (b. 1930) and others
The sport is benefitting from a generation of expert and evergreen senior coaches who continue to learn, teach, and inspire. Joe Vigil, interviewed by John Kissane in the November-December issue of Running Times, can speak for them:
“I do a lot of research. I get up at 4 a.m. and read, study, and make PowerPoint presentations to give to coaches wherever I go. I made 28 trips last year to competitions and meetings and clinics,” Vigil says.
Always looking for new talent, especially among young Native Americans as recruits for Adams State University in New Mexico, Vigil at elite level is crucial to the Team USA success story.
Other busy and successful coaches in this age group include Higdon, Tulloh, and Clement above; Jack Daniels (b. 1933), physiologist, head cross country coach at Wells College, and auther of Daniels Running Formula; New Zealander Arch Jelley (b. 1923), possibly the oldest elite coach in the world at 92, formerly mentor to John Walker, now guiding Hamish Carson, one of Walker’s successors as New Zealand 1500 meters champion; Barry Magee (b. 1934), Olympic marathon bronze medalist in 1960, one of New Zealand’s most sought-after coaches, and main heir to Arthur Lydiard; the Greater Boston Track Club’s legendary Bill Squires (b. 1932); Australian legend Pat Clohessy (b. 1933), formerly mentor to Rob de Castella, now coaching at University of Queensland; and Al Lawrence (b. 1930), Aussie by origin (1964 Olympic bronze medalist in 10,000 meters) who leads the Al Lawrence Running Club in Houston, Texas.
Why so many? (No doubt there are others I have overlooked.) Maybe it’s just that we are by definition a community of the proactive, attracting people who are motivated, or driven (as you prefer), and who shape their lives with the mindset that work brings its rewards. Many on the list were top runners in their time and carry forward their commitment, discipline, and intense love of the sport that was so strong in the early years of the running boom.
There is no reason why any of that should stop because of a mere mathematical number like 80.