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Courtesy of Donna Thomas
Sid Smith is still running at the age of 88.
He's pretty amazing. About a year ago he told me, ‘I just have to figure out what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.’ He’s 88! —Donna Thomas, Sid Smith's neighbor and Sunday running partner

Armed with a new pacemaker and a new knee, Sid Smith toed the line for the start of this morning’s Deseret News 10,000-meter road race. Normally, he'd be running the marathon, but the shorter distance is his one concession to age — which, by the way, is 88.

Road racing seems to be a magnet for tough, determined people who overcome obstacles in their lives and then go in search for more obstacles in the form of endurance sports. The Depression, World War II, alcoholism, obesity, job loss, joint replacement, age, heart problems — Sid has survived all of that.

He took up running at the late age of 51. He ran his first marathon a few months later — the 1977 Deseret News Marathon — wearing a pair of Hush Puppies on his feet. He went on to run 51 marathons, the last one when he was 80. He needed 6 hours and 50 minutes to finish the last one and decided that was enough. Talk about persistence. When he saw the clock at the halfway mark, he announced, “I used to run the whole thing in that time.”

“He’s pretty amazing,” says neighbor Donna Thomas, who is Smith’s Sunday running partner. “About a year ago he told me, ‘I just have to figure out what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.’ He’s 88!”

Smith has signed up for a half-marathon next month.

Running was a lifeline for Smith. By his 44th birthday, he was out of work, with a wife and four children to support. He had lost his job as manager of Woolworths, and he suspects his drinking had something to do with it.

Sid grew up in a mining community in Montana where the social life occurred in any of the hundreds of bars in town and “the measure of a man was how many drinks he could hold.” A child of the Depression, he and a friend headed south to Salt Lake City to look for work when they were 17 and wound up enlisting in the Coast Guard. Sid went to war with older, hard-living men and saw some action — he was in the Battle of the Philippines — before he returned to the United States at the end of the war, at the age of 20.

“I didn’t think I’d get to 21,” he says.

Back home again, he went to work for Woolworths and worked his way up from the stockroom to management. He met his wife in the store — “I met a million-dollar baby in a five-and-dime store,” he likes to say. Eventually, he was given his own store in Salt Lake City and life was good — until he lost his job. He reluctantly went to work in the insurance business and battled his demons.

“Maybe the best thing that happened to me was losing the job,” he says. “I took inventory of my life.”

He quit smoking and drinking and started attending AA meetings. “Life was a drag,” he says. “I was learning a new business and attending AA meetings.”

He sometimes attended two or three AA meetings in a single day. “I’d wake up at night wanting to crawl up the wall, so I’d walk all night,” he says. “I learned I’m compulsive. I’m a slow learner.”

He needed something to fill the void. He took up walking and slowly it turned into running — first, one day a week, then two, then three. He would run to the next mailbox and walk, run two mailboxes and walk, run three mailboxes and so forth.

The weight fell off, with running and discipline. He joined Weight Watchers and rose from student to teacher. At one point he weighed 147 pounds — “I looked like two 2 by 4s coming down the road,” he says. He covered his fastest marathon in 3 hours, 16 minutes.

“Running keeps me balanced,” he says. “When I came back from a run I love everyone. Running helped me. It still does.”

Closing in on 90, he attends AA and Weight Watchers meetings regularly. He weighs 160 pounds and hasn’t had a drink in four decades. He still runs about four miles daily.

“If I don’t run every day I’m hard to get along with,” he says. “But I’m getting slower and slower and slower.”

His body has withstood the rigors of running fairly well, but he is on his second pacemaker and has had one knee replacement. (“You’re not the man I married,” his late wife once teased him.)

“The last 37 years have been really great,” Smith says. “That’s when I took up running.” He pauses for a moment before he concludes, “Running has been a gift really.”

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. EMAIL: drob@deseretnews.com