Harvey Rothenberg is a 72-year-old architect in Brooklyn. He’s run multiple marathons and shows no signs of slowing down (figuratively OR literally) any time soon! He’s proof positive that, to paraphrase some of his own words below, it’s never too late in life to become more active, and the rewards of an active life extend beyond the dubious promise of eternal youth so often marketed by fitness culture.
WB: How did you first take up running?
HR: I used to be a chain smoker. I was an addict, smoking close to 3 packs a day. When I was 40, I gave it up cold. Like an addict, I went through withdrawal, and all the pains, and agony that comes with that. So I decided now that I wasn’t a smoker, the “natural” thing to do would be to take up running!
There was a small, quarter mile block near my house that I could run around. When I started, I huffed and I puffed and I made it around that quarter of a mile, thinking that death would be a viable alternative by the time I made it back. But I persevered. And little by little, built up. I got involved with NYRR (New York Road Runners). Then, I started doing races on the weekend up in Central Park: 5ks, 10ks, some half marathons.
Then, my son decided to do a marathon. He got into the NYC marathon. The week before the marathon, we went with him over to the marathon expo. There were all of these fit people, and there was this camaraderie. There were people from all over the world, and the only thing they had in common was the NYC marathon in a few days. But it was as if they were life long buddies. Men, women, old, young. There was this unbelievable feeling of friendship. And I just was bitten. I thought, “I could do this.”
People say if that if you run a half marathon you can run a marathon; it’s all in your head. Never having run more than a half marathon I thought, “That’s bullshit.” Sure, people say that. It’s like saying, “I’m going to cut your hand off but it won’t hurt.” It’s going to hurt! But it was such a wonderful experience just picking up his bib and following him around. And then when he ran it, we went on the subway and followed him all over. When he finished, I thought, “I want to do this.”
When I did NYC for the first time, I was already 60 years old. Being that old to do your first marathon was hard. I’d already had two knee surgeries from skiing and biking. My knees were like elephants by the time we got to 1st avenue, and I had 10 more miles to go. I had two options, quit or keep going in pain. And I’m stubborn. I’ll crawl on my hands and knees if it means that’s how I’ll finish.
Now, I’m addicted. I do one almost every year. I recently did the New Jersey marathon. My left knee was bad, so I taped it up; I had a band. I was fine until mile 16 or 17 and then my right knee went. I was dragging it, walking and running. Someone walked up to me and asked, “Are you ok?” and I said “No I’m not ok, are you crazy?” I was in a lot of pain. He said, “Do you want me to get help?” and I then I realized, “Ah, I can take the wrap on my left knee and put it on my right knee.” I was able to then instead hobble through the rest of it. My time was terrible but I finished. My wife said, “Is this your last one?” and I said “Of course not.”
There was an article in the New York Times two or three weeks ago, on memory and marathon runners. Your mind, right when you finish, with all the pain you’re in, you remember how horrible it was. Then they ask these people 2 to 3 weeks later, and then they don’t think it’s all that bad. Then they ask them two months later and they say, “I could do another one!” That’s what it’s like for me.
WB: What are the benefits you derive from running, physically and mentally?
HR: If I don’t run, I feel like a slug. Psychologically I feel lazy but I also just feel, I feel my age. I feel lethargic; I feel heavy. I don’t have energy if I don’t exert myself. There are days when the weather is really horrible, it’s rainy, I don’t want to do it that day. But I know if I don’t do it, I’ll feel worse. I’ll say to myself, “Come on asshole. Just do it.” Once you get out the door and get wet, it’s fine. You might as well keep going. You’ve already crossed that barrier.
WB: Reflecting on where you were when you started running to where you are now, how has this journey changed you?
HR: It’s accentuated certain things. I’ve always been stubborn. It’s underlined that. Like I said earlier, I will get on my hands and knees in order to finish a race.
I’m much healthier now than before I started running. I’m aerobically healthier. My mind wanders when I run — I’m a devout atheist, so I don’t pray, I don’t go into mystical thought processes, but when I’m running, my mind goes into a runner’s high. Which is not the same as a drug induced high. For a long time I was looking for that through running, but it is another dimension. My mind will go off somewhere. It’s that repetitive right, left. Suddenly, I’m not cognizant of running any longer, and I’m thinking about things that are totally somewhere else. It’s really nice. I swim to cross train, and it’s happened with swimming laps too. The lap swimming is almost like running. From the very beginning it was like that. All these other things I’ve done, skiing, tennis, these activities are like a spring then you stop. But running, it’s one, two, sometimes three hours you get into yourself. It was a new experience for me.
There’s also an element of competition to it that’s motivating, whether it’s someone I’m running with or just beating my own time.
WB: How do you define the words “healthy” and “fit”?
HR: There was a runner, Jim Fixx, that died of a heart attack in his 50’s. He was one of the early marathoners. He was physically fit, it just turned out that he wasn’t healthy. He died relatively young just because of a genetic predisposition. Being fit means, I want to keep doing all these same things. We ski with our grandchildren; we run 5 mile races. I’m 72 running with my 44 year old son and my 17, 15, and 11 year old grandsons in a 5 mile race in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That is being fit. I want to keep skiing, running, hiking, biking until I drop dead. I don’t want to be in a wheelchair or a nursing home. That is being fit. You can do certain things to be fit and to be healthy, but then it’s a crapshoot. Some of it is genetic. No one in my family has had heart problems, so I’m assuming genetically there’s something good. But, I’ve had melanoma that was caught early.
WB: What parting words of wisdom would you pass on to someone trying to adopt a more active lifestyle?
HR: Force yourself to do something for 6–8 months. In the beginning it’s a chore. You don’t see any benefits from it and it’s easy to quit. But if you can put up with it for 6–8 months, you will see results. You might not have six-pack abs, you might not have the perfect bikini body, but you will see results, and you’ll enjoy it. It’ll become habitual, and you’ll miss it if you stop. Give it a fair shot. It is beneficial; you will feel healthier.
I married a jock and she got me involved in all these things. It was, we’re going to play tennis, we’re going to ski. I’d never been hiking or camping. So I just gave it a shot. The opposite is my brother in law who married a non-jock. Through almost their whole married life, his wife didn’t do any of it. Ten years ago, she got interested in triathlons. It was like, where did this come from? Her knees are great, because she’s been saving them for all this time! It goes to show you can’t pigeonhole people. And it’s never too late to start.