The frailty of Orville Rogers’ 100-year-old blood vessels, held together in part by bypass surgeries two decades ago, sidelined a world record attempt in Cheney on Thursday.
“In this heat, I just think I ought not do it,” said Rogers, as he watched octogenarians 15 years his junior round the track at Roos Field twice in noonday heat that topped 90 degrees. His blood pressure readings were close to 180 on Thursday morning, and hadn’t been falling in the hours before the race.
Rogers, a World War II veteran who now makes his home in Dallas, had been looking forward to the half mile at the U.S. Track and Field Masters National Championships since last year. Meet officials said they have no record of any man over the age of 100 finishing the grueling sprint outdoors, considered by many track athletes to be the toughest event because it requires the longest periods of top-speed taxation on the body.
“It’s the only outdoor record I have any hope of making,” said Rogers, whose competitive running career began at the spry age of 90.
If his ticker cooperates, he’ll be on the track Friday, Saturday and Sunday for shorter races, all of which, he said, have record times for his age category that are not within his reach. His pace has slowed in the past six months, Rogers said with a sly grin, and Thursday’s decision was the first time he has dropped out of a race due to his blood pressure.
Rogers already has gained a place in the public eye, and as the centenarian spoke Thursday, recounting stories about his late wife, Esther Beth, his time in the Air Force and his thoughts on longevity in a tent near Eastern Washington University’s track, several other competitors shook his hand and congratulated him.
His celebrity began roughly a year and a half ago, when a video of his 60-meter sprint against 92-year-old Dixon Hemphill blew up on the internet. Rogers edged Hemphill at the finish line with a lean, earning a victory by 0.05 of a second at the USATF Indoor Championships in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
“He’s always beaten me at the longer races,” Rogers said of Hemphill, who hasn’t entered any of the races that will be held in Cheney this weekend. “But I’d beaten him five times at the 60 meters, according to an article I read.”
“I don’t know why he passed this up,” Rogers said of his rival. “Maybe he’s falling apart, like me.”
Interviews with the Washington Post, Fox News, ESPN and CBS’ “Sunday Morning” followed. His daughter, Susan Eveland, began adding her maiden name back to her full name because, as she told Rogers on Thursday, “you made it famous.”
“We’re very proud of him,” Eveland said, wearing a T-shirt made for Rogers on his 100th birthday in November. Thirty-three members of the family split up the task of walking or running 100 miles that day in his honor, she said.
Rogers didn’t start running regularly until the 1960s, when he was 50 years old, joining races with local groups. Decades passed, and as he approached the age of 90, he realized his times were fast enough to set world records for men age 90 and above.
Rogers began preparations for his first sanctioned track meet in Boston a decade ago. His wife of 64 years planned to cheer him on. But she fell ill three weeks before he was scheduled to race.
“On a Wednesday night, she got to where she had no muscle strength. I took her to the emergency room, and she had kidney failure, and pneumonia. She lived about 10 days,” Rogers said.
His family urged him to run for Beth, whom he always called “a 10.” The license plate on his red Chevy Camaro reads “Beth 10” in her honor. Rogers went to Boston and set two world records, one in the 800-meter and another in the mile run, both of which still stand.
Rogers followed that up with races at the outdoor championships that same year, which were held at Spokane Falls Community College.
The Air Force veteran, who was drafted five weeks before the Pearl Harbor attack, flew a B-36 bomber, known colloquially as “the Peacemaker,” after World War II. His 15-member crew, part of the Strategic Air Command, was assigned a target “north of Moscow,” he said, to drop atomic weaponry if such an action were to be necessitated by the Cold War.
“We were ready,” Rogers said. “I’m very thankful it did not come to that, of course.”
Rogers wrote a book about his life that was released last year, which includes details of his time in the military and as a commercial pilot, titled “The Running Man: Flying High for the Glory of God.” Rogers, who entered the seminary after attending the University of Oklahoma before he was drafted, credited his faith for his longevity.
“People ask me all the time, how did you get to be 100? No. 1, I’m a believer in our Lord, Jesus Christ,” he said. “No. 2, I had a loving wife.”
Thursday’s setback didn’t diminish his enthusiasm for the rest of the weekend. But Rogers did say he was frustrated by the missed opportunity.
“I doubt if I’ll be around a year from now to try it again,” Rogers said, chuckling softly. “Who knows? It’s in God’s hands.”
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