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The Unstoppables

Healthy living -- and a nightly cocktail

March 26, 2007|ROY WALLACK | Special to The Times

RUSSELL ALLEN has been slowing down for 75 years. But since the Topanga Canyon resident started off life as one of the fastest people in the world and regularly kept his engine tuned, he's still moving with a pretty good head of steam.

Now 94, Allen rode in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics as a 19-year-old, and was a top professional rider until World War II. He regularly did 50- and 60-mile group rides into his early 80s, rode the 2005 L.A. Marathon bike ride on a tandem at an average speed of 22 mph, and is a regular at spinning classes at the Spectrum Club in Santa Monica.

How does he account for his remarkably healthy longevity? "Even when I stopped riding for years, I never stopped working out," Allen says.

The middle child of three raised in Huntington Park by a single mother (his father died of alcoholism), Allen got his first racing bike at 13 and was soon riding with the prestigious Krebbs Cycle Club of Long Beach. A prodigious sprinter, "Legs," as he was nicknamed, won a spot on the U.S. Olympic cycling team and raced the four-man pursuit event on a wooden track built inside the Rose Bowl.

A wild decade of professional riding around the world followed. After a season at the Wintergarden track in Hollywood, he headed for the big time: six-day races (two-man tag-team riding nonstop) in New York's Madison Square Garden and the outdoor track in Nutley, N.J., during the summer, then to South America in the winter. He eventually earned $150 a race and $600 to $700 a week, a fortune during the Depression. "It was lot of money considering that you could take a girl to dinner and the movies for a buck," Allen says.

When World War II choked off the flow of top European riders to the U.S., pro cycling shut down, and Allen returned to L.A. He married a neighborhood girl he wooed on a tandem bike, spent the war years as a military athletic trainer and survival instructor to the troops, and started raising three kids. For the next 30 years, he worked mainly as a Cadillac sales manager, played golf at Los Coyotes Country Club near his Buena Park home, and never rode at all -- although he used an exercise bike and lifted weights two or three days a week at a health club.

At his wife's urging, he saddled up again after retiring at 62. "Rose still worked, and I had the time," Allen says. "I joined a club and ramped up the miles. In my 80s, we'd ride down the San Gabriel River to Seal Beach and down to Laguna and back." He qualified for the Masters nationals year after year until a decade ago, when he gave up competition for good.

Now a widower after 59 years of marriage, Allen lives with his eldest daughter and keeps body and mind sharp by feeding his lifelong passions for gambling and exercise. He plays Texas Hold 'Em three or four days a week at the card clubs in Gardena and stops at the gym on the drive home for an hourlong workout. He still cranks it up to 20 mph on the beach bike path several times a month and maintains a home gym with dumbbells and an exercise bike.

Beyond exercise, Allen credits a good diet, a single evening cocktail and a youthful attitude for his super-fit longevity. "I've never really been sick -- just a two-day cold every few years -- and a lot of that is because I've eaten well all my life," he says. "My mom used to make salads for the market, and she threw away the frying pan; we always baked or broiled, and had tons of vegetables, pickles, you name it. I kept those habits. Oh, I ate fast food. But as a rule, I took care of myself."

Although Allen's card-playing has constantly exposed the nonsmoker to secondhand smoke, he doesn't seem to have suffered any ill effects -- and he figures the gambling has been a big plus in the longevity equation.

"It's important to stay in circulation, to get away from the TV, and, as you get older, to pal around with younger people," he says. "My wife and I always became friends with our children's friends -- and stayed close with our kids."

Over the last decade, Allen has lived with all three of his kids -- at their invitation -- and visits them often. He goes bungee jumping once a year with his youngest daughter, who lives in New Zealand, and spent three weeks in January traveling around the Middle East with one of her friends from college. "The smartest health decision you can make is to educate your kids," he says, noting proudly that all three graduated from UCLA. "They'll return the favor down the road."

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