The Healthiness Of A Long-Distance Walker
Tue, 01/31/2012
Special To The Jewish Week
Still fit at 75, Shaul Ladany was a world-class race walker and an Israeli Olympian. Photos courtesy of Ben-Gurion University
Still fit at 75, Shaul Ladany was a world-class race walker and an Israeli Olympian. Photos courtesy of Ben-Gurion University

Dr. Shaul Ladany is a fascinating person to speak to. That is, if he stops moving long enough to hold a conversation. A world record-holding long-distance race walker, who — at the age of 75 — still practices for several hours daily and competes in 35 events a year, Ladany was recently elected to the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. He is the first and only Israeli athlete to be given this honor.

For this highly accomplished professor of industrial engineering and management, race walking has been a way of life. It is what has kept him going in spite of hardships that would have sidelined most other people. Race walking has given Ladany a way of moving past personal experience of the horrors of the Holocaust and the terrorist attack on the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. It has also helped him clear hurdles like lymphoma and skin cancer. “I believe that if I didn’t continue to engage in physical activity as I am used to, I wouldn’t be able to move,” he told The Jewish Week in a phone interview.

While Ladany might be considered an extreme walker, it is well documented that those of us who walk less and more slowly than he can still benefit greatly from walking. In August 2009, Harvard Men’s Health Watch published a report on an analysis done by a team of scientists of 18 different highly regarded studies on walking and cardiovascular health. The researchers found that walking reduced the risk of cardiovascular events by 31 percent and lowered the risk of dying (during the study period) by 32 percent. The benefits were equal for both men and women, even those walking distances of just 5.5 miles per week at a casual pace about two miles per hour. Not surprisingly, the best cardiovascular health outcomes were for individuals who — like Ladany — walked longer distances, walked at a faster pace, or both.

Ladany chronicled much of his life story in his autobiography “King of the Road” (Gefen Publishing House, 2008). In a matter-of-fact style, he tells of his childhood in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and then his family’s flight to Hungary during WWII. Having lost extended family members to the gas chambers at Auschwitz, Ladany, his parents and his sisters ended up in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp for six months. They were “Kastner Jews,” part of a group of Hungarian Jews ransomed from the Nazis by  journalist and lawyer Rudolf Kastner, and transferred to neutral Switzerland in late December 1944. (Kastner was assassinated in 1957 after being accused of treason by an Israel court).

After the war, Ladany returned with his family to their home in Belgrade. However, they soon decided to make their life in the newly established State of Israel, arriving there in late 1948. He was 12 years old at the time.

“I was not an athlete in high school,” Ladany told The Jewish Week, though he did write in “King of the Road” that as a young boy in Switzerland, he insisted on keeping up with the older children on the long walks they took on school outings. Military training, however, introduced Ladany to running, and it was from that point that he hit the road and never looked back.

While serving in the IDF, he trained alone in long distance running during his free time. “I did not have the real speed of a sprinter, but I had the endurance,” he recalled. He ran the first marathons ever held in Israel in 1956. “Most people looked on me like I was a crazy person,” he laughed. “Running for physical fitness was not common at the time. People thought of it only as punishment for soldiers.”

Soon, Ladany started to participate in long-distance marches. In short order, he found that he was walking faster than most runners. “By 1962, I switched over completely to race walking,” he said.

The technique used by race walkers is different than that used by runners. Ladany explained that in race walking there are three official requirements: one leg must always be on the ground at any given moment; the leading leg must land on the heel, while the knee is unbent; and the straight front leg must stay locked until it is vertical under the body. “I had no trouble adapting to this, since I was already walking like that on those long marches,” Ladany recalled. “What I started to work on seriously was my speed.”

When he arrived at Columbia University in New York in 1965 to work on his Ph.D. in business administration, he began training with past Olympians and other Olympic aspirants like himself. Ladany became one of the best race walkers in the world in the 1960s and ’70s. He excelled in the long distances, and he still holds the world record in the 50-mile walk (7:23:50) and the Israeli national record in the 50-km walk (4:17:07). 

Ladany was the only male track and field athlete to represent Israel at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968 and at the Munich games in 1972. He and his roommates survived the terrorist attack on the Israeli athletes by escaping out the back door of their housing unit in the Olympic village. Ladany explains in his book his theory as to why the terrorists attacked units 1 and 3, but not unit 2, where he was staying. He theorized that the terrorists, who had infiltrated the Olympic village staff, learned that the marksmen on the Israeli team were housed in unit 2. As village insiders, the terrorists would have been aware of the rules requiring all marksmen to keep their weapons and ammunition with them at all times. Ladany supposes that this knowledge caused the attackers to decide to avoid the possibility of armed resistance from the athletes in unit 2.

Having escaped death on German soil twice, Ladany chose not to let the terrorists deter him from his love of his sport. He continued to train and compete in dozens of marathons (42 km) and in longert distance competitions. Even now, although he competes in fewer events, he still walks 15 kilometers every morning, and sometimes an additional distance in the afternoon. “I walk up to 10 hours at a time when I am training for a competition,” he said. 

Ladany likes to tell people he has lived “a double life.” In addition to having been awarded the Pierre de Coubertin Medal for outstanding services to the Olympic Movement in 2007, he has been recognized for his contributions to the field of industrial engineering. A professor (emeritus) at Ben-Gurion University, he is a world leader in the development of the field of Operations Research in Sports, and in 2008 the Israeli Industrial Engineering Association honored him with its Life Achievement award.

“My walking time has always been my most productive,” Ladany reflected. “I am able to think and devote my attention to problems, plan lectures, think about research, and do mathematical calculations in my head.”

Walking has kept Ladany healthy. “I have very little encounters with physicians,” he said with a chuckle. “I am generally healthy, but I had a close call 10 years ago when I was diagnosed with early stage lymphoma, for which I had radiation and chemotherapy treatments.” Not surprisingly, his doctor found at the time that he had a strong “athlete’s heart.”

He has been fortunate not to have suffered any serious injuries over the years. “I have had some hamstring problems, but that’s it,” he shared. “There are far fewer injuries with race walking than with running, because of the lower impact.”

Ladany recommends walking for everyone, regardless of one’s initial fitness level. “Whatever your level of fitness, start gradually,” he advises. He recommends building up distance first through repetition, and later focusing on increasing speed. “And you need good teeth,” he joked. “For grinding when you feel the discomfort.”

Ladany walks in and around his home in the Negev town of Omer, where he lives with his wife of 51 years, Shosh; together they have one daughter and three grandchildren. Because of cancerous skin lesions he developed from too much sun exposure over the years, he has begun training indoors. He walks the short track he created in his house by rolling up the carpets and moving the furniture out of the way.

“The only problem with this,” he said, “is that our dogs like to lie down right in my path.” However, the unflappable and determined Ladany reported that he has succeeded in getting them up and out of the way — and with the training program.