By Brad Spencer
To get to know Bob O'Connor is to run with him, but in spite of our vast age difference — I'm much younger — this writer has no desire to do that. Besides, it's late morning and the 67-year-old O'Connor has already completed most of his training on a day expected to reach 90 degrees.
Fortunately for me, an early deadline has prompted a phone interview with the subject from my cozy, well air-conditioned home office. But after O'Connor is finished explaining his weekly exercise regimen, just a few of his running achievements and what the future holds for his spindly legs, I realize I'm sweating bullets.
O'Connor, who resides in River Forest and works as a psychologist in Oak Park, will soon compete in the National Senior Games, also known as the Senior Olympics. The Games will take place in July in Cleveland. He won't be alone.
I find longtime Oak Parker Bob Hakes in Amish country, Shipshewana, Ind., searching for a comfortable rocking chair at an antique store. Don't worry, he didn't run to Shipshewana, but people who know Hakes wouldn't put it past him. (And the rocking chair isn't for him.) The 78-year-old Hakes is an athletic machine. He devours marathons like you and I devour donuts at the Oak Park Farmer's Market.
O'Connor and Hakes are training for the Senior Games together, just like they did last year before both medaled at the Illinois State Senior Track and Field Championships in Springfield. O'Connor won gold in the 800-meter run with a time of 3:11.1. Hakes finished third and took home the bronze in both the 100 (24.1 seconds) and 200-meter (50.1) events. Near the end of July, they'll travel to Cleveland to compete in the nationals, taking with them their track shoes but leaving behind any realistic high hopes.
"To be perfectly frank; I don't think we'll make the finals," admits O'Connor. "There are a total of 10,000 athletes competing in all kinds of different events. We're going to run and have fun."
O'Connor blew out his Achilles in 2001 and later an infection set in, mooring him to crutches for nearly two years. A surgeon told him his running days were over.
Now is the perfect time in this story to steal a quote from a profile on O'Connor by the National Senior Games Association, in which he says, "You take a risk in living, and also in competing. I'm willing to take the risk."
He wants people 50 and over to "stay active, stay involved, and stay vital."
O'Connor began running when he was 14, and later earned a scholarship to Loyola University. He has set records and has taught the sport to young athletes at Grace Lutheran in River Forest. O'Connor and Hakes have been training for the nationals by running sprints every Tuesday morning at Concordia. On Saturday mornings, they train for the upcoming Madison Marathon. They ran a half marathon about a month ago.
Did I mention these guys are old enough to collect social security and play bingo at the local senior citizen's home? O'Connor even calls Hakes his role model.
Hakes says he smoked and drank until he was 37 years old. It's been nothing but 40 years of fitness ever since, with 38 marathons sprinkled in there for fun. He takes no medication. During his annual physical last week, the doctor told him he had the pulse of a teenager.
No, Hakes isn't a typical "old" man. He runs about 20 miles a week, and demurs, "That's plenty for right now, can't do the 50 milers anymore." He also bikes to and from downtown Chicago two to three days a week.
When I tell him that's impressive for a man his age, Hakes replies, "But I go to bed at 9:30 at night," as if going to bed that early is a trade-off for his athletic prowess. I go to bed at 9:30 at night, am 37 years younger, and have run just two 5K's in my entire life. That's not too impressive.
When Hakes isn't running or biking or swimming or whatever else he does to keep his 142-pound frame in tip-top shape, he can be heard singing in the church choir at St. Edmunds or watching the yellow-belly woodpeckers outside his cottage in Michigan. I thought maybe he was finally showing his age a bit when he began telling me about his six bird houses. But then he mentioned the quickness of hummingbirds, and I realized the septuagenarian was, more or less, describing himself.
"They take off like a dart," he said.
One can surmise that age means nothing to Bob O'Connor and Bob Hakes. It's just a number. They are athletes, who will soon compete against the country's top athletes (over the age of 50, of course). Isn't that right, Hakes?
"But these older guys we'll be competing against, they're tough."