Before the running boom, before everybody and his uncle seemed to be doing a marathon, before $200 running shoes and stores to sell them, before Frank Shorter and Dr. Ken Cooper, there was Ted Muellers.
It was Thanksgiving Day 1968, when the then-32-year-old Muellers lined up with a bunch of local high school students and ran a course of about 2 1⁄2 miles through the streets of Rockville Centre. Muellers, who had been a half-miler in high school in Queens and at Manhattan College, was one of three “old men” who ran along with the kids in that informal race.
Fifty years and two event incarnations later, Muellers, 81, is still running the lineal descendant of that original Turkey Trot. Since 1978, it’s been the Rockville Centre 10-kilometer (6.2 miles); a 5k (3.1 mile) event was later added to the program. The race is now held on the second Saturday in November — and Muellers has been there for every one of them. Counting the 10 years of the Thanksgiving Day version of the race (1968-1977), the 30 editions of the 10k he ran and the 5k that he has done as a concession to age for the past decade, and that adds up to 50 years.
OK, minus 2012, the year the race was canceled in the wake of superstorm Sandy. That’s still a half-century in which Muellers has showed up and completed this run every year; a half-century during which he has also watched the sport he loves — and that has helped keep him healthy and fit — become a mainstream activity.
That certainly wasn’t the case in the late 1960s.
“When I was a kid, my dad was the weirdo in the neighborhood that ran,” says his son, Ken, 52, who lives in Smithtown. “Nobody was running back then.”
To recognize their father’s milestone on Nov. 11, Ken and his siblings — Brian, 53, of Huntington; Peter, 56, of Dover, Massachusetts; sister Sharon, 57, of Burlington, Vermont, and her husband, Dave Prodell — ran with him; as did Ted’s grandson, Ken’s son Nick, 16. A half-dozen other members of his family also showed up to cheer him on including Eleanor, Ted’s wife of 38 years. (They have lived in Rockville Centre since 1966.)
For his part, Muellers, a retired civil engineer, was proud of his streak but candid about why he has been able to return year after year. “Lucky, really,” he said. “It takes good luck to be at the same place on the same day every year for 50 years.”
While that may be so, Muellers, who continues to run two to three times a week year-round — demonstrates other inspiring qualities.
“I think it’s tremendous,” says Hank Williford, professor of exercise science and a specialist in senior fitness at Auburn University-Montgomery in Alabama. “To be motivated to do that one race, stay with it and not give up for that long, is pretty remarkable.”
Muellers teaches us the lesson of consistency, Williford says. And it’s not just limited to running. “People ask me what is the best exercise,” says Williford. “We say, ‘It’s the last one you did.’ Whether it’s biking, walking, running, swimming, what you get is a little more fitness, a little more fitness, each session, and over time that adds up to give you tremendous benefits. From an exercise science point of view, consistency is what’s important to improve fitness and to make big physiological changes.”
A SLOWER PACE
Of course, that doesn’t mean one can stop the aging process altogether. Muellers has slowed down, and wears a protective brace on his left knee. But he says he’s in good health; and as recently as about a decade ago, pushing 70, he climbed Mount Whitney in California — the highest peak in the contiguous United States with an elevation of 14,505 feet. As a younger man, he ran the New York City and Long Island marathons. But for most of the past few decades, his main goal has been the Rockville Centre event, which starts and finishes on Front Street, near the railroad station.
Brian Muellers says his father running a race in November has been a fixture on the family calendar since he was doing the earlier Turkey Trot version of the race.
“Part of our Thanksgiving tradition was dad running,” he recalled. “We’d all go and cheer him on.”
When that fun run moved up two weeks and became an official 10k and later 5k, Brian and Peter would occasionally join him. But regardless of who was there from his family, regardless of weather, regardless of anything else, you could bank on Ted’s appearance at the starting line.
That kind of consistency is something only other streak runners can fully appreciate. “You need to run smart, as he obviously has,” says Ben Beach of Bethesda, Maryland, arguably the nation’s most accomplished older streak runner. In April, Beach, 68, became the first person in the 121-year history of the Boston Marathon to complete 50 in a row. He has also run 45 straight editions of the 10-mile Cherry Tree Blossom race in Washington, D.C.
“Somehow you have got to temper your determination and stubbornness about doing the workouts with a little common sense,” says Beach.
Muellers says he has been able to draw that line. As a college student, he was part of a relay team that won a medal at the fabled Penn Relays. Now, he dismisses his race performances as “slow,” and says he’s quite happy simply to finish — which (sporting a Manhattan College shirt), he did on Nov. 11 in a time of 42 minutes, 8 seconds (he placed 324th out of 354 finishers in the 5k; another 236 runners completed the 10k).
On the same day that Muellers celebrated his half-century of RVC running, Mike Baard of Merrick finished his 35th straight Rockville Centre 10k in a time of 44 minutes, 52 seconds. While he was pleased with breaking 45 minutes for that distance, Baard, 62, says that time isn’t the critical thing in these streaks. “It’s just about getting to the start and finishing in an upright position,” he says. “It really takes dedication. You have to have this stick-to-itiveness,” adds Baard, who says he hopes to continue his streak as long as he can. “Just to get here 50 years in a row, as [Muellers] has, is impressive. Life gets in the way.”
That life, Muellers says, is what has been helped by his decades of running. “When I started,” he says, “the big question was whether running adds to life span.” While there is now some evidence that regular physical activity is linked to longevity, he feels that’s the wrong end of the running telescope. “Running may or may not add years to your life, but it adds life to your years.”