Bill Dietrich's favorite birthday present was a killer 10-mile cross-country run in the Sierra Nevada that left him stiff, sore, exhausted and the world's happiest 66-year-old when he took first place in his age group. The day before, when he was only 65, he raced five kilometers (3.1 miles) in Monrovia. And three days after the Sierra event in Lone Pine, Dietrich joined his running club in a nine-mile "fun run" through the San Gabriel Mountain foothills.
Sometimes Dietrich runs to the top of Mt. Wilson and back, a 20-mile round trip from his home in the Hastings Ranch area of Pasadena. Sometimes he runs marathons--which are 26.2 miles--just to while away an otherwise boring weekend.
Sometimes he runs with Barbara Basta, a 43-year-old Temple City mother of three adult daughters who is training for the Western States 100-Mile Run from Squaw Valley to Auburn in Northern California.
In preparation for that race, which dips into hot canyons and peaks at an elevation of 8,900 feet, Basta last year entered the American River Run in Sacramento. The temperature hit 95 degrees and she got sick and lost 10 pounds that day.
If Basta can complete this year's annual Western States race June 28 in under 24 hours, she said, she will win a silver belt buckle. If it takes her more than 30 hours she will be pulled from the race.
"My life is so wonderful you can't believe it," said the delighted Basta, to whom a silver buckle would be an excess of riches, and to whom it is unthinkable to take more than 30 hours to run 100 grueling miles.
Dietrich and Basta belong to the Foothill Flyers, a hyperactive running club based in Monrovia, whose 130 members engage in a variety of training and racing events every week and entertain each other with strange stories of agony and success.
Dietrich said he is the oldest member, Basta is the only woman training for a 100-miler, and several members, including Dietrich, are training for next year's Boston Marathon.
The club's youngest members are teen-agers, and there are several members over age 50. Although the typical member has been in the club seven years, most say they know only each others' names, ages, running times and distances, and nothing about occupations. A quick survey before one recent Wednesday night fun run revealed that they included business people, retirees, a pilot, high school students and at least one Caltech professor.
Their reasons for running are as varied.
"I run to eat," joked Irma Hutton, editor of the club's monthly bulletin, who said she loves the dinners that follow the fun runs.
"I just had my 50th birthday," said Missy Jennings. "I run to stay fit. I'm always on a high now."
Several began running just to lose weight and got caught up in the competition; others said they were frightened when someone they know suffered a heart attack.
"My son gave me a sweat suit 12 years ago and when I decided to work out in it my calves felt like Jell-O in one-eighth of a mile," said Dietrich, who had been a track star in high school and an athlete all his life.
Dietrich, a retired electrician and project coordinator for Southern California Edison Co., said he began running as a child "because that was the best--actually the only--way to get around" in his native Westchester County in New York.
After getting back in shape in the mid-1970s, Dietrich said, he has run as many as four marathons in a year, lost 30 pounds, filled several shelves with trophies and learned that "running a marathon is a victory of the spirit. The reward is in doing it, in knowing you are mentally, as well as physically, tough."
Basta said, "I wanted to quit smoking. I had been working two jobs, and when I was able to quit the second one, which was bartending at night, I wanted to do something healthy."
She is a librarian for a special contractor at Jet Propulsion Laboratory and runs at least 12 hours a week as she trains for the Western States 100.
Basta entered the American River Run again this year and took two hours off her previous time. She has completed two 24-hour runs, one of 80 miles and the other 85 miles, and with awe she said, "I used to think this wasn't possible!"
"My life was the pits for so many years and I had so many responsibilities it was depressing. Now my life is wonderful, and when you're out there running trails you're not responsible for anyone but yourself.
"I think it gives you emotional stability. There was a time when I thought I had to get excitement from other people. Now I get it from me."