Untold story of Bill Murray: From whale to world champion

Bill Murray is the biggest loser I know. But I didn’t realize this until after he’d returned home to his real estate business in Alabama following Lahti, where he won the M55 decathlon in an American record. Bill doesn’t boast about his weight loss. In fact, he fessed up details (and sent me the photo below) only after I sweet-talked him. He had sent me a link to a local newspaper story because it mentioned me (and got the story wrong). But Bill’s yarn is the real deal — and one that could inspire anyone to take up track after time on the potato-chip couch. The bottom line: Bill lost close to 80 pounds in his late 40s — equivalent to five 16-pound shots.


Bill and youngest son Will (left) about 2001; Bill hurdling in Lahti in August 2009.

Bill says he weighed around 175-180 during high school and college.  In high school, he ran cross country (“always the No. 6 or 7 guy”) and played the forward position in soccer. His prep bests were 14-0 in the vault, 6-6 3/4 in the high jump, 21-10 in the long jump, about 42-6 in the triple jump, 51.10 in the 400, 15.0 in the 120-yard high hurdles, 21.0 in the 180-yard low hurdles, 45-11 in the shot and “around 132″ in the discus.

“I did eight or nine events every meet,” he says. “We
did not have the 4-event restrictions that the NFHS places on kids today.”
Bill says: “259 was the heaviest I ever weighed. It was probably around the time of that picture. I gained weight because I was not paying attention to my diet and I was not exercising. I played a lot of golf and was a respectable 4 handicap, but I rode in a golf cart, drank beer (not that anything’s wrong with that) and I never walked. Oh yeah, I had smoked too.”
Eight or nine years later, he traveled to Lahti and weighed 186. The rest is history.
How did he shed the weight?
Bill wrote me: 

So here I am at 47 years old 259 pounds and I came back to B’ham after the indoor nationals when I went with Phil (Mulkey) Jr. to Boston. I started reading “The T- Factor Diet” by Martin Katahn, Ph.D. He said I could lose weight without cutting or counting calories. I thought it was the diet for me. I still use his principles today. 

Diet alone was not the solution, I knew I had to start on an exercise program. I thought I would run the weight off. In Boston, I determined that I could be competitive with those guys (Bryan Johnson, John Dyer, Michael Janusey, Bob Doran, Jim Russ, Jeff Watry, Steve Winkle, Phil Mulkey Jr., Richard Watson) if I could lose 70 pounds. That became my short-term goal. The weight came flying off as I increased my mileage. 

I went from not being able to run to the corner of my block to six miles a day, six days a week on the roads around my house. In the summer I would set the clock for 3:30 a.m., to beat the Alabama heat and humidity, run six miles, shower and go back to bed for a couple of hours before going to work. I lost the weight in about seven months, but I also lost muscle mass. I spent the next six months in a gym working with weights on my upper body to regain my strength. I still had not set foot on a track at this point. 

I called Coach Phil Mulkey who had recently moved back to Birmingham and was my coach from fourth grade through ninth grade and said “I need help.” In typical Mulkey vernacular, his response was “You sure do.”

He had once told me in about sixth grade that since I wasn’t very fast and since I couldn’t jump very far or very high that I should consider the decathlon and that maybe just maybe, I could wear them, the competition, out over 10 events. So we began to work out. 

My first T&F meet was an indoor meet that Emil Pawlick had in Jackson, Mississippi. I then competed in the Indoor Nationals in Boston 2003 and placed sixth in the pentathlon at age 49. I went to Charlotte for the decathlon that summer and placed third. I had my sights set on Sindelfingen for the pentathlon in 2004 when I turned 50. 

Based on Internet searches, I thought I knew who my competition was going to be and what I would need to score in order to win in Germany. So Coach Mulkey and I prepared for the next nine months. Over the next five years I continued to run, but my training schedule has evolved. 

I burned out by the end of my 53rd year and took some time off while dealing with my father’s open-heart surgery. The time off appears to have been what I needed. I started training again, with renewed energy and a totally new training program, for my upcoming new age group change. 

Other than typical training injuries that we all have, I have been blessed to remain relatively healthy. 

I asked about Bill’s diet. He replied:

My diet gets so strict when preparing for a major competition that I tend to take the diet restrictions off and indulge as my reward after the completion of the event and the season has concluded. I have put on a few pounds since Finland, but it’s amazing how much better a potato tastes with butter and a lean steak is a big change from skinless chicken. I still won’t venture into fried foods and they are tough to stay away from in the South. 

My diet is basically counting fat grams. I eat tons of carbs and protein, salads, fruits, vegetables, the wine group is nice and I shy away from processed foods, fast foods, dairy and meats with high fat. 

I asked Bill what advice he’d give, and he replied in typically modest fashion:

I am not sure I am the one to dole out advice on lifestyles choices. I am much better suited giving advice on field events or pinot noirs. What works for me may not work for someone else. Everyone needs to find what works for them. I do know that sittin on your butt with a remote won’t work, ya’ll.

Here’s the story that first mentioned Bill’s weight loss: 

Master of the Decathlon
Published September 1, 2009 

Seven years ago, Mountain Brook’s Bill Murray was an overweight middle aged man, whose athletic career was nothing more than a fading high school memory.

At one time, Murray — who now works in commercial real estate — had been a track and field star. He first began running at the old Birmingham University School before transferring to The Baylor School in Chattanooga. At Baylor, he was the pole vault and decathlon champion for the state of Tennessee.

“Then I took about a 30-year layoff,” Murray recalled. “And put on about 70 pounds in the process.”

Murray was 48 years old and weighed about 260 pounds when he got a call from a friend, Phil Mulkey, who invited him to Boston to view the Indoor Masters Pentathlon, an event for senior athletes.

“I didn’t really want to go, but Phil said he’d pay for the trip,” said Murray. “So I knew me making this trip meant a lot to him.”

While Murray may have gone to Boston reluctantly, he came home inspired. “My juices were going,” he said.

They sure were. Murray embarked upon a rigorous diet and exercise program in which he lost 70 pounds in only six months. “I bought a book called the The T-Factor Diet,” he said. “It said you could eat as much as you wanted as long as you ate the right things. I counted fat grams.”

Murray also undertook running with the same determination. “When I started, I literally couldn’t run to the end of the block,” he recalled. “Before long, I was running six miles a day, six days a week.

But suddenly, as he lost weight, Murray also noticed he was losing muscle mass as well.

“So I spent six months in the gym building up my upper body strength,” he said.

By 2003, Murray was ready to compete. He excelled in Masters events all over the world, but his greatest victory came last July, when, at 55, Murray won the Masters World Outdoor Decathlon in Lahti, Finland in the 55-59 age bracket.

The Masters version of the decathlon is the same as the standard version: The first day is comprised of the 100-meter run, the long jump, the shot put, the high jump and the 400-meter run; the second day consists of the 100- meter hurdle, the discus, the pole vault, the javelin throw and the 1500-meter run. Murray took first place with a point total of 8,087.

Murray’s victory wasn’t without drama. During the first event of the second day – the 100-meter hurdles – he felt his back go out. Murray had sustained a pinched nerve.

The injury might have forced Murray out of the competition if not for the efforts of Ken Stone, a track and field enthusiast who writes a blog for Masterstrack.com.

“Ken went through the Finnish yellow pages and made 10 or 11 phone calls until he found a chiropractor that would come out to the track and work on me between the events,” said Murray. “That kept me limber so I could continue to compete. If not for Ken’s efforts I wouldn’t have made it.”

While Murray’s accomplishment took place at an age when many of his peers are riding around in golf carts, in the world of Masters Track and Field, he is strictly a youngster.

“In Finland there were three 95-year-olds competing,” he said. “There was one runner who was 101.”

Murray may have gotten an omen he might do well in the Masters Decathlon earlier this year in Kenosha, Wisconsin, when he won the Indoor National Heptathlon – which is seven events over two days – in March. He set a world record, totaling 6,122 points.

Two weeks later, he won the Masters Indoor Pentathlon in Landover, Maryland, totaling 4,384 points, another world record.

Murray is modest about his achievements, but admits that those who hear his story are inspired by it.

“I’ve got one speed. I do everything full blast,” he said. “I’ve been working out 25 hours a week for years.”

And when Murray needs a little coaching, he goes back to his early roots. Legendary track coach Phil Mulkey Sr. – who trained Murray at BUS – still works with his long-time pupil. Not coincidentally, the elder Mulkey is the father of Murray’s friend Phil who got him interested in Masters Track. 

Murray in turn shares his experience and wisdom with the Mountain Brook High School track team, working as an assistant to Spartan coach Greg Echols.

It’s a lot of fun working with the kids,” said Murray. “If I can do what I did, they can achieve whatever they want.”

And since Murray seems to have no inclination to rest on his laurels, don’t be surprised to see him running with the 95-year-olds one day.

For the record, I didn’t use Finnish yellow pages to find Bill his chiropractor/masseuse. I just made several trips to the Information Booth at the Technical Info Center hall near the stadium, where an incredibly helpful Finnish volunteer made a series of calls after going online with her laptop. 

I was honored to have played a bit part in Bill’s incredible journey to deca gold.

Deca rivals would have suffered hernias with a Bill Murray circa 2000.

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September 8, 2009

10 Responses

  1. al cestero - September 8, 2009

    what a great story. i competed against bill in my first and only pentathlon in boston 2004. while warming up i saw what i thought was a m35 or m40 guy snapping over the hurdles.a fellow m50 pentathlete said ” he’s in our group..he’s bill murray from alabama…he just got back from germany where he set a world record .” although i was competing with a badly sprained left ankle, hurt the month before, and never did a pentathlon, his presence there provided me with enough adrenaline to take a bronze medal [ my lack of training made me pay dearly in the last event…i was still on the track trying to get to the finishline while my fellow competitors were on the infield getting their picture taken for national masters news ! ] bill was a gentleman and offered to take the m50 guys for a steak dinner. my wife and i had other plans but that gesture made an impression on me. i follow this blog and cheer on my fellow [now m55] friends. bill has worked very hard and has bettered his marks significantly. the stopwatch and tapemeasures don’t lie. i applaude his efforts. add to that his complete metamorphis and i think he deserves all the accolades given including masters athlete of the year…once again…nice going bill…albert

  2. Gary Dixon - September 8, 2009

    I met Bill this past January at an indoor meet in Gainesville, Florida; the start of my comeback from a similiar situation. (You know, the life that happens after college) This story is immediately going up next to my desk at school, in my office at home and in my workout bag……inspiration like this, like Bill, doesn’t come around often. He’s a great athlete, for sure, but more importantly, as Al C stated, a gentleman. Congratulations on a great year Bill, and ’10 will be even better.

  3. Rob Duncanson - September 8, 2009

    Bill – Congratulations on a fantastic year (and masters career)! You are a gentlemen and a sportsman in the truest sense. It has been an honor to compete with you. I wish you all the best for continued success, both on the track and off. See you next season.

  4. Keith McQuitter - September 8, 2009

    Bill is one of the niceist guys I have met that run in the decathlon tho im a age group younger I would like to think that I helped push bill to help hem where he is me being from the east now life in the midwest didnt know bill was older so I could not let hem or anyone beat me in any of the sprints or jumps bill was always the one I had to pull away from,we have become freind and hope to see bill at kamloops,this time as a team mate Bill is A good man this is what ower sport is all about.

  5. bob doran - September 8, 2009

    two words: well deserved …………
    and al said it best , bill’s a great athlete ,and a finer human being

  6. stefan waltermann - September 8, 2009

    Bill’s is the kind of story I want to tell my road running friends; the story of a true ambassador of our sport. I want tell the story of Richard Watson, who will be remembered by many Europeans for moving backwards to ease the pain and finish the 1500 m in the World Championship Decathlon in Lahti, Finland. No other than the president of the European Masters Association EVAA sent me an e-mail congratulating me on buddies like Doc Watson. I like to talk about guts, determination, perseverance, graciousness in defeat, humbleness in victory. I like to talk about the greatest display of pure determination I’ve ever seen on the track. Max Hamlyn arrived at the world championships in Puerto Rico injured, did not really want to run the 1500 m. His wife encouraged him to run and I told him I was there just to see him run. I don’t care if you finish last but run, I said. Max went all out and caught the field by surprise. He went into a stiff headwind, way ahead of everybody. I winced, hang back, tuck in, save energy, I yelled. Of course, he could not hear me, he was racing. The third lap was agony, but he made the field work for every yard, they came closer. The last 300 m must have been a near death experience. Only Sid Howard ran his race and Sid won, everybody else ran Max Hamlyn’s race. Max medaled for England and it was one of the happiest moments of my life as a track athlete. It was marvelous. Those are the things I present to the world, that’s how I get people fired up and on the track. Not the constant bickering, whining, crying and negative talks I read too often on this blog. I’d rather talk about the family, we have as track athletes. I talk about how people like Max Hamlyn, Sid Howard, Earl Fee, Michael Carter, Carroll Blake, Roger Pierce, Frank Schiro and many others who welcomed me to the life of a track athlete. I talk about my first National Championships where I ran into Peter Taylor at the airport. I was used to eating boiled potatoes at mile 40 or so. I felt like asking Peter if they had boiled potatoes at the track as well. Should have asked him but didn’t. One of the few regrets I’ve had since joining the track & field family.
    Yeah sure, we all have our individuality, our quirks, our convictions, and our idiosyncrasies. That’s fine and that’s how it should be as long as we are not aloof, looking down on the less gifted, demanding better treatment or, even worse, demanding respect. This sport has given my athletic life a new purpose. It brought a new quality to my life. I owe this sport nothing short than my best. Bill Murray and Doc Watson are role models, so are many others. Actually, we all can be and should be role models.

  7. Bubba Sparks - September 8, 2009

    I’m a HUGE Bill Murray fan. Even when he beats me in the vault. What a SUPER guy and talent!! LOL!! Bubba

  8. enrico - September 11, 2009

    I make the compliments to Bill, for the reached result. certain in so many should for instance take you beginning from me!! congratulations for the reached result!

  9. Great Australian masters track website: first 10 minutes of video great - September 22, 2009


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