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Life on the Run : Track Legend Bill Emmerton's Feet Have Carried Him Over 200,000 Miles, Many of Them Through Death Valley

August 25, 1988|TODD JONES | Times Staff Writer

Bill Emmerton's feet have trudged more miles than a traveling circus. If he were a car, he would have been stripped and junked years ago.

Emmerton has literally lived his life on the run. In recent years he has down-shifted to a slower pace. Now, he just walks--everywhere.

"I'm walking every day, just walking all the time," Emmerton says. "After a while, it's like cleaning your teeth. It becomes part of your daily life."

Emmerton strolls with the grace of a much younger man. He is 68. Like his pace, his appearance fools you.

Arms and legs move like pistons. Feet touch the ground like someone feeling a new loaf of bread. Moving. Emmerton is always moving.

"I walk twice a day, in the morning and in the evening," Emmerton says. "I do anything from six to 12 miles."

As he walks, a cool ocean breeze whisks down Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica. The walks, however, aren't always that pleasurable.

Take, June 7, for instance. It was hot, extremely hot. Emmerton went to the desert by choice. He wanted to test his arthritic knees. For others, a good test might have been a brisk walk in a park. But he isn't like others.

Emmerton walked 52 miles through Death Valley, making the trip in 14 1/2 hours as the ground temperature scorched to 135 degrees.

"That's very bad weather," Emmerton says. "That was hard. I had bad blood blisters and I lost both my big toenails. What happens is your feet swell because the ground is so hot.

"If it wasn't for the blisters I could have done it in 12 hours."

Emmerton smiles. Not because he enjoys the agony but because he is back. Back walking.

The lean and lanky Emmerton stops now at a restaurant. He has a few stories to tell about his life. What a long, strange trip it's been.

Emmerton has been on the move since bread was a nickel. He began running in 1935 and has walked and run over 200,000 miles in his lifetime. That's over seven times around the Earth.

The exercise has kept Emmerton in extraordinary shape. But there's no mileage guarantees on joints. The wear and tear reduced his knees to bundles of arthritis. Two years ago he had to quit.

"I was more or less retired," Emmerton said. "I was doing a few exercises, bending and stretching. But that wasn't enough for me. I wanted to get back out walking. When I was walking or running my knees used to get so damn sore. I mean painful ."

A friend, Greer McNeil, contacted Emmerton about a therapeutic balm ointment for knees.

"During the prewar years my aunt formulated it," McNeil said. "It's an external tropical balm made from natural herbs and used as an ointment."

Emmerton tried the balm and liked it. He left his home in Santa Monica and headed out to Death Valley to test it--52 miles of testing. After it was over, Emmerton considered himself back on the move again.

"I never had one ache in my knees," Emmerton said of his desert walk. "Not one ache. I was getting to be a bear to live with. But now I'm back into action once more."

To see where Emmerton is going, one must first see where he has been.

Emmerton was born on the island of Tasmania, just south of Australia. He lived on a sheep farm and suffered from asthma. At the age of 15, he began to walk and run six miles a day--25-30 miles on Sundays. The asthma vanished in two years.

"I felt so good because my body was getting so much oxygen," Emmerton said. "I started to believe there was really something in endurance type exercises. So, I started to really study it."

He did more than study it. He became obsessed with it.

In Australia, Emmerton won over 150 running championships in distances ranging from a half-mile to 26-mile marathons. He once ran a 4:05 mile when the world record time was 4:01.

"He's a legend in track and field," said Skip Stolley, Track West Club coach. "Bill is known primarily as an ultra-distance runner. He's certainly one of the ground breakers in that area. But before that he was known as a very good international track runner."

When he wasn't running, Emmerton spent his time as a sports announcer, physical education instructor, amateur boxing champion, and cricketer. He even hunted crocodiles. But his true love was a different type of hunt.

"My heroes were the explorers," Emmerton said. "The guys who went to the south pole, the north pole, Lindburgh. They conquered something nobody else had ever done. I wanted to explore the benefits of what the proper exercise will do for you and how much better you'll feel."

Emmerton felt so good he felt he had something to prove. The distance of his journeys stretched to extraordinary lengths.

In 1965, he ran from Melbourne to Adelaide, Australia--500 miles in 10 days. He nearly doubled that with a 954-mile run from John O'Groats, Scotland, to Land's End, England.

That same year, Emmerton came to the United States to support the John F. Kennedy Fitness Program. He ran 254 miles from New York to Washington. He was 45 years old.

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