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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

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Octogenarian gearing up for 5-km run at marathon

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Harvey Freeman

At 83, Harvey Freeman still takes the stairs two at a time, and he’s not shy to let you know he can beat pretty much any of his contemporaries in a foot race.

He’s done it for the past two years in a row, finishing first in 5-kilometre runs in the 80-plus category at the Goodlife Fitness Toronto Marathon.

Yes, it’s true that there aren’t too many competitors in his age cohort, but nevertheless, a win is a win.

On May 6, when this year’s version of the marathon kicks off, he’ll be gunning for a three-peat, but he acknowledges getting the hat-trick will be difficult, because a well-known runner who dominated everyone in the 70-plus range in half-marathons just turned 80.

Still, when you can finish a 5-km race at any age, it’s quite an accomplishment.

A few years ago, pounding the pavement would have been the last thing on Freeman’s mind.

He was pretty much a couch potato when it came to athletic endeavours. He had played a little shinny hockey when he was younger, but by the time he was 66, he was 20 pounds overweight, smoked and was “a desk-bound executive… I was a typical candidate for a heart attack,” he said.

Then, on a trip to the West Coast, the heart attack came. In retrospect, the incident turned out to be a turning point in his sporting life. While still in the hospital, medical staff had him up and walking, and when they discharged him, they recommended he enrol in a rehab program that would keep him active.

When he returned to Toronto, he was put in touch with a clinic, where physical exercise is a key component of the rehabilitation process.

Freeman changed his lifestyle: he gave up the smokes, started eating better and took up exercising. Within nine months, he was able to run two to three kilometres at a time. He eventually maxed out at 15 to 16 kilometres.

He started signing up for competitive races, usually finishing in the Top 5 among the septuagenarian runners. He even travelled to Jerusalem back in 2003, testing himself on a hilly 10-km course near the Knesset on a cold, wet and generally miserable day.

He was gearing up for a half-marathon when he suffered a meniscus injury in his knee. It took almost a year to recover, but when he did, he found he just couldn’t get back to the longer distances he had been training at.

Nevertheless, running five kilometres at his advanced age is nothing to be embarrassed about.

He continues to train in the gym in his building, running on a treadmill three or four times a week. With the weather improving, he’s back outdoors pounding the pavement and noticing how concrete is so much harder on the legs.

He’s limited by doctor’s orders to a speed that keeps his heart rate at 137 beats or less, and he wears a heart monitor to make sure he stays at that number.

Freeman is feeling pretty good these days, and running has a lot to do with it. It only shows that “it’s never too late to start,” he said. “I’m racing against guys who’ve been racing for 40 or 50 years.”

There’s “a little silent admiration in some quarters” that he’s able to accomplish what he has. And besides, he said, “I like the bragging rights for winning.”

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