Russ Lofgren grips a stopwatch with his finger on the start button. His eyes are on the display. “Go!” he shouts, initiating a training sprint on an indoor track.
It’s a Thursday morning in late July, and the runner, Jim Hammond of Maple Grove, Minn., leaps from the start line in a burst of energy. His feet pound the track, arms pumping, hands open and karate-chopping air for 100 meters on a straightaway before skidding to a stop around a bend.
Hammond huffs, paused for a moment before he begins to walk. He rounds the track and waits for the signal from Lofgren, his assistant, to start again.
And he’s off!
As nonagenarian workout routines go, Hammond’s sprint sessions might seem extreme: He runs five days a week, pounding out sprints and endurance runs up to 1.5 miles long. He lifts weights and works through aerobic routines, an hour on an elliptical machine each Saturday capping a week of workouts. “That elliptical is the hardest,” said Hammond, who turned 94 years old this past spring.
Born in 1914, and living the retired life since the mid-1970s, Hammond falls into the unlikeliest of demographics to be consumed in athletics. But for the past eight years, ever since he entered a competition called the Georgia Golden Olympics on a whim, Hammond has pursued a passion to be the fastest grandpa on the planet.
Indeed, running multiple events in the Senior Olympics Hammond has won more than a dozen gold medals since 2001. He has set records for his age class, running 100 meters in 18.09 seconds and 200 meters in 42.35 seconds. “I’m going for world records next year,” he said, referring to the National Senior Games to be held in San Francisco August 1 – 15, 2009.
He’ll be 95 when his flight lands next summer at San Francisco International, track shoes and running shorts in tow.
The Running Life
In pursuit of running records, Hammond said sprinting has changed his life. A widower who is legally blind, Hammond lives alone in an apartment. But his connection to the outside world has grown each year with his involvement in sports.
In addition to his daily training at a health club, Hammond travels to multiple races a year. He has an assistant — Russ Lofgren, a friend from his church — and a personal trainer who designs workout regimens. At home, he reads email from running friends with the font so enlarged that each word takes up almost a quarter of the screen. “This is my connection to the world,” he said while booting a program to reveal a dozen unread messages.
Hammond waits for the clock before starting a training sprint
Originally from Kentucky, Hammond was delivered by his dad, a part-time doctor, in a bedroom at the family farmhouse in rural Logan County. The sixth of seven Hammond children, he graduated from high school in the depths of the Great Depression, shipping off to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., in hopes of a military career.
But high school in rural Kentucky had not prepared Hammond for the rigors of college-level calculus. He failed that section of a key test at the end of his first year and moved on from the military. “I spent the better part of my early adult life trying to prove to everyone that I wasn’t a failure.”
The result was a work ethic that rocketed Hammond up the corporate ladder at Delta Airlines and Allstate Insurance, both burgeoning corporations in the 1940s. Hammond soon was a married family man, wife and children following him around the South as his career bloomed.
Hammond has always been a runner. As a kid, racing with friends he called the “barefoot boys,” his group sprinted shoeless through the Kentucky grass. “I almost always won, even against the older boys,” he said.
But recreational running was not a common adult activity in the mid-20th century, and other than golf, athletics didn’t reenter Hammond’s life until he was 86 years old.
Strength and balance training five days a week keeps Hammond in condition to run
“He’s an old dog who wants to learn new tricks,” said Josh Malin, a personal trainer who works with Hammond. “I can nitpick his technique and he wants to get things exactly right, not just close.”
Malin built a workout regimen that includes stretching, balance, weights and sprint drills. He trains Hammond for endurance and aerobic fitness for most of the year, switching to exercise tailored to fast-twitch muscle fibers when a race looms.
“I babied him at first with easier workouts,” Malin said. “Now we get his heart rate into the 140s and after a run his body recovers amazingly quick.”
Malin noted that Hammond’s time to run a mile — about 12 minutes — is faster than what many people in the general population can do, no matter their age.
Hammond hopes to break age-category world records in 2009
Hammond said running and training for competitions keeps him physically and emotionally at his peak. Other than his poor vision, the result of macular degeneration, he has no health issues and takes no medications.
His goal to beat world records keeps him looking ahead in life, not backwards, even at age 94. “Athletics can be a wonderful thing for seniors,” he said. “It can keep you young.”
(Stephen Regenold writes The Gear Junkie column for eleven U.S. newspapers; see www.THEGEARJUNKIE.com for video gear reviews, a daily blog, and an archive of Regenold’s work.)