Running Right Over the Hill

From left, Dixon Hemphill, Bill Osburn, Walt Washburn and Paul Lackey hit the trail at Burke Lake Park in Fairfax. The friends are in their eighties and regularly participate in area road races.
From left, Dixon Hemphill, Bill Osburn, Walt Washburn and Paul Lackey hit the trail at Burke Lake Park in Fairfax. The friends are in their eighties and regularly participate in area road races. (By Michael Temchine For The Washington Post)
By Jim Hage
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 8, 2006

At a kitschy eatery in Springfield, Betty Grable still reigns as the paragon of beauty, and talk of war means World War II-- at least in one booth where six men gather for their monthly lunch meeting. But aside from nearly each member's four-score years (the baby of the group won't turn 80 until December), the group's distinguishing characteristics are an uncommon camaraderie and a fitness regimen that would exhaust most 30-year-olds.

Reminiscing each month is part of the routine -- names of competitors and races from decades past are recalled with advantages. Each of the men lived through the Depression, believed in Roosevelt and survived a world war before they were 25. Five have recently celebrated golden wedding anniversaries.

These runners -- not joggers or walkers, but athletes who train nearly every day -- regularly participate in area road races dominated by thirtysomethings and baby boomers. These Depression-era kids know, without scanning the unlined faces at any starting line, that they are onto something special, and they rely on each other for training advice, support and friendship.

"Each luncheon is much like opening and scanning a well-kept diary or journal, only better," says Bill Osburn, 82, a garrulous retired ecologist. "We go back some 30 years together and recall our personal history in relation to our running. It's been such an integral part of our lives that important family activities, holidays and even global events like 9/11 are recalled in those terms."

Walt Washburn, 83, is a quiet Mainer who tapped maple trees for syrup in the 1930s and set national age-group records 70 years later. Three years ago Washburn placed first in his age group at the Boston Marathon, running 4 hours 53 minutes 18 seconds, a time that would have placed him in the middle of all finishers at last fall's Marine Corps Marathon. Like many other hard-charging runners, Washburn is on the mend after a minor bout with mortality in the form of a persistent muscle spasm in his hip.

"Ten years from now, we'll all be gone," Paul Lackey says. But not just yet: Lackey, 81, is a retired Capitol Hill police officer who looks no older than 65. He recently finished ahead of hundreds of runners half his age -- many a quarter of his age -- at an 8K in which he averaged 9 1/2 minutes per mile.

Ray Blue, 82, who raced around 20 times a year up to age 80, competes less often now. "I just got too slow," he says, but he remains a fixture in the running community, volunteering regularly at races and running five days a week. It doesn't take much imagination to see Blue as the class clown in his home town of Council Bluffs, Iowa, long before he fought in the Battle of the Bulge and in Vietnam. Blue can swap stories with Osburn about a high school meet in Missouri they both ran in 1940. "You might think we talk a lot," Blue says, "but once the food arrives, we get really quiet."

On cue, the waitress arrives to take orders. She shows neither surprise nor disappointment when every diner orders soup -- only soup, some a cup, most a bowl. She cheerfully brings extra baskets of complimentary biscuits.

A soft-spoken graduate of the Naval Academy (class of '47), Bill Morrison, 79, is the only member of the group not to have served in World War II. Morrison started running at age 62, and he and his wife Kay trained for marathons together into their late seventies.

The leader of the group, Dixon Hemphill, 81, has been a track and field enthusiast since his days as a pole vaulter at Middlebury College in the 1940s. "We used those stiff bamboo poles, so we never got all that high," he says. "Which is a good thing, because the pit was just sawdust."

Hemphill has been a regular on the Washington area road racing scene since he joined the D.C. Road Runners Club as a charter member in the '60s. He owned two running shoe stores in Fairfax in the '80s and when he retired from that business, Hemphill added swimming and biking to his running regimen. Hemphill competed in triathlons and was ranked nationally in his age group.

While training on his bike at age 74 in 1999, a car hit Hemphill, breaking his pelvis, ribs, collarbone and collapsing a lung. Seven years and four surgeries later, Hemphill's natural athletic carriage is still apparent, although his gait is constrained by scar tissue and a three-inch titanium pin in his leg. He remains optimistic that the setback is temporary and apologizes for his recent slower performances. In March, Hemphill completed the Shamrock 8K in Virginia Beach.

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