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Going the distance

With more than 47,000 competitive miles under his belt, 82-year-old runner Bob Gralley shows no sign of stopping.

May 18, 2008|Tanika White | Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — Bob Gralley's heart belongs to his wife, Betty, whom he has loved for 60 years. But on this day, it's a petite 29-year-old blond who makes his heart race -- literally.

Attached with tubes and straps to a monitor that will take a snapshot of his heart and lung health, Gralley runs on a treadmill as his young trainer methodically increases the speed. Faster, faster, faster, faster, Gralley's running shoes pound the mat of the whirring machine.

The trainer, Krista Schultz, had predicted that Gralley's heart would max out at about 138 beats per minute. But at the end of a 12-minute run, she had logged his highest rate at 157 beats.

This would be a fine maximum for a man of 63.

But Bob Gralley is 82 -- and on Sunday he will run in the Columbia Triathlon as the last leg of a relay team. He'll run about six miles after one teammate bikes about 25 miles and another swims about a mile.

"There are people half his age who can't run in a triathlon, much less people who are his age," said Dr. Shannon Winakur, a cardiologist with Midatlantic Cardiovascular Associates and a spokeswoman for the American Heart Assn. "It's certainly not the norm for an 82-year-old, but it is truly inspirational."

In fact, Gralley's teammates are half his age, and he will be the oldest person ever to compete in the annual event.

"That kind of drive is unbelievable," said Lee Corrigan, executive director of the Under Armour Baltimore Marathon, which Gralley has run.

But Gralley shrugs off the awe-struck reaction that his fitness level elicits.

"My heart [rate] goes up when I'm near pretty girls," he said, as Schultz blushed.

Comely trainers notwithstanding, the truth is that Gralley has been working on his heart, without even knowing it, for more than 35 years.

When he was in his mid-40s, Gralley noticed he was putting on a few pounds.

Mint chocolate-chip ice cream was to blame, and inactivity -- aside from some sailing and the occasional tennis game.

So he started to jog, tentatively at first, a few times a week, around the neighborhood.

"In those days, jogging was not in," Gralley said. "If someone would run down the street in a pair of shorts, it'd be, 'Well, what's the matter with that guy?' "

Soon Gralley discovered that he loved running -- the freedom, the wind, the sweat and the scenery.

And after a while, Gralley -- leaner, healthier, happier -- was addicted.

He started running with a group of guys. They'd gather in the basement, run and come back for iced tea. Some remain friends.

"We would do two or three miles. Then we'd say, 'Oh, I'll try five miles.' And then after a while, five miles doesn't seem so bad. So [we'd say], 'Let's try a 10K,' " he said.

In 1981, Gralley signed up for a marathon in Yonkers, N.Y. He was in his 50s.

"I got teary-eyed that first time," he said.

Nearly 30 years later, Gralley has run in 41 marathons, including in London and Hawaii. He ran his best time twice -- 3 hours, 4 minutes, 18 seconds -- at age 55, in the Boston and New York marathons.

"I don't know how I was able to do that," Gralley said.

In 2007, there were 412,000 finishers in marathons in this country, said Ryan Lamppa, media director for Running USA, a nonprofit association. About 1,700 of the finishers -- or less than .5% -- were men over 70.

Since beginning competitive running, Gralley has logged more than 47,000 miles. He keeps track in a black three-ring binder.

"That's twice around the world," said Kerry Jones, senior vice president of operations for Erickson Retirement Communities and the biking leg of the relay team.

Actually, it's not quite twice around the world -- not yet at least. Gralley has more than 2,700 miles to go to hit that mark. But he isn't close to stopping any time soon.

Gralley runs five days a week, 19 miles in all, and bikes 25 miles with a son on Saturdays.

But Gralley is humble about his conditioning.

"For some reason," he said with a laugh, "the older I get, the slower I get."

He's told this joke a hundred times, but Betty Gralley, his college sweetheart and mother of their three children, still laughs. "He's very easy to get along with," she said.

Their courtship began, fittingly, in an athletic way.

They met at the University of Maryland, where both were students, and he played on the basketball team. They sat next to each other in a class, and one day he happened to mention his love of badminton.

"And I said, 'Well, I'll take you on sometime,' " Betty Gralley said. "And it just went on from there."

They were married in June 1949, when they were 23 -- too young to imagine still being alive, much less healthy, active and still in love, almost 60 years later.

"In those days, if you got to 50, you were up there toward middle age -- or old age even," Bob Gralley said.

He said his workouts helped "not only physically but mentally. Feeling better about yourself . . . especially as you get older, you need something like that."

Betty Gralley said it had been good for their marriage too.

"We've managed to stay friendly for 59 years," she said.

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