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A Marathon in Russia

I’ve been on vacation, traveling the back roads of Russia (which looks a lot like central Illinois) visiting ancient cathedrals and doing a great deal of walking. The trip was organized by a company I’ve been using for years, G Adventures, which brings together a small group (never more than 15 or so) of like-minded travellers more interested in seeing sights and keeping active while skipping the shopping and high-end hotels. The group is usually a genial mix, all ages, mid-20s to early 70s, flying in from around the world: Brits, Aussies, Americans, Canadians. By the end of the trip, we know each other pretty well and often stay in touch for years.

I say this as an introduction to a couple in the group. Bill’s a semi-retired internist, his wife Sandy a semi-retired nurse practitioner, the two of them straddling either side of 70. He’s over 70, she’s in her mid-sixties. I dwell on their ages because here’s what they’re like in person: lean, fit, funny, and as limber as yoga instructors.

Our tour is scheduled to end in the beautiful city of St. Petersburg, home to the famous Hermitage Museum. And the day after we arrive, both of them are running the St. Petersburg Marathon. For the uninitiated, a marathon is  26.2 miles.

Today, the local temperature was 93 degrees F.

Happily running from Oslo to Death Valley
“Yeah, that’s a bit hot,” remarked Bill. “I’ve been in worse. Cold. Now Oslo, that was cold. Rainy, too.”

“Oslo was horrible,” threw in Sandy. “But Death Valley wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. You have to run it in February.”

I asked how many marathons they’d run and Bill answered for the pair, “I’m at 68 marathons, Sandy’s ten behind me, 58.”

“Yes,” she said, “tomorrow’s 59.”

Since I’m always kvetching about fitness, I had more questions for them, like when they’d started running marathons. Bill said he’d never been a long-distance runner until his late 30s, Sandy her early 40s. He says Sandy is the serious runner (he preferred cycling, and still rides, usually 30 miles or so at a stretch), adding that he has trouble keeping up with her, especially toward the end of the course. He likes to swim as well. With running, biking, and swimming, I asked about triathlons.

“I don’t know, I’ve lost count. At least 100.”

With Runner’s World as their homepage, what they do, Sandy explained, is to keep track of scheduled marathons, which she pointed out are held somewhere in the world every week of the year. So for Bill and Sandy, a vacation always includes a marathon. Being semi-retired, they can manage three, even four, a year. Obviously, it was fewer “when the kids were small.”

Bill’s sound advice is inspirational
Bill added a couple of facts that I think are really quite important, first acknowledging that (of all people) exercise guru Richard Simmons opened his eyes to the benefits and shortcomings of exercise.

“First,” Bill said encouragingly, “Tell your readers that in terms of calorie burning and cardiorespiratory fitness, fast walking is exactly as effective as running. Runners like speed so fast walking, effective as it is, feels too slow for them. But you definitely do not have to run to get the health benefits of running marathons.”

“Second, don’t hope to lose weight by exercising alone. In fact, we know you’ll burn 100 calories running a mile. You finish running and you’re hungry. If you feel entitled to some extra food, you’re fooling yourself. One slice of bread is 110 calories. If you want to lose weight, it’s all about what you eat and portion control.”

“Third, it’s simply never too late to start a program of physical fitness. I began in my late 30s, Sandy in her 40s. I’ll be 71 on my next birthday. Never dreamed I’d be running marathons or triathlons at this time of my life.”

“And fourth, probably the most important. Start slowly! Walk briskly around the block every day for a few days. Then walk faster, and break into a jog. You’ll be amazed at the sense of pride you’ll feel when you’ve jogged around the block for the first time. Then you’ll hit a mile, then two, and you’re on your way. In winter, just use a treadmill. Same results exactly.”

Bill strongly recommended the Getting Started page on the Runner’s World website.

Sandy’s tip: strengthen your core
I had to ask about health issues. Anything at all? Any medicines? What do they eat?

“Knock on wood, Sandy and I are both fine. No medications. We eat pretty much what we like although we’ll carb-load during the days before a marathon.”

Sandy interrupted, “Let me tell you this: my mother and all my sisters have had joint replacements, back surgeries, hips, knees, all sorts of orthopedic problems.”

I told them I’d always thought running increased problems with hips and knees. That the reason you don’t see older runners is because they’ve been crippled by repetitive strain injuries.

Sandy responded, “This issue is all about developing core musculature. Runners who fail to develop their core muscles are the ones who develop chronic knee and hip injuries. Once your core is strong, your joints are kept in alignment and the wear and tear on joints is minimized. If something starts hurting, hold off a while–it’s an overuse injury that needs to heal. Consider seeing a chiropractor or a sports injury physician if things don’t improve. Work with a personal fitness trainer if you don’t understand doing core work.”

“Sometimes it just boils down to a bad pair of running shoes.”

Bill added, “Oh, by the way. Being 70, Sandy and I are small potatoes compared to the world’s oldest marathoner. He finally called it quits at 101.”

“Oh yeah,” I snarked. “Probably began when he was 20.”

“Wrong,” smiled Bill. “Ran his very first marathon at 89.”


Believe it.”

Be well,
David Edelberg, MD



Leave a Comment

  1. Linda Silbert says:

    Very inspiring! Thanks David. Sounds like an amazing trip!
    Love that Sandy and Bill talked about the importance of a strong core!
    Just wanted to add to the Pilates Core Exercises

    Linda Silbert
    Certified Pilates Instructor

  2. Cheryl says:

    Thank you for this article. I’ve been inspired!

  3. Mery Krause says:

    Well now, that was certainly inspiring. Guess my excuse of being too old to start marathon running is a joke. Bill and Sandy are to be admired, and I’m now one of their fans. Dan is 72 and I’m 66, so guess we better get started. We do walk 2 miles a day with the dogs, but we can start to power walk now. Thanks for the advice, Dr. E..

  4. Addie says:

    Eric Butterworth, who taught metaphysics in New York for many years, used to say, “My age is none of my business.”

  5. Laura says:

    David – Great blog! I really enjoyed travelling with you and I was also inspired by Bill and Sandy’s story! Laura

  6. Mary says:

    Thanks for this great article, David. They truly are an inspiring couple. Enjoyed traveling with you and sharing travel stories. Maybe our paths will cross again on another GAdventure.

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