Bob O'Connor of River Forest, and Bob Hakes of Oak Park. | File

(Editor’s note: In May, we profiled Bob Hakes and noted he and Bob O’Connor were training for the National Senior Games this month in Pittsburgh. Seth Engle, a 2020 OPRF grad and sportswriter for the Daily Collegian at Penn State, caught up with the pair and provided this report to Wednesday Journal.)

PITTSBURGH – The seven-hour drive from Oak Park to Pittsburgh for last week’s National Senior Games was nothing for Bob Hakes, 88, and his 77-year-old running mate Bob O’Connor. The two have traveled thousands of miles together by foot since their first meeting.

Hakes has never had central vision in his left eye, directly impacting his balance. Meanwhile, O’Connor, a local psychiatrist, is two decades removed from a torn Achilles that became infected postoperatively. Surgeons believed the injury, which left him on crutches for two years, would put an end to O’Connor’s once world-renowned track career.

Despite bumps on the road, Hakes and O’Connor continue to strap on their red and white “Oak Park Runners Club” singlets, exercising daily and shoving it to anyone who’s ever doubted them.

To Hakes and O’Connor, times and leaderboards don’t correlate to victory. To win is to show up and compete, and the duo has no plans to stop.

“Don’t let anybody tell you what you can’t do because then you begin to believe you can’t do it,” O’Connor told Wednesday Journal. “You have to have a vision or dream of what you can do. Do what you can and see how it works out.”

O’Connor was told to quit before his track career had even hit stride. His parents believed the time and physical commitment of track practices at Brother Rice High School had negatively affected his grades.

Turning a blind eye to his parents’ orders, O’Connor continued to show up to after-school workouts and eventually earned the opportunity to run at Loyola Chicago. He briefly held the world record for the 440-yard dash in 1968.

Hakes, who had smoked cigarettes since he was 12 and drank regularly, didn’t begin running until his 40s.

With 38 marathons, a handful of 20-milers and a few triathlons under his belt, Hakes hasn’t looked back since. He’s outlived many of the runners and cyclists he trained with when he began his athletic lifestyle in the 1970s.

“It became an obsession. It kept me young. You meet on the corner, you’re with friends,” Hakes told the Journal. “I tell Bob O’Connor, ‘Don’t go die on me.’ All my friends that I ran with died on me.”

To the dismay of his doctors, Hakes does not take medication, but claims to have healthy vital signs.

Hakes attributes his good health to regular exercise and a nutritious diet, which typically consists of whole-grain cereal with fruit, steak and rotisserie chicken. His wife, Lucy, does “99%” of the cooking, Hakes said, but he recently purchased an air fryer to help assist.

“You can eat as much as you want and you don’t put on any weight,” Hakes said of his routine. “That’s the neat thing about burning off calories.”

Dr. Terry Nicola, the director of sports medicine rehabilitation at the University of Illinois, helped O’Connor return to the track after his 2001 Achilles injury. He said fast food is the “most dramatic change” in the rise in obesity rates over the past 50 years and stressed the importance of a healthy diet.

Citing a 1989 study by Professor Steven Blair, Nicola also said there’s a direct correlation between consistent exercise and lifespan.

“Compared to a sedentary lifestyle, people (who exercise) live longer,” Nicola said. “As a rule of thumb, almost every hour they exercise they get back. … If a person walks at least 15 miles per week at a four-mile rate, that’s all you have to do to drop your cancer rate by 30%.”

With over 10,000 participants across 20 sports, the Senior Games features some of the nation’s fittest adults over the age of 50. Hakes and O’Connor are some of the most active track stars in their respective age groups.

Hakes competed in the 50-, 100-, 200- and 400-meter races while O’Connor ran the 100, 200, 400 and 800. The two have appeared in almost every Senior Games since 2001.

“I’ve always loved competing, so I was always looking for track meets and it was hard to find track meets for older guys,” O’Connor said. “Then I heard about the National Senior Games.  I think I’ve only missed one or two.”

Even in recovery from his injury, O’Connor couldn’t stop exercising.

Without the ability to run or even walk confidently, O’Connor borrowed an extra handbike from a man whose legs had been amputated and began competing in road races.

“It saved my mental health,” O’Connor said. “I rode my handbike back and forth to work. I did training runs. I did 50 miles one time. It really saved me.  I’ve certainly had times in my career where I’ve been discouraged. You just have to do the best you can.”

The medals don’t matter to Hakes or O’Connor. All that does is the notion that they pushed themselves and took another step forward.

Their journey is a selfless one. Hakes doesn’t run to set personal records, he wants to put himself in the position to watch his four kids, seven grandchildren and four great grandchildren grow up.

With each trip around the bend, Hakes knows his buddy O’Connor will be standing there to cheer him on and push him forward. A glance into the stands and O’Connor knows his longtime pal will be doing the same for him.

“I’m not a legend, I’m just doing what I can do,” Hakes said. “People don’t realize how precious life is. It’s the only one you have, so you have to respect it and do the best you can.”

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