Fate has dealt Eddie Benham a few blows. As a lad in Montreal he was run over by a horse-drawn lorry and lay bedridden for a year, his pelvis crushed. Shortly after he recovered, his mother died, leaving five youngsters to fend for themselves. At 14, tiny Eddie left home and became a jockey.
In the 1920s he was thrown from a horse and broke his neck and back, which kept him out of work for another year.
He quit riding in 1938, but continued to work around Maryland race tracks until retiring in 1978. He and his wife of 49 years moved from Laurel to the seashore. But their idyll was cut short by brain cancer, which struck Edith down in less than a year.
"Poor little gal," said Benham. "She just didn't last."
But Benham was never one to "sit around and mope," as he puts it. So the day after Edith died, at his two sons' insistence, he ran the first footrace of his life, a 10-miler in Ocean City. He won his age class. He also set a speed record for 71-year-olds, although no one knew it at the time.
Thus, the week he lost his closest companion he found a new one--running. Today, three years later to the month, Benham is the best distance racer of his age in the nation. He holds so many records for so many distances that keeping count is impossible.
Benham doesn't try. In his pin-neat blue-and-white house trailer off 135th Street, the bookshelves and tables are stacked with trophies, ribbons, news clippings, letters, plaques and awards. They are neatly arrayed, regularly dusted and in no discernible order.
It is known that Benham holds at least five world and 20 national records for his age. He has won national championships in races from a quarter-mile to 31 miles in length. He holds age records at 15, 20, 25, 30 and 50 kilometers, 10 miles, 20 miles, marathons and half-marathons.
He has run five marathons and on Monday will make it six when he competes for the first time, by special invitation of race organizers, in the most prestigious marathon of all, Boston.
He will be one of two septuagenarians. The other is John Kelley, who is running Boston for the 51st time. Benham and Kelley are the same age, 74, but Benham has no doubt that he will beat the famed Kelley easily, the way he beats all his peers. He'll win by 10 to 15 minutes, based on their recent records.
Tony Diamond of the Potomac Valley Seniors track club says the only word to describe the wiry, slat-thin Benham's running is "phenomenal, and he's untested so far. In his entire career he's only been beaten twice, and one of those times was when he was running his fourth race in one day."
A running neophyte, age 37, thought it would be nice to see how a 74-year-old man runs, and in a moment of indiscretion suggested a morning jog. "Great," said Benham. "Be here at 7:30."
In the morning, Benham disclosed he'd had a bad night with a chest cough. With Boston only three days off, he decided to cut his planned three-mile jaunt to a little over a mile, "just enough to loosen up."
He began by running so slowly it was hard to stay back with him. After a quarter-mile his muscles loosened, his breathing eased and he settled into an effortless stride.
At three-quarters of a mile the neophyte thought it was going smoothly and wondered if this was race pace.
"Oh no," said Benham, his gentle breathing suggesting an activity more akin to dishwashing. "I was staying slow for you."
"Show us race pace."
"I made the mistake of working out with him one day when I was coming back from an injury," said Diamond, who at 52 will be running his 13th Boston Marathon this year. "He ran me into the ground."
Benham will have company in Boston. His son, Bev, a 51-year-old marine policeman in Ocean City, will be running. Bev's best marathon time is 3:09, which is 23 1/2 minutes faster than his father's best and highly competitive in his age bracket. Bev's brother, Carl, 30, of Laurel also runs competitively.
None of the three was running four years ago.
"When my mother was bedridden and my father was taking care of her, he'd get out every afternoon just to run around a little," said Bev. "He started running farther and farther and finally decided to enter the Seaside 10-Miler," an Ocean City race.
"When he said that, Carl and I decided we'd better enter, too, 'cause if he didn't make it we wanted to be around."
He made it; after the race Bev looked through some running magazines and realized his father had finished in better time than national records for his age group. "I told dad, 'You're running around Ocean City faster than national records.' So we entered him the next year in the Cherry Blossom 10-miler in Washington and he set the record in 72 minutes. That's after he tripped and fell a mile from the finish."
Benham taught himself everything he knows about running and it hasn't taken long. He credits his horse-racing experience for teaching him pacing, which he regards as the key for any good distance runner.
"I like to finish strong," he said, a statement of life style as well as running style. "The guys who go out front, if you wait long enough, they come back to you."
When he was riding horses, Benham said, "You could always tell when one was ready to win. He'd jump and snort; you couldn't hold him back." At age 74, he still feels the same way some days.
Benham runs anywhere from three to 20 miles a day, generally in the mornings. His workouts usually end at the McDonald's on Ocean Highway, where he has breakfast.
The waitress, Colleen Garrett, lights up when he comes in. "How long have you been putting up with Ed?" a visitor asks.
"Not long enough," she answers with a smile. She winks. "He's not just young at heart, you know. He's got a young body to go with it."
Benham's schedule has him racing every weekend through May, and probably after that, too. It just hasn't been arranged yet.
The schedule makes it hard to spend much time around Ocean City with his girl friend, Annie Simpson of Glen Burnie. So she frequently comes along wherever he's running.
"We have a grand time," said Benham. "She's a swell girl. I suppose we'll get married one day."
The spring schedule does include one blank weekend. "I'll probably find a race," he said. "but if I don't Annie and I will find a dance.
"Like I said, we don't sit around and mope."
Eddie Benham, distance racer, may be the only 74-year-old in the world eagerly awaiting his next birthday, July 12.
At 75 he'll enter a new age group. Racing records are broken down into age brackets: 60-64, 65-69, 70-74, 75-79, and so forth. He has so many records in his current age group it takes a birthday to open new vistas. At 75, "No one can touch me."
How long can he go on? "I told Annie I'll be running when I'm 85 and 90," he said. "She says, 'I hope so, Ed.' She's really a hell of a girl."