Senior athlete sets records of his own

At 82, triathlon relay runner Bob Gralley can run circles around many half his age

May 05, 2008|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN REPORTER

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 blonde 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 New Balance running shoes pound the mat of the whirring machine.

The trainer, Krista Schultz, had predicted 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 in two weeks, he will run in the Columbia Triathlon as the last leg of a relay team. He'll run about six miles after a 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 Mid-Atlantic Cardiovascular Associates and a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association. "It's certainly not the norm for an 82-year-old, but it is truly inspirational."

In fact, Gralley's teammates on the Erickson Retirement Communities-sponsored team are half his age, and he will be the oldest person ever to compete in the annual event, which is May 18 at Centennial Park, between Ellicott City and Columbia.

"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 awestruck reaction his fitness level garners.

"My heart goes up when I'm near pretty girls," he said, by way of explanation, as Schultz blushes.

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, living in Westport, Conn., as an executive with Mutual of New York, Gralley noticed he was putting on a few pounds too many.

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

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 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 awhile, five miles doesn't seem so bad. So, [you 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 races in London and Hawaii. He ran his best time twice - 3 hours, 4 minutes and 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, a researcher for Running USA, a nonprofit association. Of that, about 1,700 of the finishers - or just under a half-percent - were men over age 70.

Since beginning his running tour, Gralley has logged, in a black three-ring binder, that he's run more than 47,000 miles.

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

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 anytime soon.

Gralley - who lives at Oak Crest Retirement Community in Parkville, one of Erickson's senior communities - runs five days a week (and bikes 25 miles with one of his two sons on Saturdays).

On Mondays he runs six miles; Tuesdays, four miles; and the rest of the week, three, three and three. On good days, he runs outdoors; in inclement weather, he uses the health center at Oak Crest, giving him an opportunity to pump some iron, too.

With all that daily training, the Columbia Triathlon should seem like a snap. After all, his portion of the relay is only about six miles. But the course is hilly, so Gralley has been increasing the incline on the health center's treadmill in preparation.

Jessica Shaffer, the wellness manager at Oak Crest's health center, is used to working with elderly people in relatively good shape.

But she said even she was amazed at Gralley's abilities.

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