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The MARATHON MAN

Van Leeuwen, 85, Will Run His Fourth L.A. Race Today

March 29, 1998|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To some, it might seem extraordinary that 85-year-old Ernest Van Leeuwen runs 2 1/2 miles a day.

To him, it seems merely sensible.

"It keeps me fit," he said.

To some, it might seem amazing that Van Leeuwen will compete in his fourth Los Angeles Marathon today.

To him, it seems only reasonable.

"I'll tell you this," he said of running long distances at his age, "I get fewer colds."

Van Leeuwen will never be described as a quote machine, but he can churn out the miles.

The Encino resident competes in as many as a dozen road races each year and holds the pending national age record at 28:44 for 5,000 meters, according to a USA Track & Field official.

He has run three of the last four Los Angeles Marathons, winning the 80-98 age division in 1994 and 1995.

The turnout is admittedly scant in that division, as few as a handful of runners each year. And by the time Van Leeuwen crosses the finish line--five to six hours after starting--the elite runners have had time to shower, change, eat a leisurely meal and leave for the airport.

Yet Van Leeuwen consistently beats dozens of runners in each of the younger age divisions. And his durability is all the more noteworthy because he did not take up running until his mid-50s.

The man barely even exercised during the first half-century of his life.

"During World War II, I rode a bicycle to work," he said. "About two miles."

Thin and serious by nature, the Wyoming native spent most of his early years concerned with work and raising a family. The turning point came when Reader's Digest published an article extolling the virtues of physical fitness.

"I went out and ran a block, walked a block, ran a block, walked a block," Van Leeuwen said. "After a while, I ran a mile."

Did he discover the vaunted runner's high?

Not exactly.

"I stayed with it because I knew it would be good for me," he said.

Ever the late bloomer, Van Leeuwen waited another decade to find competitive running. Urged by his son, Lee, he began entering 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter races.

Lee said: "In my 30s and 40s, I was a Master's competitor. He would come to my races and I think he got a kick out of it."

Once Van Leeuwen began entering races himself, he began winning.

"It's not that I'm so good, but so many folks my age have given up," he said.

Family members were astonished, though they probably shouldn't have been. Over the course of his life, Van Leeuwen has been successful at a variety of endeavors.

He earned a degree in electrical engineering from California and worked in the aircraft industry as a young man. In the mid-1940s he built a special camera to take time-lapse photographs of the sun--and Life magazine ran a three-page spread of the resulting pictures.

Later, Van Leeuwen educated himself in the field of audio and video recording and ran a successful equipment business in Hollywood.

"Nothing should surprise us about him," Lee said.

So running is merely the newest addition to his ever-evolving interests. That and the environment.

He and his wife, Nina, gather information about the plight of the rain forest and the increase in world population. Van Leeuwen figures if he can attract enough attention with his running, he can spread the word about the Earth's dwindling natural resources.

This goal--and this goal alone--is enough to make him the slightest bit loquacious.

"I want to keep running until I'm past 100," he said. "I'm after Methuselah's record."

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