Defying the age barrier

13 October 2009

Written by: Lawrie Zion

Left, right, left, right. Thud, thud, thud goes his feet on the concrete ground. Breathing in, out, in, out.  Ba boom, ba boom goes his rapid heartbeat.

As his feet hit the floor, heel to his toe in his Nike Air Pegasus shoes, the thudding vibration shoots up through his body. He stands straight and strong with his hairless, naturally tanned legs, skinny ankles and chunky calves. As Forest Gump once said, you can tell a lot by a person’s shoes, where they’ve been, where they go. And Antony’s feet have certainly taken him places, racing all over the globe from Boston to Switzerland, Italy and Paris, South Africa and Hawaii. Antony Martin will compete in his thirty-first Melbourne Marathon on Sunday 11 October running in the 42.195km event.  He is 81.

For Antony, choosing which pairs of runners to wear on race day is like me procrastinating which high heels will go with my little black dress. He always has three pairs on the go. After all, he tells me, running on your feet for five hours straight is a long time, its equivalent to a flight from Melbourne to Queenstown.   

He says the shoes on his feet are “at the tail end of their running career”.  True, the mesh is still a stark white and the famous black Nike tick stands out on the side of the shoe. But the soles are as worn as his hands, stripped down to a thin layer of rubber.  For they have been ground down over hundreds of kilometres, on concrete, grass and gravel. They are the shoes Antony relies on to carry him to the finish line, to that square archway that stands high above his head. But unlike his worn out shoes, Antony’s running career is far from being over.

“Years ago if I ran a marathon I could be back training within three weeks, but now it takes me six weeks to recover,” he says. “I’ve got to acknowledge the body is aging, just a little bit.”

An amateur runner, Antony is most likely to be the oldest competitor at this year’s Melbourne Marathon. Organisers estimate 25,000 participants will take part in the annual event that raises money for the Cerebral Palsy Education Centre (CPEC).  

“It’s very satisfying coming down St Kilda Rd and you’ve only got about 6km to go and you start passing people who are walking and limping,” he says.

Asked why he runs, Antony says it’s about not only about the great people he becomes involved with, but there’s a certain “atmosphere”.

“It’s very hard to explain to a non-runner why you would go out and run 21km or you would run in the rain. It’s like going up to Bright and Ferny Creek and running up all those mountains, it’s just something so special and satisfying,” he says.

“Even on a wet rainy day, when you’re out there plodding on, splashing through the rain, there’s still a satisfaction, only by doing it yourself can you experience it.”    

Antony first got into running when he agreed to help train with his daughter for the Super Run over the Westgate Bridge in 1974 at the age of 50.  Running from his house to the end of the street, which is no more than 100 metres, Antony says he was “done like a dinner”. Until that day, Antony had never run at all. He’d put his feet onto pedals and swam a few laps, but never run. Unbeknown to him, Antony’s daughter entered him in the Super Run as well.

“I didn’t know if I was doing it right or wrong, I just learnt gradually bit by bit by bit,” he says.

After completing a few fun runs, Antony’s first attempt at a marathon was at the age of 51 from Frankston to Melbourne. Unaware of what a marathon was at the time, only that it was a bloody long run, he thought “might have a go at this marathon”. He completed it in six hours and five minutes.  And he has never pulled out of a race, not once.

Antony’s secret to his legs holding out this long is quite simple. “I started later,” he says. “I’ve saved up all my energy, so the later you start, the longer you can go.”

Antony has lived a remarkable life. He was born in 1928, the year that Greece became a republic, when Joseph Stalin rose to power, when Master Robert won the Grand National and when King George VI was still alive. 

Although he grew up in Manchester, England, Antony considers himself more an Aussie than a Pom. He lived in an era where there were no cars, no mobiles, no computers or televisions. You would walk, catch a bus or take the tram. He left school at the age of 14 to work and support his family; that was the unwritten law.  Antony was called to the National Service for two years where he luckily escaped war duty and went to England and Scotland for training and finished his service in India. He landed on the shores of Australia in 1952 with his wife Doreen in search of more opportunities and a salesman charm that lead him to the retail world of Fletcher Jones in Burke St where he talked the talk for 20 years.

“For a job in England after the war, you would literally have to wait till somebody died before moving up in the corporate scale,” he says.

Now in his fifteenth year of retirement, Antony dedicates his time to his training and marathon running.  A member of the Master Vets and Victorian Road Runners, his year is mapped out with running dates and schedules, like mine is with uni assignments and hairdresser appointments.

During May this year was the Apollo Bay half marathon. October is the Melbourne Marathon. Over the Melbourne Cup weekend there will be the Bright ‘Four peaks alpine climb’. On the Saturday he will run Mystic Mountain, about 11km. Sunday, Mt Feathertop, which he will do for the sixteenth time. Monday, Mt Hotham, and Tuesday is the great walk up Mt Buffalo. According to Antony it’s ‘only’ about 9.5 to 10 km, which he once ran but now walks. “It’s strange to say walking you do see more,” he says. 

Asked how he is feeling at the moment Antony says “pretty fit, touch wood”. “Everything’s working. No major injuries,” as he touches his limber arms, chest and legs. He has only ever suffered the basic runner injuries; a pulled hammy, sore knees and a graze to the hand due to a fall. Unlike many of his friends who were champion runners and represented Australia during their youth, they now look at Antony with envy, for many of them have heart problems and Alzheimer’s disease and can’t even walk.

Running a marathon is enough to challenge any person to the limit, but when Antony’s general doctor still discovers he is running, she screws up her face in agony and concern and groans awwwww.

Sometimes when Antony Martin reaches the finish line, the officials are packing up to go home and the award presentations are nearly over. Sometimes he is called up on stage to be applauded for finishing the race. But the interest isn’t about the time he’s run, but his age.

Last year, the male winner, Asnake Fekadu of Ethiopia completed the full marathon in 2:17:46.  Antony’s best marathon time is 3:37 hours but this year he says if he can complete the course in five hours, he’ll be satisfied.

With scepticism and concern, curiosity and interest over his level of fitness and ability to run at all, people frequently approach Antony after a race. “They tap me on the shoulder and say how old are you and I usually say, old enough…to be doing this,” he says.

But Antony says he doesn’t look for the attention. “I’d rather just do my run, get my medal and go home.”

“People say to me you’re a freak running at this age, but I accept it as a compliment.”

Now a veteran of 43 completed marathons, Antony’s running legs have carried him to all corners of the world. The Boston Marathon, Antony says, is ‘the runner’s dream.’ With strict qualification times needed to run in each age category, Boston attracts fitness enthusiasts with a passion for steps and pushing their bodies to the limit.

“When you go to Boston, you’re really going there to perform. You do your best,” he says.  He ran a time of 3:45 hours at the age of 68.  Not to mention the ultimate human race, the 90km Comrades Marathon in Johannesburg, South Africa.  He did this in 11 hours and 45 minutes.

Although his passion is hugely supported by his family, his wife Doreen, his three children and four grandkids, Antony says running can be quite a selfish sport. “Years ago, I’d be working seven days a week and out of those seven days, I’d be out running four or five nights a week,” he says. “The key is balance in whatever you are doing. But that’s the way you learn and you fix it.” He assures me he has found the balance now.

While Antony has been prepared to go back to his love for weapons and pistol shooting if ever his running career had to end, he says that this hasn’t given him the same satisfaction as running.

“It’s just what you can do and what you can do well. I’m not overly competitive in one respect, I like to run and I like to run distance so I just do my own thing when I’m in a race,’’ he says. “Whether you are first, middle or last, it’s you against yourself or against the clock. I don’t mind if people go pass me. I’ll be passing people too.”

He may be at the doctors frequently getting precautionary medication in preparation for his marathons, but Antony is in remarkably good shape. Using a new ‘three-step training program’ he discovered last year, Antony’s training regime is very specific.

Monday, bike ride for an hour. That’s a hard ride with quick and solid pedalling. Tuesday is a speed day, which can be 400, 800 or even a 1600 meter run.  Wednesday is cross training, either bike or swim for an hour. Thursday is tempo work, not as quick as his speed work but not as fast as marathon pace, about 8km. Then Friday will be bike training, and Saturday is a trip to Sherbrooke Forest for a relaxing walk followed by a long run on Sunday, maybe even 32km before the big day.

Unlike most people in their 80s, Antony is not interested in lawn bowls, he doesn’t limp, need a cane or a hearing aid. He drives, he swims, he rides and he walks. He is sprightly, alert and remembers every date, every location and time he completed a marathon. The only thing that may give away the fact he has been on this earth for eight decades, apart from his appearance, is his love for the ABC and SBS, and his frustration with ‘the computer.’

“I don’t have one and I don’t have a mobile phone yet, I’m resisting,” he says with a grin. “All my grandkids are into that but I avoid it, I think computers can be very time-wasting. I can be out running instead of sitting at the computer.”

On the running circuit, Antony’s time is still as good as any other runner and his dreams are still strong. “There is still one marathon I would like to do. The Medoc,” he says. Participants of the Marathon du Médoc in France dress in traditional costumes and are supplied with 22 refreshment stands and 21 food stands, providing croissants, oysters, ham, ice cream, wine and cheese. “They say on the entry form if you are planning on entering a fast marathon, do not attend.” It’s still on the cards.

Looking at Antony’s collection of medals, you can see by the spark in his eye and the enthusiasm in his soft English accent, this is a part of his life he is immensely proud of. His trophies sit high above the mantel piece collecting dust, but he doesn’t care. They are a reminder of his running legacy and accomplishments.

“This one is from the 10km run, these ones here are from the Oxfam trail walk I did in 2003, we ran 26 hours and 10 minutes, these are from the Olympic dream run………,” he says.

As much as many of us  try to avoid age with Botox, cosmetic surgery or the latest age-defying creams, it will consume us one day. But for Antony, it will not defeat him just yet.

Asked how many more Melbourne Marathon’s he has left in him, Antony replies “it just depends how the body reacts and feels. I still have Medoc in the back of my mind, something I’d like to slip in along the way,” he says.

Come race day, Antony will line up at the starting post, wearing his lucky number 133 and his yellow Melbourne Marathon Spartan t-shirt inscribed ‘I am a thirty year runner.’  The clock is still ticking.


The day after the marathon, Antony says he enjoyed the race, although he did cramp up a bit on the course, and is feeling a bit stiff. He completed the marathon in 5:14:20, which was 20 minutes faster than last year’s effort, and his overall placing was 3,530.

 Part of this article were published in a report on the Melbourne Marathon in the Sunday Age on 11 October 2009.

Sarah Baker is a final-year Bachelor of Journalism student at La Trobe University.