Doug Robinson: Utah runner produces feats for the ages (or aging)

Published: Sunday, July 27 2014 6:30 p.m. MDT

Brad Barton (right) coaxed his former coach at Weber State, Chick Hislop, out of retirement to guide his training program again.

Barton family photo

OGDEN — By way of introduction, Brad Barton is a motivational speaker, author and magician who urges audiences to “do something hard” and embrace challenges. For a man who is raising six kids, 40 beehives and 60 fruit trees, he seemed to have taken his own advice and then some, but he decided it wasn’t enough. He undertook a new challenge so physically demanding that it often left him in tears and literally sick with fatigue. Barton, a former five-time All-American distance runner at Weber State, took up competitive running again after a 17-year layoff — at the age of 48.

The short version of what happened next is that he clocked 9:06.68 in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at a meet in Tennessee early this summer and later a 4:17.54 mile in San Diego — times that mean nothing to most readers, so a little perspective is in order. His steeplechase time would have won that race at this year’s championship meets for the Western Athletic, Big Sky and Mountain West conferences. He knocked a whopping nine seconds off the previous 45-49 age-group world record set by Norway’s Nils Undersaker in 1984. As for his mile time: No man his age or older has ever come close to running so fast in that distance.

The Times of San Diego covered the event extensively under the headline: "Magical Olympian Mile: Brad Barton Oldest to Go Under 4:20." The story quoted meet announcer Paul Greer's reaction to Barton's feat: “What we saw tonight was greatness. One of the best masters performances ever, at least in San Diego.”

Balding and gray, Barton toes the starting line against men half his age, some of them collegiate athletes in their athletic prime, most of them easily young enough to be his son. Videos of Barton’s feats have been posted on several running-related websites, some of them drawing as many as 21,000 hits. He has become a masters-level sensation.

Barton, who ran personal-best times of 8:31 in the steeplechase and 4:04 in the mile some 25 years ago, gave up the sport because of a hip injury that began shortly after he fell during the semifinals of the steeplechase in the 1992 U.S. Olympic trials. With degrees in psychology and business, he became a drug-prevention specialist for Weber Human Services. The job required him to make frequent speeches in the community about the evils of drugs, most of them at school assemblies. Deciding that he needed something more than words to capture the attention of his young audiences, he added magic tricks to his program, using sleight of hand as a metaphor for getting tricked into using drugs. The demand for his services became so great that he started his own professional speaking business. The business grew and he has made a full-time living as an international speaker.

“I preach the doctrine of getting better,” he says. “Let’s do something hard. Get on the learning curve. The happiest times of our lives are our most challenging times. Then we settle into an easier, comfortable life, but we need those challenges.”

While espousing such beliefs, Barton privately wondered if he had adequately challenged himself. He had an epiphany while watching a high school track meet that featured a mile race for coaches, an event that consists mostly of middle-aged men gasping through 1,760 painful yards while their athletes cheer them on. Barton decided to give it a try and returned to training at the age of 43.

Most middle-age people choose more sedate activities for their free time – golf, gardening, hiking, fishing, jogging. Barton chose the painful, intense, sweaty pursuit of middle-distance running, the training for which requires torturous repeat sprints of varying lengths on a track.

Speed training is difficult enough when you’re young; it’s another matter when you’re pushing 50. With the onset of age, many things happen to the heart, lungs, muscles and nervous system and none of them are good. It’s a gradual decline that begins in the early 30s.

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