At 66, running a fine line

At 66, running a fine line

Tom Osler was a nerdy Camden kid who began running at age 14. He saw it as his only route to athletic glory. For his birthday, his mom had given him a stopwatch, and he used it to time himself for a mile. It took seven minutes. He vowed that in a year he would break five.

Every day, he ran a mile as fast as he could. Twelve months later, he tested himself again. His time: 5:10.

His mentor, two-time Olympian Browning Ross, taught him about interval training. Osler took it to heart, running short, fast distances on the track for an hour a day. In his senior year, he clocked a mile in 4:54.

"I didn't have a gift," Osler says, "but I loved running anyway - the exhilaration of feeling the body in full stride."

Osler expressed his love just about every weekend by participating in road races of five to 10 miles. His name appeared in tiny type in the back of the sports section with amazing regularity. In the mid-60s, he was national champion at 25K, 30K and 50 miles (in the latter, he missed the American record by a few seconds).

A middle-of-the-packer in his youth, he suddenly found himself more often than not in the lead. His secret: "I never gave up." He has distilled his wisdom in two books: Ultramarathoning: The Next Challenge (coauthored with Ed Dodd) and Serious Runner's Handbook, both published by Runner's World magazine.

A man with merry eyes and a ponytail, Osler is 66 and still participates in road races. He has run about 60 this year, and trains about 40 to 50 miles a week. His passion for running is matched only by his passion for mathematics, which he teaches at Rowan University, where he's been a professor for 35 years.

"It's terribly captivating," says Osler, who has written numerous scholarly papers. "When I do a math problem, I'm in heaven. It's like listening to Mozart. Time passes very, very fast. It's a beautiful world when everything works out right."

With regard to both teaching and running, he declares emphatically: "I'm never retiring."

Given his running resume, you'd expect Osler, who lives in Glassboro, to be well-nigh immortal. Fact is, he's lucky to be alive.

Osler was born with high cholesterol. When he was 25, he had a checkup; his cholesterol reading so alarmed his doctor that he urged Osler to take medication. Osler ignored him. "It was probably the biggest mistake of my life," he says now.

Four years ago, on his way to the bathroom, he was overcome by nausea and fell over. He went back to bed and the next day felt fine. That afternoon, he competed in a 5K.

The next day, he went to work. That night, nausea struck again. In the morning, he paid a visit to the emergency room. Diagnosis: A blood clot had lodged in the base of his brain. In other words, he had had a stroke.

Osler began taking a blood thinner, and tried to put the scare behind him.

Then came 2005, a terrible year in the Osler household. Battling cancer, his wife, Kathy, was in terrible pain. Osler was distraught. Stress exacted 20 pounds of flesh from his already trim body.

In May of that year, after finishing a 5K, he was walking back to his car when he blacked out and toppled over, banging his head. His heart had begun beating so wildly it wasn't pumping blood. Starving for oxygen, his brain quit. Luckily, the impact of the fall revived him.

Two months later, after another 5K, it happened again. His heart went into fibrillation. And again, he was fortunate. Next to him was a critical care nurse who administered life-saving CPR. An ambulance was parked only 50 yards away.

Today, Osler has a defibrillator implanted in his chest. It monitors his heart and gives it a jolt whenever it misbehaves. A lifetime of high cholesterol has taken its toll. One of his arteries is totally blocked. Thanks to running, though, there are enough collateral blood vessels to keep his heart functioning.

His two cardiologists have given Osler this advice: "Don't stop running - but don't push it."

Osler is following that counsel; he runs 5K races at a 10K pace.

He knows at least four runners, who have been at it for 20 to 30 years, who have heart disease. During my visit, he handed me a thick book titled The Lure of Running. In the final chapter, there are several pages detailing the cardiac woes of runners.

"Running is great for your heart, but that doesn't mean you're absolutely protected," Osler says. "Nature will take its course. There is no guarantee against heart disease."

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Date Published: Sunday, December 17, 2006 (All day)
Source URL: The Philadelphia Inquirer