'I'll Run All the Way Through'
Thursday, October 4, 2007
White and blue dots trace a 2 1/2 -mile course around the perimeter of the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Northwest Washington. The marks are spray-painted at 100-meter intervals, on the sidewalk past Abraham Lincoln's summer cottage, on the road in front of the dormitory-style residences and near the military cemetery; solid white circles measure every quarter-mile.
Three days a week, Fay Steele, 91, dutifully makes his rounds, alternating running and walking from blue dot to blue dot, and three days a week he walks the course he painstakingly marked and re-marked over the years. On Sundays, Steele rests.
"I measured it the first time with a wheel," he said, "so it's accurate. Well, it lacks 31 feet, but I don't tell anyone."
Steele, a decorated World War II veteran, in 1940 became the first man to run across the isthmus of Panama, starting at the Atlantic Ocean and running on jungle paths and railroad beds 52 miles to the Pacific. Five years later, he was the first Army photographer to cross the Rhine River at Remagen, where he helped document the Allied advance into Germany. It was there that Steele earned a Bronze Star -- "running, naturally," he says with a laugh -- when he sprinted 150 yards across an open field and back to retrieve and deliver canisters of blood for a wounded soldier.
In the years since, Steele has established numerous other firsts, and has held age-group records at distances from 100 yards to 50 miles. If all goes well, Steele will set another record on Sunday at the 23rd Army Ten-Miler, which starts and ends at the Pentagon. With an effort slightly faster than last year's, Steele will break the national 90-and-older age-group record of 2 hours 35 minutes 52 seconds, set by James Ramsey in Michigan in 1998.
"But I'm not going to run if it's too warm," Steele warned. "I don't want a DNF [did not finish] if this is my last race."
Averaging 15 1/2 minutes per mile at the Army Ten-Miler in 2006, Steele came close to the record -- in fact, his time is recorded as 2:34:12. But he started with the wheelchair racers, five minutes ahead of the official start.
"I made it to the [eight-mile mark at the 14th Street] bridge before it closed, and I thought, 'Oh, I've got plenty of time' " to get the record, Steele said. "But I loafed because everyone wanted a picture the rest of the way in, so I had to keep stopping."
He crossed the finish line carrying an American flag ahead of nearly 100 of the 15,645 finishers. "This year, I'll run all the way through," Steele said.
Forged by Fire
Not surprisingly, Steele has outlived his contemporaries. Longevity, mortality and fitness are recurring themes for Steele. "People ask me if I've been running all my life. And I tell them, 'Not yet!' " he quips.
It is said that distance running is an individual pursuit, which seems appropriate enough for Steele. He never married and has no living relatives. He speaks reverently about his mother, who died more than 65 years ago. But Steele's greatest personal loss came when he was 7 years old, at his home in Somerville, Tenn. On a February night, Steele awoke to a house in flames.
"I didn't know what was happening," he said. "My brother pulled me out of bed and made me jump out the bedroom window on the second floor. But he never came behind me. I think he got caught on the window."