Dr. Walter Bortz of Portola Valley finishes his 40th marathon


By Dr. Walter Bortz

On Monday, April 19, 2010, I ran the Boston Marathon. Forty years and 40 consecutive annual marathons later — at locations around the world — I crossed the finish line in Copley Square, Boston.

What a difference. The first time it took me 5 hours and 5 minutes to finish. I finished in silence. This last time it took 7 hours and 30 minutes, and I finished to the cheers of a thousand Patriot's Day celebrants with flash bulbs popping.

The first time I hadn't the slightest idea what the effort entailed, and I was in tears. The last time I was a grizzled vet, who knew that the back spasm that I encountered at 24 miles was only a minor annoyance and nothing to halt the run. So I finished with a big smile.

Not bad for an 80-year-old. I was beaten by 30,000 other runners including an 83-year-old woman. The winner, a Kenyan, broke the course record in 2 hours and 5 minutes. He could have lapped me twice.

The first time I was beaten by only 800 other runners, and I was only among the last runners.

The first run was done because my physician father, who was my alpha/omega figure for 39 years, died abruptly, and I was devastated. But I was smart enough to know that running was a fabulous treatment for depression.

I'm a terrible runner. The iconic image of the runner is the fleet-of-foot whippet with wings on his shoes. My image is a slogger with army boots on. Because I'm a Walter Mitty-type athlete, my father's death quickly spurred my entry into the only world-class athletic event to which an ordinary Joe could aspire.

But then the organizers changed the rules, and created the qualifying times, which effectively excluded me. Except that a group of M.D.s, under the leadership of Dr. Ron Lawrence, found an exemption for doctors, because of our support services for the runners.

Shamelessly, I accepted my entry number, color-coded to identify my outlier category, and I finished.

At the end of the first run I swore that I would never again submit to the tortures of this 26-mile test. But just like childbirth, as soon as it was done, I searched for next year's opportunity. And the searching has led to runs in Athens, the original marathon, Dublin, New York, Australia, Beijing, Boston again, maybe 10 times, and Big Sur, California — my favorite. Despite its hills, its scenery is spectacular.

So, this marathon story is my highly personal odyssey of a life journey. It has virtually become my religion. Exploring it has many important derivative aspects. I've learned the thermodynamics of exercise, the anthropology of running, and mostly about its health benefits. As a geriatrician the insight provided by these decades of commitment has defined a new way of looking at growing older.

Aging's principal pathology is frailty, which is not a defined disease but is of immense importance.

Its cause is to be found principally in lack of exercise. Physical activity of any type from walking to marathon running is the preventive and treatment of frailty. It is cheap, safe and effective. What other remedy can make these claims?

I'm already planning marathon 2011.

About the author: Dr. Bortz, a resident of Portola Valley, is a gerontologist and a clinical associate professor at the Stanford School of Medicine. He is the author of several books, including "The Roadmap to 100: The Breakthrough Science of Living a Long and Happy Life."

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