Going the Distance

This is the pace I keep in a 24-hour run,” Lone Wolf tells me as we walk along Pender toward the YWCA on Hornby. “Lone Wolf” is the self-assigned nickname of Michael Breeze, a 73-year-old former banker who’s training for the 24 Hour Relay on June 21. Yes, we’re walking—when you’re in your 70s, preparing for an ultrarun is about teaching your body to slow down.

As my forehead breaks out in a sweat I wish I could say we’re keeping a brisk pace. But we’re not. We’re moving at about the same pace Breeze used during the Sun Run in April and the Vancouver Marathon in May, the pace he’s used to log more than 48,000 miles in the well-worn notebook he’s kept since 1978. Over those three decades, he’s completed 48 half-marathons, 66 marathons, and 25 ultra-marathons, as well as many other races. The first time he did a 24-hour race, in 1986, he had just turned 50. He ran his first 24 Hour Relay in Vancouver to celebrate his 70th birthday, completing a symbolically appropriate 70 miles. This year he hopes to improve on his best result, when he did 80 miles in 2007. For his 75th birthday in 2011, he plans to run the Boston Marathon for the 15th time.

Seventy miles equals 28 times around a 2.5-mile route. Average speed: 2.9 miles an hour. No big deal, as Breeze likes to say, and I suppose it’s not—at least for the first hour. But what about the next 23 hours? At five foot nine and 141 pounds, he’s lean and aerodynamic; even his face is thin and angular. His stride is so fluid and balanced that he rarely suffers the injuries that plague other distance runners.

The son of a tailor, Breeze joined the British civil service at 17, working in the War Office, then left England, following his sister to Canada. He took up squash in Ottawa at the age of 40 as a means of fitting exercise into his day. When his squash partners decided to run a marathon together, he joined them and was hooked. He left the Federal Business Development Bank in 1982, around the time he ended his first marriage, and later fled the harsh winters back east for the West Coast, extending the running season by several months. He no longer holds down a job, but don’t call him a retiree. “Maybe I’ll retire in a few years, but there’s too much to do now.” He volunteers with two charities, models for an art class, has worked as an extra on too many movies to recall—Snakes on a Plane stands out because they allowed him to handle a seven-foot constrictor, and on Stargate Atlantis he played a dead guy with a gunshot wound through his chest. He spends a couple of mornings a week playing chess at a coffee shop on Robson. And he works out every day.

His favourite expression is “It’s no big deal.” Forty-eight thousand miles—that’s Vancouver to Halifax, roughly a dozen times—is no big deal, and running the 24 Hour Relay solo is no big deal. Not to him, maybe, but it’s a big deal to the Easter Seals, recipient of the donations generated by the annual event. Breeze has raised over $17,000. Lea Carpenter, publicist for the run, tells people that he stands outside the supermarket with a collection box. Along with the notebook in his gym bag he keeps donation cards. He admits he’ll hit up everyone he meets between now and race day.

He has little to say about his training program. Is he doing longer distances to prepare for the event? “I’m resting my knees.” How does one eat to maintain energy through a 24-hour race? “I might have a plate of spaghetti in the morning, maybe a sandwich during the night.” Otherwise, he eats and drinks little when he runs, preferring to stay light and cut down on bathroom breaks.

But I’m looking for the grail here. I’ve heard distance runners talk about endorphin highs—what does it feel like to run through the night, go 12 hours nonstop and realize you’re only halfway there? The epiphanies must pop like kernel corn. What goes through a person’s mind?

My questions are starting to annoy him; I can tell because he’s walking faster, forcing me to pick up the pace. “Did you know that Ella Fitzgerald lost her legs to diabetes?” he says, out of the blue. Yes, I knew of the great jazz singer’s ignoble end—her body was weakened, her legs were amputated, her eyes went blind, that inimitable voice was ruined. She was a drinker, and her excesses showed in her weight. “Imagine,” says Breeze, “what she might have done with another 10 years.”

He’s old enough to have seen many friends allow their bodies to lapse into disrepair, their quality of life to degrade. It’s not an end he wants for himself. But what’s the secret of his extraordinary endurance? How can I, at age 36, hope to be anything like him in my 70s? As we reach the door of the Y, I pause to catch my breath.

“You should work out with me,” he says. “I’m doing upper body today.” I can’t, I say, I have to meet my girlfriend, but before I leave I ask him one last time: What’s his secret, the key to longevity, his fountain of youth?

His answer couldn’t be simpler: “Just keep moving.”