When he was 78, Jack Bishin accompanied his grandchildren to the track at University High School. As the teen-agers started to run, he joined them. Soon Bishin noticed something. Despite his age and inexperience, he liked running and did it well.
"We'd huff and puff," Bishin said recently recalling the experience. "They stopped, but I continued. I tried to run more than once around the track (which is 440 yards). I'd run one lap and walk one. Gradually, I got to the point where I could do six miles very easily and even 10 miles."
From that introduction to running, his career soared. Urged on by his Los Angeles grandchildren, Paul May, 24, and Carol May, 22, Bishin entered his first race in 1979. "I won a trophy," he said. "I thought, 'This is swell.' From then on, I wasn't afraid I'd be a slowpoke."
His Latest Medal
Since that victory the 85-year-old West Los Angeles runner has won hundreds of trophies and medals, which overflow three six-foot bookcases in the living room and hallway of his apartment. He acquired his latest medal last Saturday when he finished fifth in the 65-and-over category of a five-kilometer race in Agoura.
Bishin, who ran five- or 10-kilometer races 90 times in 1986 and 92 the previous year, has also studied yoga and worked as an elementary school aide for the past 14 years.
This Saturday at 10 a.m. he will embark on one of his most ambitious projects yet, joining eight runners over 70 and three over 80 on a 286-mile relay from El Toro, south of Irvine, to Las Vegas. The senior runners will tramp through desert back roads for more than 50 hours to reach their destination.
Race organizer Bill Selvin, 76, of Irvine, said the project revives a Hollywood-to-Las Vegas relay he conducted between 1970 and 1977 for men over 60.
A retired track and cross-country coach at Chapman College in Orange, Selvin said each participant will run in half-hour intervals to start the race and then for 10 minutes every two hours. Two accompanying motor homes will allow participants to sleep between runs and a paramedic will accompany them.
For once, Bishin will not be the oldest runner, relinquishing that claim to Noel Johnson, 87, of San Diego. Nat Tisciotta of Whittier and Bohumil Vlasak of San Gabriel, both 82, will also compete.
Selvin, who teaches fitness at several Orange County senior citizen centers, said he organized the relay to "call attention to the fact that just because a person reaches 60, 70 or 80, that doesn't mean he is ready for a rocking chair."
Bishin agrees. His life has been much happier, he said, since he began running. An avid walker who leaves his car home whenever he can, he urges older people to walk or run whenever possible.
A transplanted New Yorker, Bishin moved to Los Angeles in 1931. He became a buyer for retail stores and retired in 1966 after 27 years buying linens for May Co.
Works at Elementary School
When his wife of 42 years, Leah, died in 1973, he joined a Santa Monica City College yoga class, which he continues. And he began his 8 a.m.-to-2 p.m. daily job at Brockton Avenue School in West Los Angeles, where he orders supplies, runs off the schools' copies on a mimeograph machine and collects cans, which he takes to a recycler in his late-model Cadillac.
"The kids love and respect him because he is a phenomenon," said teacher Dory Moore after Bishin hopped stairs two at a time to get to the building where her classroom is located. "They do not constantly make a big deal about it, but one day a year we have a big celebration on his birthday."
On that day the children give him standing ovations and Bishin gets teary-eyed, teacher Michele Schneider added.
The celebration is held on the schoolyard. "The school practically closes down," Bishin said. One year all the students wore jogging suits in tribute to Bishin, Schneider said.
Bishin likes to work hard at the school and remarks with pride that he takes no coffee breaks. Nor does he eat lunch. He eats only two meals a day: breakfast and dinner. For 50 years, he said, he was a strict vegetarian. Now he stresses vegetables and fruit and eats some fish and chicken.
He does not run during the week to prepare for the two races he normally runs on weekends. He rises at 5 a.m. every day and rides an exercise bicycle for a half-hour. He also lifts light dumbbells a half- hour a day. And he never misses his weekly yoga class.
Bishin got up at the usual 5 a.m. last Saturday and quickly dressed in his warm-up suit and his Brockton Avenue School cap to compete in the five-kilometer Great Race of Agoura.
By 6 a.m. on a cold, pitch-black morning, he was in his car and driving 28 miles over the San Diego Freeway and the Ventura Freeway to Agoura for the 7:30 a.m. race.
The sun was rising as he exited at Kanan Road and found a parking spot in a shopping center. He ran around the parking lot to loosen up and took off his jacket, revealing a T-shirt with "JACK 85" emblazoned across the back, before walking to the nearby starting line.