Masters Hall of Famer Bert Morrow dies at 97; was oldest hurdler
Bert Morrow, my hurdler friend, died last week in Canada, reports Norm Green. He was 97. Although this news is saddening, I’m relieved to learn that Norm was able to ship Bert’s Hall of Fame plaque to him while he could still appreciate it. Bert’s last meet may have been the San Diego Senior Olympics in September 2004. Norm’s note is all I know at the moment: “I received word today that Bert Morrow, Masters Hall of Fame old-timer class of 2009, died in Canada on Wednesday, February 10. We were able to deliver Bert’s MHOF plaque to him before his death as evidenced by the attached photo. Please pass this word to the Masters community, many of whom will have fond memories of this exceptional competitor.”Â I haven’t seen an obituary, but it would take 10,000 words to do him justice. When he lived in north San Diego County, he was a great friend, even gracingÂ my 50th birthday party. His dream was holding the M90 world record in the short hurdles. He fell short. But I’ll always remember him as a smiling guy, “the world’s oldest human hurdler.”Â I’ll miss him terribly.
Kelly Ferrin — who included a chapter on Bert in her 1999 book “What’s age got to do with it?” — wrote me later today:
What a great life he lived! . . . I’m just happy he didn’t suffer, wasn’t in the hospital sick and dying, and was just peaceful with his daughter by his side, holding his hand. He deserved to die with dignity and he did. And to have had the Hall of Fame awarded him just a couple weeks prior, was a very cool thing that sent him off with honors and a real sense of accomplishment. He definitely made a positive difference in this world, and left his imprint too … and really, isn’t that what life’s about? He will live on forever in the hearts and memories of soooooo many … I still tell his story and run his video clips in all my talks across the country and will continue to do so. He’s a legend and one we should all celebrate as that’s what Bert would have wanted.
By the way, yes, he was in Canada with his family where he’s been for the last few years. He had a lovely view overlooking the harbor, which if he couldn’t be looking at a track, watching the boats come and go was the next best thing! He was content but I know he would have loved to run those hurdles just one more time — and that’s why it’s soooo cool to have him have his favorite hurdle picture on that award. I really think it might have helped him know it was OK to let go. So off he goes, but forever stays in our hearts.
Here’s what I wrote about Bert in January 2003:
My idol is Bert Morrow. Heâ€™d be yours too, if you knew his story. At age 69, he started hurdling. Heâ€™s since competed in 11 world masters championships. At age 89 he was the oldest human hurdler in history. Then a challenger showed up. A Japanese gent, age 90, ran hurdles â€” taking Bertâ€™s Oldest Hurdler title. Now Bert is champing at the bit to start running barriers this season, his first in the M90 group.
Bert lives about 45 minutes north of me in Escondido, California â€” northern San Diego County. Heâ€™s amazing. When he got back from the 2001 Brisbane world WMA meet, he was angry about having lost the 80-meter hurdles to an 85-year-old Finn. He told me: â€śI canâ€™t wait â€™til Iâ€™m 90. Iâ€™m going to wipe them out when Iâ€™m 90.â€ť
He turned 90 in November 2002. Now watch him fly. His target is Kizo Kimura, the Japanese hurdler who ran the 80-meter event (over 27-inch barriers) in 22.76 seconds in July 2001 at age 90. Morrow ran 26.09 in 2002, but mostly encountered problems with his step pattern. At the San Diego Senior Olympics, for example, he four-stepped almost all the way â€” but then forgot which leg was supposed to come up next. (Four-stepping is devilishly hard even for youngsters; it requires that you alternate lead legs every hurdle.)
I ran against Bert once. We were both in a 300-meter hurdles at Long Beach State, and his lane was next to mine. As I set my blocks, he smiled and thanked me for setting his. He was a little confused. I gently directed him back to his lane. He likes to call me Keith. Fine with me. Heâ€™s the Man.
Playing Boswell to Bertâ€™s Johnson is California gerontologist Kelly Ferrin. She featured him in a book she wrote: â€śWhatâ€™s Age Got to Do With It?â€ť Sheâ€™s been a friend and chauffeur ever since.
Bert also has friends and fans in high places. One is TV talk-show/movie star Rosie Oâ€™Donnell, who paid Bertâ€™s way to several world WMA meets, including Gateshead, England, in 1999. She met him when he was a guest on her TV show.
Some years back, Bert was a TV star himself â€” being featured in a series of Chiquita banana commercials. Was called Banana Man for a while. His morning stretching is described. He also made some money as sponsor/user of an upside-down exercise mechanism.
But stardom has its limits. Early in 2002, Bert was asked to make another TV commercial. When he got to the shoot, it was raining. He prepared to run hurdles anyway. During the filming, he tore a groin muscle in the act of athleticism. Blew half his season.
But heâ€™s back in 2003 â€” raring to reclaim his crown and the records. Iâ€™ll be cheering him from the sidelines. Stay tuned.
Here’s an article that Kelly Ferrin, Bert’s gerontologist friend, wrote when Bert was 89:
Bert Morrow has faced his share of life’s hurdles over the 89 years he’s been on the planet. But as a world-record track and field hurdler who didn’t even run his first hurdle until the age of 69, there were many who thought he was simply nuts taking up such a demanding sport at an age when most are starting to slow down. Who would have known that on his 20th anniversary of hurdling, the sport that some thought just might kill him — actually may have saved his life.
Overcoming challenges has been a part of life for Bert. Both his parents died early — without Bert ever really knowing his father. And although he had more time with his mother, for the most part, Bert was raised by his grandparents who taught him through example that age is just a number and living life every day to its fullest is really the ultimate goal.
It was a lesson Bert obviously took to heart … and a lesson that definitely has contributed greatly to the life he’s led and why he’s still here today talking about his future goals.
“I’ve been lucky, it’s just that simple,” Bert said. “I guess I’m suppose to still be here because I’ve certainly been through enough ‘close calls’ to know that there must be some reason I’m still here. So as long as I can continue to contribute in some way, then I’m happy to do so,” he concluded.
Bert has made his share of contributions including serving five years in the Royal Navy as a commander of torpedo boats in the English Channel during WWII, then as a top executive for General Motors, and since retirement he’s been an example to others on the importance of staying healthy and active with age which also landed him a 3-year stint on national television as the Chiquita Banana Man running hurdles and breaking world-records in his 80s after starting every morning with his ‘Breakfast of Champions’ grains recipe, topped with a banana!
“I’ll never forget the day I got the call from Chiquita,” Bert recalled. “Before the man ever introduced himself the first and only thing he wanted to know was whether or not I ate bananas,” Bert laughed. “I said, well of course I eat bananas, don’t be silly, who is this anyway? Ahh yes, guess it was meant to be.”
It seems like alot of things in Bert’s life have been meant to be and I feel so fortunate having been able to experience a number of them with him. The man is without question an inspiration to all who meet him, regardless of age, people are fascinated by him, his story and his “joive de vive,” (love of life) that emulates through him.
Although Bert’s done things a bit differently perhaps than most people his age, he believes whole-heartedly in the importance of the journey and not just the destination. He’s been this way most of his life, I suspect. He’s not one to follow the crowd, he’s an individualist who beats to his own drum…and it is perhaps that very beat that has contributed to his heart still beating today.
During his working years, Bert admits he was under alot of stress like most in their 40s and 50s. But unlike those who just continue under those circumstances while their health suffers, Bert and his wife decided that life was to short so they forfeited the security of his retirement pension, sold their home and built a 53-foot ketch to live out their dream and sail 19K miles around the South Pacific. The 3 1/2 year journey was an extraordinary, healthy experience for Bert because when he returned he was “fighting fit,” and vowed good health would be his top priority from that point on.
Today Bert is a walking, talking example of that promise and it is one he gladly shares with others. Although he admits he’s been active most his life — jobs, stress, health hiccups, and other aspects of life can make it challenging to maintain it — but he’s convinced and is living proof just how important it is make good health a top priority.
As a world-record hurdler, Bert says he fell in love with hurdling on the first try. “It’s like a feeling of flying,” Bert shared. “And it keeps me foccused on the importance of stretching, exercising, and eating right so I can keep doing what I love to do — and keep encouraging others to be healthy too!”
Bert owns countless records, medals, and championship titles for his track and field accomplishments and is actually being touted as a legend in the sport, yet he’ll be the first to tell you that it’s not about winning — it’s the challenge and camaraderie of competition that really keeps him going. But it’s also a unique health regimen and passion for life that has really made this man a champ!
His diet is one Euell Gibbons would be proud of and his daily stretching and exercise routine is one people of all ages admire. Although he ruptured four discs in his back in his early 40s, he never let them operate and instead chose the nonconventional route of inverting — hanging upside down, coming up to touch his toes 50 times every morning to strengthen the stomach muscles to better support his back. It’s been his routine for over 40 years and as a result, Bert has never had back pain since! In fact, he claims he’s actually healthier now than he ever was in his 40s or 50s and is living proof that health can actually improve with age.
Yet there’s no denying the fact that with age come increased health risks, and even though Bert was in great shape and had not been to a doctor for over 30 years, he did face a bit of a scare five days after his 89th birthday.
“I felt a bit funny that morning and since it’s unusual for me not to feel great everyday when I get up, I thought I’d better get a second opinion,” Bert said.
Another good call by Bert because as it turned out he walked into emergency with a pulse rate of 30 — which is practically walking dead! As it turned out, they put in a pacemaker to keep his heart beating regularly and released him the next day with strict orders to lay low for the next few weeks — no hurlding and no hanging upside down! The doctors were absolutely amazed by his condition and after showing them the pictures of him hurdling five days previously on his 89th birthday, all agreed that hurdling just may have saved his life.
“One has to be in pretty good shape to hurdle,” said cardiologist Dr. Evans. “Let alone as an octogenerian. It’s pretty remarkable to see that not only did Mr. Morrow live through it, he has no side effects and is expected to make a full recovery to be back at his regular training routine in just a few weeks.”
Although it’s obvious that Bert’s healthy living and eating routine contributed greatly to his remarkable recovery, there’s also a powerful inner message that played an equally important role.
“I’m a fighter … always have been and suspect I always will be,” Bert shared. “I could have died numerous times before now but I guess I still have work to do here and fortunatley I’m still passionate about hurdling, life, and living each day to the fullest so that’s what I’m going to continue to do!”
Here’s a story in his local paper, The San Diego Union-Tribune, from September 26, 1996:
Octogenarian hurdler leaves limits behind; pole vault next
SAN MARCOS — Bert Morrow remembers his days as a newcomer to the track and field world when he shocked his peers by breaking the world record in the 80-meter hurdles.
Those were his “hotshot” days, when he was only 76.
Today Morrow, who lives in San Marcos, is 83 and an old hand on the senior track and field circuit.
And when he mounts the starting blocks for his three track and field events this Sunday in the Senior Olympics at El Cajon’s Cuyamaca College, he says he’ll bring with him more maturity than in his “hotshot” days — if that’s possible.
“I don’t think about the records and medals,” Morrow said. “It’s the challenge I like.”
Even if he doesn’t like recognition, he still gets it.
During 14 years on the international senior track and field circuit, Morrow has become something of a legend, amassing hundreds of medals, including 10 world championship golds.
At three meets last month in Canada, Washington and Oregon, his medal count included five gold, four silver and one bronze.
His achievements have gained him notoriety in the athletic endorsement world as well.
In 1993, the Chiquita Banana company picked Morrow over hundreds of other senior athletes to star in a nationally aired television commercial.
The 30-second spot featured Morrow stretching, hanging upside down from a bar, hurdling and, of course, eating bananas — one of his favorite foods.
“I’m not an actor,” said Morrow. “It just happened that I ate bananas.”
The commercial, which ended its three-year run in July, won an award from the Alliance for Healthy Aging.
Morrow said he’s glad if he has provided inspiration for aspiring senior athletes.
“Until I was 69, I had never been over a hurdle,” said Morrow. “Seven years later I broke the world record.”
His record of 16.1 seconds for the 75- to 80-year-old division in the 80 meter hurdles still stands.
For seniors, or anyone looking to keep in shape, Morrow has three pieces of advice: eat right, stretch and exercise.
He keeps in competitive shape year-round with upper body exercises twice a week and running another two days each week.
Morrow said his diet helps, too. Each day for breakfast, he eats a mixture of 13 grains and seeds topped with honey, banana and bee pollen. His pantry is loaded with things such as buckwheat barley, flax seed and millet.
“I’m in the best shape of my life,” Morrow said. He participates in about 18 meets a year.
But just as important as physical fitness to a competitor is mental health and motivation. He credits his grandfather with teaching him never to give up.
“He used to say the difficult is easy,” recalled Morrow. “The impossible just takes a little bit longer.”
In this spirit, Morrow plans to undertake a new challenge next month: pole vaulting.
“It’s not `if’ I master pole vaulting,” said Morrow. “It’s `when’ I master pole vaulting.”
His daring worries friends and family who fear he may injure himself on the track. Morrow understands their concerns, but follows his own path.
“Danger is the spice of life,” said Morrow, a veteran of the Canadian Navy during World War II. “If I was afraid of danger, I wouldn’t be here today.”
“I’m going to take up karate next,” he said.
And here’s a Union-Tribune article from July 8, 2002:
Advanced age doesn’t slow runner down
His hair, what’s left of it, may be as white as a New England winter.
His birth date — Nov. 2, 1912 — may suggest he’s reached the autumn of his years and is prone to fall.
But the spring in his supple, wiry legs tells you what no calendar can: He’s a man for all track seasons.
Past, present and, probably, future.
At 89, Bert Morrow is still doing what he started at 69: winning age-group medals, often in world-record time, as one of the oldest hurdlers on the planet. If he can’t outrun you, chances are he’ll outlive you.
He’s counting the days till his next birthday, when he’ll be old enough to set world hurdling records for 90-year-olds and maybe compete against his only known rival, Kizo Kimura, of Japan.
He’s even talking about taking up the pole vault, high jump and long jump. Problem is, there’s no more competition in his age group than there is fat on his 139-pound body.
“I’ll be running until somebody shoots me — a jealous husband or something,” he chuckled the other day. “I train, eat properly and keep at
it. If you don’t, you go downhill fast at my age.”
On the last Saturday in June, Morrow routinely won the 80-meter hurdles and 100-meter dash in a regional Senior Olympics at San Diego State University.
Then, he accepted the 2002 IDEA Fitness Inspiration Award at a convention of the IDEA Health & Fitness Association.
With eight world age-group records over the last 13 years, the last one in 1998 with a time of 19.18 seconds in the 80-meter hurdles, Morrow felt virtually invincible. After all, he hadn’t had a cold in about 20 years. A daily stretching and sit-up regimen kept him as limber and lively as ever.
And his breakfast of 14 unprocessed whole grains — sweetened with unprocessed honey, topped with bee pollen — gave him the fuel to meet his daily demands.
But a few days after his 89th birthday, there was a strange tingling in his shoulder blades. “I’d heard this business of how you can feel a heart
attack in the shoulders,” he said.
At a friend’s suggestion, he asked a neighbor to drive him to the hospital, where his resting pulse was found to be 30, below the norm if not far removed from that of world-class endurance athletes.
“The doctor tells me, `You need a pacemaker,’” Morrow said. Two days later he had one. A week later he was running again, reassured that he could continue the daily rituals of diet and exercise that define his lifestyle.
“I eat to keep my arteries clean,” he said. “I knew it couldn’t be that. The doc said, `It’s not your arteries, it’s the electricity in your body,
and the heart depends on electricity. As you get older, it dissipates a lot.’ Well, that was news to me.”
At Cypress Court, a senior community in Escondido where he’s lived since March, Morrow is a missionary of movement who freely shares his strategies for hurdling the barriers of age.
“There are about 140 older people here,” he said. “Most are shuffling, and they’re only 78 or 79. I try to show them how to do it.”
Morrow, a retired General Motors executive, might have been among the shufflers had he not changed his attitude about fitness after rupturing four discs in his back in a water-skiing accident more than 50 years ago.
The key to his rehabilitation? Stretching with a inversion device, which decompresses the spine. He adds 40 inverted sit-ups each morning, the better to keep his abdominals rock hard and strong enough to support his back.
And if you don’t think he has abs of iron, try punching them.
“A boxer did,” Morrow said. “Knocked me down, but the only thing he hurt was my pride.”