Oldest Pear runner ponders his secret

What's the secret to a long, healthy life? Many have wondered.

John Norberg seems like a good person to ask. At 85 — he'll add another year in three weeks — he's the oldest entrant in today's 10-mile Pear Blossom Run. He's never run it before, but when an application showed up in a packet from another race, the Eureka, Calif., man decided to give the long-standing Medford race a try.

"I run in Humboldt County," he said. "Nobody here can beat me, so I'm coming up to see if any of those guys in Oregon can beat me."

Then he chuckled. He was joshing. He said he's 50 pounds overweight and slow as molasses. He just hopes to finish the race in the required 2 hours, 55 minutes, or 171/2 minutes per mile. Otherwise, they'll yard him off the course.

Norberg isn't without running ability. In the last year, he's competed in a couple half-marathons, a couple 10Ks. Back when he was in racing trim, 155 pounds at age 70, he thinks he threatened an age-group record in his area's Avenue of the Giants Marathon. But don't quote him, he said.

That in itself is funny. Virtually everything out of the mouth of the World War II marine, retired veterinarian and pilot of 50 years is quotable.

"When you live this long, you've got more stories than you can shake a stick at," said Norberg. "Every time I think of something, a story pops up."

Indeed. Somehow, we got on these topics:

His 14-pound fox terrier, Tessie.

His teenage trapping excursions for rabbits and pheasant during frigid Ohio winters.

His introduction to running and an exercise regimen designed by the man charged with training astronauts.

His run-in with legendary football coach Woody Hayes of Ohio State, where Norberg studied.

Hayes' older brother, Isaac, who was a pioneer of sorts in the veterinary field.

Norberg's gristle-tough father.

His not-so-hardy mother, who outlived her husband by more than three decades.

Norberg even worked in a slightly risqué joke after asking me to repeat my name. Turns out the joke's protagonist had the same first name. That's how he remembered it, anyway.

For all we talked about, the only thing the octogenarian admitted he didn't have an answer for was the very question for which he seemed best suited: What's the secret to a long, healthy life?

He took a stab.

"Just a good heart, good lungs and good legs," he said.

Maybe it was all those winters setting traps in snow and ice, all that exercise expanding those lungs. He and a buddy took a train 85 miles from Cleveland to a rural area one Christmas break. They brought their bikes, and their trap lines hung from them as they rode into the woods. They had prepared their 60 traps the previous summer, boiling them in walnut shells to rid them of odor, putting them in wax and sealing them in burlap bags.

For two weeks, the two 16-year-olds worked by day and slept in the snow at night, warmed by a fire.

I had to ask if this was a tall tale.

"I'm looking at the raccoon that's 70 years old on my wall right now," said Norberg. "He's missing his tail. But I skinned it and tanned it with salt and made a hide out of it."

So, the secret to a long, healthy life is lots of physical activity?

"I don't really have an answer for that," he said.

He considered genetics.

His father never had a disease as a child and bragged that he lived in a flophouse during the Depression, bunking next to a man who died of tuberculosis. Norberg's father insisted he didn't contract the disease, only to find out through X-rays many years later that a lesion on his lungs suggested he'd had and his body warded it off.

"But, he dropped dead at 66, right after he retired," said Norberg.

His mother, on the other hand, smoked four or five Dutch cigars and drank a like number of Dutch beers each day. She did walk to the store to buy them, said Norberg, and she lived to be 100 before dying in 1999 — eight months shy of living in three centuries.

"I didn't think she was robust at all but she hung in there," he said.

So, too, has Norberg, who said he doesn't like to train, just enter races and get his heart pumping.

He never was an athlete growing up. His run-in with Hayes at Ohio State resulted when Norberg went to the athletic facility to sign up for gym classes. School wasn't in yet and "there were 10,000 parking spaces" around the "Horseshoe," as it's called.

Norberg pulled into the space closest to the building. In an instant, another car parked right behind him and the man said that spot was his.

"I looked around at all the spaces and thought, 'What's this about?'" said Norberg. "Then the guy gets out of the car, his face is all red. I recognized him as Woody Hayes. I was back from World War II and didn't take a lot of gaff from anybody, but this was no way to start here."

He later learned that Hayes' brother, Isaac, who went to Iowa, was a veterinarian who developed a fly-proof tent to cover and protect tools while in the field. Woody Hayes would take it upon himself each year to talk to Ohio State's incoming vet students, said Norberg.

Norberg didn't begin running until he was about 40, and then it was recreational. At 50, he was getting a physical for his pilot's license, but his blood pressure was high and had to come down. He read a book by Dr. Kenneth Cooper, who trained astronauts for NASA, and followed a point system for running, biking, hiking, etc.

Soon he was fit, his blood pressure was in check and he could fly.

Norberg will be making his first Pear Blossom appearance, but he remembers flying into Medford years ago. He planned to sleep outside, under a wing of his plane, but was chased to a motel by a mob of mosquitoes.

They shouldn't be a problem for him and his companion, Tessie, this weekend.

Norberg did almost back out of the Pear, thinking the elevation would be a hindrance. But he confused Medford (1,335 feet) with Klamath Falls (4,095 feet).

"I don't want to go running almost a mile high," he said. "I'm not in the greatest shape."

There's one other runner in his age division, 81-year-old John Bromstead of Central Point.

"I don't want to win anything," said Norberg. "I just want to make the time. I don't have to beat anybody. I just have to finish. Hopefully, I won't be last, but if I am, I'll accept that, too."

And he'll have another story to tell.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email ttrower@mailtribune.com

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