Three Boston Entrants Over 80 and Loving Life

Mon, 8 April 2013 - 7:22 p.m. MT
Credit: Jeff Venables

On April 13, AMAA's Annual Sports Medicine Symposium at the Boston Marathon will once again commence with its roster of groundbreaking lectures, heartfelt reunions of enthusiastic colleagues, and of course, on the 15th, the marathon itself. This year AMAA had the chance to chat by phone with three octogenarian physician-marathoners who, in addition to enjoying myriad career achievements, intend to once again cross the finish at Copley Square. They are longtime AMAA members Dr. Moses D. Christian, Dr. Walter M. Bortz II, and Dr. Lawrence R. Boies, Jr.

Moses D. Christian, MD

Loma Linda, CA, resident Dr. Christian, who will turn 81 on May 1, is a full-time practicing thoracic/cardiovascular surgeon and prostate cancer survivor who took up marathoning at the age of 61. Since 1999 he has completed one marathon a month without interruption. Moses was honored in January 2010 as one of the heroes of the Tri-City Medical Center Carlsbad Marathon, which he completed in 5:20:02. His 50 hours of surgery and general practice each week plus regular volunteer work abroad keep him busy, to say the least, not to mention the fact that since 1994 he has run an estimated total of over 180 official marathons.

Jeff Venables:     What number Boston is this for you?

Moses Christian, MD:   I think maybe 13. From the first one [in the one-a-month streak] I don't think I've missed any Bostons.


JV:     And has that always been through AMAA?

MC:    Yes, initially I didn't know I could qualify for Boston but I learned you could do it through AMAA.


JV:   What's been most surprising to you on a personal level, with regard to                                                   marathoning?

MC:    I'm surprised the way age is not a factor. The body can do much more than what you think it can do. In fact, my timing is almost the same as when I first began—a little slower now, but when I started I was much younger.


JV:    To what, mainly, do you attribute your longevity?

MC:   I definitely think being a Seventh-day Adventist. Part of the religion is good health. As a child we learned to never smoke, never drink; it is a mostly vegetarian diet. And we learned that the Sabbath is a day of rest—we don't do any regular work from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. All usual business is not encouraged, but go to church, go for a hike. I've found that the busier you are, when day is ended, you seem doubly refreshed.


JV:   What keeps you going psychologically? What makes you want to keep doing                                        this?

MC:   After I had cancer of the prostate, every day has been to challenge it, to fight it. All the more I was conscious of any health blog or article, particularly on diet and total wellness. Seventh-day Adventists also practice eight principles [which are represented by the acronym NEW START]: Nutrition, Exercise, Water, Sunshine, Temperance, Air, Rest, and Trust in God. Also, when I start something, I like to say that I can finish it. I think marathoners are very strong-headed people.


JV:   If you could go back and do something differently regarding health, running, or training what would it be?

MC:   Maybe I should have started much earlier in life!


JV:    What's been your biggest challenge in marathoning all these years?

MC:  The biggest challenge has been to keep yourself healthy enough to run one marathon a month. When you think of it, if someone has been doing this for 13 years, they have to be healthy all these years to run one marathon every single month. There were times when I still had a sprain from the previous marathon, or sickness; I'm very careful what I eat before a marathon to make sure I don't have an upset stomach; I make sure I sleep well—it hasn't been that easy.


JV:   Regarding any aspect of running, fitness, or health what's one thing you feel                                            you've gotten right?

MC:   I think one thing I've done right is tried to improve my health to keep the cancer down, and I actually think in doing that I've improved my overall health. I have very high serum cholesterol. But marathoning has kept me in such good shape that even if one heart attack risk factor is there, the others things are so well managed—I'm not overweight, I'm not a diabetic, I do not have hypertension—that with this intense exercise, I think it does help my longevity. It may start out as a completion goal, but in the end, what do you get? I've enjoyed intense good health and the quality of life is so good.


JV:   What are you most looking forward to in Boston this year?

MC:   Just to say that I have finished it. I really do enjoy the whole thing though.


JV:   What will your first thought be when you cross the finish line?

MC:  I'll just say that I was really satisfied I completed another one of the Bostons with no break in between.


JV:   Any advice for a 40-year-old youngster?

MC:  The younger you start, the better off you are, and the better quality of life you'll enjoy.


Walter M. Bortz II, MD

Dr. Bortz, a geriatrician currently researching, lecturing, and publishing prolifically out of the Stanford University School of Medicine in CA, is 83 years old and began marathoning at age 40. He is the author of Dare to Be 100, in addition to many other books on health and aging. Counting Boston 2013, he will have run 43 consecutive annual marathons. His lecture at the AMAA symposium this year is entitled “The Plasticity of Human Aging,” which among other things invites us to consider that when you are old you are either fit or frail, essentially an asset or a liability—and that depends “not on ancestry or on the medical system” but on “what you do, your commitment to living.” The lecture was first given in July 2012 in the Schrödinger Lecture Theater at Trinity College Dublin, tracing its roots back to Erwin Schrödinger's historic talk there that first opened the box, as it were, to ask the question, “What is Life?” Dr. Bortz is peering into that box for a closer look.


Jeff Venables:  What number Boston is this for you?

Walter Bortz II, MD:  It's my 43rd annual consecutive marathon; they've not all been Boston.


JV:  How many years of that approximately has been with AMAA?

WB:  I ran Boston for the first time the year my father died, which was 1970. It was with AMAA, and we met at the Lenox Hotel, I remember.


JV:  So like many of the older runners I've talked to, you started relatively late in life.

WB:  Well, my wife [Ruth Anne] started to run when she was even older than me—she was 51 I believe. She did it after we came back from trekking in Nepal, so she was in great shape. She runs very differently, she runs to win. She's won Boston twice for women over 60 and 70.


JV:  Wow. And so what would you say has been most surprising to you on a personal level, with regard to marathoning?

WB:  I've been a student, and I think that by virtue of my running habit we've learned about aging. I wrote the big paper in JAMA called “Disuse and Aging” in 1982. It was really the signal statement that much of what passes for aging isn't aging but disuse. And that differentiation is critical, because you can't change aging, but you can change disuse.


JV:  To what, mainly, do you attribute your longevity?

WB:  My single word is engagement. If you really burrow down into it, it's the interface between nature and nurture. It's not what you do, it's how you do it—and how long you do it. Fitness is a 30-year age offset. A fit person of 80 is like an unfit person of 50. When you're fit, you age slower.  ->I'm totally healthy, I take no pills, don't believe in doctors, and I just wrote my big book, Next Medicine, and it says that medicine is preoccupied with disease, but we need to change that focus from disease to health. And the best information about health is on aging and exercise.


JV:   Exercise is really looking like as close to a magic bullet as we've got.

WB:   It is the magic bullet. I wrote a blog called “Exercise as the Oboe's A.” I'm a symphony buff, and before the concert starts everybody's out on the stage bashing and tweeting, and then the oboe plays A and the whole orchestra comes into synergy. That's what exercise does. All the genes in the body are listening to the signal of exercise. It can't be a component, it's the system.


JV:  That's a powerful idea. Is that ultimately what keeps you going psychologically?  What makes you want to keep doing this marathon thing?

WB:  I'm very convinced now that fitness is the universal prescription. So I know the science of it, and I'm 83 now and my wife and I are both totally prepared to be 100. My next book is called 100 Healthy Years: Fulfilling the Human Potential. What we're given by millions of years of evolutionary history is 100 healthy years if we don't screw it up. And the main screw-up until now has been inactivity.


JV:   If you could go back and do something differently regarding any aspect of your                                      health or fitness, what would it be?

WB:   Good question and I can't really conjure a quick answer for you. I'm really very proud of what I'm accomplishing. I became a geriatrician by default. I did it when my dad died; he was a geriatrician and in my grief reaction I changed to being a geriatrician. So I've been spending 40 years defining aging, and aging is very important to define because it's not a disease. Our whole medical system is constructed around the idea that we need a disease so we can treat it—and that means we can bill you. My whole fixation is on human potential.


JV:  What's been your biggest challenge in marathoning all these years?

WB:  It's getting easier. I'm addicted—if I didn't run next week I'd be a basket case. My whole mind and body and attitude in life are now consecrated to this.


JV:  Regarding any aspect of running, fitness, or health what's one thing you feel                                            you've gotten right?

WB:   I have invoked the principal of invariance. When I started, there were bits and pieces of evidence that exercise was good for you. Now, 40 years later we know that it's the answer.


JV:  What are you most looking forward to in Boston this year?

WB:  Well, I have a whole bunch of groupies who are going to show up. I'm kind of on a crusade now to show how fitness impacts the world.


JV:   What will your first thought be when you cross the finish line?

WB: Two years ago I was chugging down to the finish, nobody was there, but the next day somebody called and said, “You were on NPR last night.” And so it happened that the NPR Boston reporter was there, and he wrote an article about me called “The Last Finisher.” He said he was watching this old duffer struggle down and he was worried about whether I was going to make it or not. So now I've kind of incorporated that into my history.


JV:  If you live to 100, you'll indeed be The Last Finisher.

WB:  Oh, you're right.


JV:  Any advice for a 40-year-old youngster?

WB:  Aim for 100.


Lawrence R. Boies, Jr., MD

Retired otolaryngologist and Flagstaff, AZ, resident Dr. Boies, 81, enjoys the distinction of having run 40 consecutive Boston Marathons, with 2013 being his return after a several-year hiatus. In 1966 the Minnesota native, then over the age of 30, completed his first Boston in 4:01, but not too long after secured a personal best in that race with a 3:05. In 1968 he competed in the U.S. Olympic Marathon trials.

In 2005, an AMAA Journal profile of Larry stated, “[The press clipping] that is in many ways the most telling is a brief article in the Minneapolis Tribune from November, 1967, at a time when distance runners were still considered part of the lunatic fringe. Under the picture of a 36-year-old Boies standing with three other Twin Cities doctors in track suits, the caption reads: 'FOUR MEN WITH A THEORY: RUNNING IS A BENEFICIAL EXERCISE.' There is an almost Roswellian conspiracy tone to this irony-free pronouncement. It's as if these men were proposing the latest dubious fad diet or anti-wrinkle cream.” Since that time of almost painful mainstream medical innocence, Drs. Boies, Bortz, and Christian stand at the starting line to attest in the strongest possible terms that this is no theory, but a simple and elegant fact.


Jeff Venables:  When we last spoke eight years ago I was interviewing you because you were about to complete 40 consecutive Boston Marathons and then retire from it. Is this number 41?

Larry Boies, Jr., MD:  Yeah, my planned last marathon was in 2005. Somehow I ended up signing up for the one last year but then I had a GI upset, and it got hot and I thought the best thing was to push my entry to this year's run. I haven't run a marathon in eight years. What I've been doing down here [in AZ] is half-marathons, about one a year. But really I've gotten more and more into racewalking them.


JV:   How many years of running Boston have been with AMAA?

LB:   I qualified until about 1980 I think. I was a busy physician and I couldn't prioritize that much running. So we were lucky that Ron Lawrence got this AMAA thing going that grandfathered us in.


JV:   As you've watched the sport grow for decades, what's been most surprising to you on a personal level with regard to marathoning?

LB:  Boston 30 or 35 years ago was a completely different event. In the early days there was actually some resistance to it growing because people thought it might begin to overshadow Patriot's Day. And that really has happened. The first couple of years that I participated, you could get virtually all the runners in the gymnasium at Hopkinton. You got to know people who were running and came back year after year.


JV:  AMAA nowadays sort of creates that little community that maybe you remember from 1966.

LB:  That's right. And that's what I enjoy about coming back. There's a handful of people who were there every year—you walk into the hotel and you're apt to run into a friendly face or two. It has created a family within, well, a small city.


JV:   To what do you attribute your longevity?

LB:  I’ve always been active. Since I was very young I've always done something. I played top-level rugby in this country for 10 years, back when I was in college and medical school and beyond. Then of course running, though I never broke three hours in the marathon—my best time was a 3:02 [in Culver City, CA]. I began to switch later to other things like masters swimming, triathlon. Now, my wife is an avid biker, so we do a lot of biking. We just got back from a six-day trip to Majorca, off the coast of Spain, which is a biker's paradise this time of year. So it’s ongoing.


JV:  A lot of folks believe in regular activity, but they can’t seem to stick to it. What would you say keeps you going psychologically? What makes you want to keep doing things like the marathon?

LB:  Once you stop doing these things, then you can't do other things. And it's not about competing as much now, but I think setting an example. I have just been unable to give it up. I think maybe there’s something inherent in your psyche or your ego. I hate the idea of getting fatter, so I think it’s also about your image of yourself. And then there’s all these people that you get to know who are talking it up. I knew George Sheehan fairly well and loved to talk to him, and there were many others along the way.


JV:   If you could go back and do something differently regarding health, running, or                                       training what would it be?

LB:  Well, since reading The China Study last year [by T. Colin Campbell et al.] I’ve become a vegetarian. I see it as a pathway to better health. I called Barbara Baldwin about getting Colin Campbell for Boston and he is going to give a talk this year. And last year AMAA had [cardiologist and former Olympic rowing champion] Caldwell Esselstyn, and he has been able to demonstrate some remarkable findings radiographically on how the vessels clean up on this kind of a diet. And so I would say that I wish I had a copy of The China Study when I was 20 years old.


JV:   What's been your biggest challenge in marathoning all these years?

LB:   I think it’s sticking with a training program, fitting it into your life. I was working in a level-one trauma center and so often putting in 16-hour days. Then I’d try to come home and have some kind of home life. But I feel blessed that I’ve been able to do this and that I’ve wanted to do it.


JV:  Regarding any aspect of running, fitness, or health what's one thing you feel                                            you've really gotten right?

LB: I was with a small group of people in the Twin Cities back in the mid-60s when I got out of the service. We were beginning to talk about exercise—now maybe it was the endorphins that were stirred up after running—but we were saying that this has got to be a good thing for people who have heart conditions or who are going to get them. It has got to be good for a lot of people who have all kinds of issues, depression and whatnot. And we were practically run out of town. But we were right, and it is very gratifying.


JV:  What are you most looking forward to in Boston this year?

LB:  I’m looking forward to hearing Colin Campbell talk. I’m also looking forward to going to Hopkinton, maybe not for the last time, but just for the thrill of being there, seeing how it’s changed, and hoping it will be a cool day.


JV:  What will your first thought be when you cross the finish line?

LB:  Probably, “I did it…again. It wasn’t pretty but it’s a landmark event in my total career.” Hopefully I’m not hurting that much. Certainly I won’t get there if I have any problems along the way. I’m pretty well attuned to what I can and can’t do, so I’m not too worried. I’ve done enough training to feel safe.


JV:  Any advice for a 40-year-old youngster?

LB:  Don’t overdo the training. Train, but train sensibly. I’ve seen too many burnouts. I don’t think you’re going to be a much greater runner if you run 100 miles a week, if you can even fit that into your schedule. The most I did was 60 miles a week, and that was only for a short period of time. I also found it very helpful to do the fartlek kind of running. Plus it’s a good idea to occasionally go out on the track and do a step-ladder type of workout depending on what you can tolerate.

And somewhere along the way, get an idea of where you are as a physiological specimen—where are you going to hit the ceiling from the standpoint of your body’s composition and whatnot.


JV:  As Clint Eastwood would say, a man’s got to know his limitations.

LB:  That’s right. I strongly believe in that.


Jeff Venables is the editor of Running & FitNews® and a regular contributor to the AMAA Journal. He lives in Van Nuys, CA, where he runs 30 miles...slowly

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