77-year-old runner still hasn't hit the wall

Monday, September 7, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
Jerry Smartt, 77, of Warsaw, holds a handful of medals from his collection of hundreds. Smartt has competed in long-distance running races for 62 years.

WARSAW — He is the fastest man his age in the world.

Jerry Smartt, 77, has a couple hundred medals that catalog his 62 years of race competitions.


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"I've always loved running a foot race," he said. "There's just something about outrunning someone."

The 130-pound Smartt recently returned from the World Masters Track and Field Championship in Lahti, Finland. He competed in the 75 to 79 age division, and placed seventh in the 5K and sixth in the 10K. The runners who beat Smartt on the track were younger, making him the fastest man his age in the world.

Although there might be other 77-year-old runners in the world who could beat Smartt, they failed to compete in the race.

"You don't get a rank unless you're at the meet," he said.

Smartt, an Olympic team alternate in 1956, continues to compete in races for the enjoyment and the motivation.

"Come next July, I defend my title, so there's some reason right there to stick with it," he said.

Smartt typically competes in 5K or 10K races. The fastest speed Smartt has recorded for the 5K was 14 minutes and 22 seconds. His best in the 10K was 30 minutes, 40 seconds.

Smartt has competed in races for 62 years. Most runners who compete in high school or college quit when they are finished with school and become "fat and out of shape," Smartt said.

"The secret is to never stop," he said.

Smartt runs twice every day, for about an hour in the morning and an hour and a half in the afternoon. He typically trains using a 100-meter course and repeating it 30 to 40 times, or a 200-meter course with 20 repeats.

"If it comes to a point where I can't run, I'll walk three to four hours a day," Smartt said.

People might assume all the years of running would take a toll on Smartt's knees and hips, but he has never had any joint problems or any other health issues.

"I learned how to run when I first went to Finland in 1956," Smartt said. "I had their Olympic coach as my coach. He taught me how to land softly instead of shocking my knees hard."

The coach showed the runners how to have a smooth movement rather than a bouncing, jarring, up-and-down motion.

Children's games are what caused Smartt to discover his running abilities. He used to play tag in grade school.

"As a third grader, nobody could catch me or my buddies," he said.

Smartt used his skill to help him complete his chore of mowing the grass using a reel mower.

"I actually ran behind it and pushed it. ... That was resistance training," he said.

Smartt ran track in high school, but was unable to handle running in the high altitude of Fort Collins, Colo., where he attended college. He joined the Air Force and was stationed in Japan.

"That's when the running really began to blossom and take off," he said.

Smartt competed on the Air Force's track team and remembers traveling from Tokyo to Rome, N.Y., for a meet. He competed in the 1956 Olympic trials.

"I had no idea how to run my race; I'd never had a coach," he said.

The names of his fellow competitors was a "who's who" of the racing world, Smartt said. He finished fourth in the 10K, which landed him a spot as first alternate on the Olympic team. Smartt traveled and trained with the team, ready to fill in if another runner became injured.

In 1958, Smartt was among an American team to compete in a series of meets with the Russians.

Smartt has had his share of media coverage over the years. He keeps a scrapbook of the clippings in which he was featured around the world. However, journalists have been unable to master the correct spelling of Smartt's name, misspelling it eight times over the years.

Josef Smargg, as he was referred to in a Flemish newspaper, is Smartt's favorite misspelling. The misspelling of his name is something Smartt has been used to since birth. His birth certificate had his last name, along with the last names of both his parents, misspelled "Smart."

The mistake nearly kept Smartt detained in the 1950s when he was traveling in Africa with some of America's elite runners. His passport had his last name spelled correctly.

"The passport had to jive with everything else," he said. "I had to sign my name incorrectly to get out of Africa."

Smartt had the birth certificate (which also had his incorrect birth date) fixed when he was in his 30s.

Smartt, a Texas native, retired in Warsaw because of "two lips." His college sweetheart retired in Warsaw and the two were reunited after 33 years. Smartt never left Warsaw and the couple have been together for 23 years.

The longest distance Smartt has competed in is a marathon, which is 26 miles. He ran in the Boston Marathon in 2006.

"I don't do any more marathons," Smartt said. "Once you do Boston, that's the ultimate high."

Smartt shows no signs of giving up the feel of the road beneath his feet.

"I'm planning on running until I just drop on the road somewhere," Smartt said. "That'd be the way to go for a runner."

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