SI Vault
Dan Levin
October 06, 1969
Bill Emmerton, a 49-year-old Australian who lives in Los Angeles, rarely stops running—unless a grizzly bear stands in his path or he passes out. Sometimes he even gets paid for it
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October 06, 1969

Man Believed Sane Runs 105,000 Miles

Bill Emmerton, a 49-year-old Australian who lives in Los Angeles, rarely stops running—unless a grizzly bear stands in his path or he passes out. Sometimes he even gets paid for it

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"I feel like a green salad," says Emmerton.

"I can be hard about some things." says Norma, "but when it comes to a blister I just melt."

When she finishes a pre-workout massage, Emmerton lies dreamily on the table for about five minutes. Then he slips into his running togs and warmup suit. He swaths his middle, next to the skin, in brown wrapping paper, "to keep me from getting a cramp," he explains, "to keep the muscles warm."

In Los Angeles, Emmerton often works out at a college track near his apartment. Typically, he jogs the first quarter mile with a sliding, almost flat-footed gait, arms bobbing loosely up and down. Norma sits on the grass, watching. Suddenly she grabs her purse, and without a word, as if caught up in a dream, shuffles off around the track for two or three miles. Emmerton is moving powerfully now, at a five-minute-mile pace, a pleasure he can't afford on a very long run. He leans forward, looking as if he could run through a wall. He glides, like a cross-country skier on level ground.

Back in their apartment after a workout late last spring, the Emmertons sat with a map of Australia. He drew a line from Perth on the west coast, east and then southeast to Melbourne, a distance of 2,200 miles, much of it across the Null-arbor Plain, one of the bleakest, most inhospitable stretches of desert in the world. "I'm going to make this run next year," he said with a blissful look. "As far as physical effort is concerned, it will be equal to anything man has undertaken. A party of English people ran out of water there several years ago, and they found their bodies two weeks later." Norma could hardly contain her glee. "Ooh, what a ghastly place that Nullarbor Plain will be," she said.

The planning was sincere, but other thoughts soon intruded. Bill Emmerton was nearing 50, and perhaps running was no longer enough. Within a year he might return to Australia, possibly to open a boys' camp or to try sports announcing once again, and he spoke of fishing and camping, different pleasures—sweet, painless ones. "I want to have some fun in the time I have left," he said, and it was strange to hear him speak that way, for while the faces of friends had changed, their bodies grown heavy, Bill Emmerton had endured, almost as always. How would it be to slow down, he wondered, to be molded by inactivity and the passage of time? And what of pride? Wouldn't it keep him going? But pride, too, made him think of Norma. She had worked in a large book-distributing firm since their marriage, gladly, uncomplainingly, while he had contributed very little to the household. "Norma should be taken out to nice places," he said.

He didn't feel right. It appeared unlikely that he could ever make a living as a runner in the U.S. To be sure, he had earned $850 by wearing wool products and drinking fruit juices during the first Death Valley run, and another $900 or so for wearing Sungard lotion on the second run—one of the most convincing product endorsements of all time; he didn't even get pink.

But running wasn't paying off as he thought it should. And the attitude of others hurt more than he admitted. "When a guy starts out he works for peanuts," a representative of Sungard had remarked, "but he usually starts out at 19. Bill didn't get his break till he was 48. We didn't create his ability, but we did make him a marketable commodity."

He thought a great deal through the spring and early summer, and following the Houston-to-Cape Kennedy run he even rested for a few days. Running didn't seem so much fun anymore. Then, in the first part of August, he did a fast five miles and on the way home, suddenly responding to something deep within him, he bolted 300 yards up the steep hill to his apartment, happy as a kid on the last day of school. He startled a much younger man who had stopped walking halfway up to catch his breath. "If I tried to run even 50 feet like that I'd have a heart attack," the man told Norma, who was following. Emmerton was gleeful when he heard about it. He went 15 miles every day for the next week and was enthusiastic about the income he would get from a TV commercial he made for Olds-mobile. At dinner after one run, a friend posed a hypothetical question: "What would you do," he asked, "if a doctor ordered you to stop running or face possible death?" Bill Emmerton didn't hesitate. "Why I'd go out the next day and do my 10 miles," he said. "Can you think of a better way to die?"

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