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87-year-old marathon participant sees no finish in sight

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Running a half-marathon is easy, Bob Gralley, 87, said:

"I put one leg in front of the other."

For 13.1 miles.

That Gralley can do this at his age is remarkable. Yet on Saturday, there he'll be at the 13th Baltimore Running Festival, a silver-haired methuselah plugging along beside others young enough to be his great-grandchildren.

Not that they'd know it. Trim and limber, Gralley doesn't look his age, though race officials said the Parkville resident is the oldest participant entered in any of the day's events.

"I don't bring it up during races," Gralley said. "I don't jump up and down and say, 'Hey, hey hey! I'm 87!' But my son Craig, who runs with me, gets a kick out of pointing to me and saying, 'Here he is, the oldest runner!'

"I get a little embarrassed but ... I don't tell him not to do it."

Craig Gralley, 58, will stick close to his father Saturday. They've run more than two dozen marathons together and the son said they use the time "to reconnect."

"I'll ask Dad's advice on things. It's pure gold to run with him," said Craig Gralley, a retired CIA analyst from Great Falls, Va. "He's slowing down a bit but he still tells me that he's going to drag me over the finish line, like he did in our first marathon in 1982."

For the 2006 Baltimore Marathon, Craig Gralley wore a T-shirt that read, "I'm running with the old guy." His father's chest read, "I'm the old guy."

He was only 80 then.

This won't be his last race, if Gralley has a say. To date, he has completed 42 marathons and 13 half-marathons since he started jogging in 1972. Five times he has run the Baltimore Marathon, most recently in 2008 at age 82. Gralley's time that day (5 hours, 55 minutes and 20 seconds) paled alongside his personal best (3:04.28) in both the 1981 New York and Boston marathons.

"For some strange reason, I've found that the older you get, the slower you get," he said.

But the urge to run stays strong.

"I look forward to getting up in the morning, stretching for 15 minutes and jogging [at 8 a.m.]," he said. "I'll do it as long as I enjoy it. I'll be 88 in January, but my real objective is to run a marathon when I'm 90."

That thought worries his wife of 64 years.

"Twenty-six miles is too much for a 90-year-old man," Betty Gralley said.

"But you wouldn't divorce me if I did it," he said.

No, she said, "but I'd try to discourage it."

Gralley wisely left it at that.

"Without running I might be six feet under. Who knows?" he said. "When I can't find my way home from a practice run, then I'll know I've got a problem."

The walls of his study in their apartment at Oak Crest, a senior community, are peppered with keepsakes of Gralley's past. There are medals from marathons he has run, from London to Honolulu, and an aerial photo of the start of the 1977 New York City Marathon.

"That's me right ... there," Gralley said, squinting at a speck on the 36-year-old picture. Glasses and hearing aids are his only nods to age.

On his roll top desk sits a worn black ledger in which, for 42 years, he has tracked every mile he has run: 53,070 to date, or more than twice around the world. By his count, during that time he has jogged on 9,194 days. And Gralley didn't start until age 46.

"Back then I found myself gaining weight, maybe four or five pounds," the retired insurance executive said. So he laced up his sneakers and chugged one mile as bystanders stared.

"In those days if you jogged down the street, people thought you were being chased," he said. "It wasn't the 'in' thing to do."

But Gralley had found his niche.

Born and raised in Severna Park, he attended Annapolis High and then Maryland where, in 1944, he made the Terps' basketball team as a 5-foot-8 forward.

"All of the 8-footers had gone overseas," he said.

Toward the end of World War II, he joined the Navy and served in the Philippines. Later, he settled in at a desk job until middle age beckoned Gralley to stretch his legs. Nowadays, he jogs 19 miles a week on the loop road around the Oak Crest complex, earphones tuned to big band sounds. On rainy days, he works out in the facility's fitness center.

He won't jog at all this week in anticipation of Saturday's race.

"I've got to reserve the old muscles for when they're needed," he said. "I'd like to finish in 3:15. Course, that's the time I used to run marathons in. Time used to be important, but now I run for distance."

And he pockets his stopwatch on moonlight strolls with the Mrs.

"When we're out walking together," Betty Gralley said, 'He goes at my speed."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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