Hitting his stride at 75

Heitzman consummate late bloomer

April 7, 2006


The grown man is sitting at his dining-room table, looking back on the infant stages of his athletic career and talking about the former Kansas University basketball players whose hustle helped to motivate him.

"I thought Adonis Jordan played harder than anybody KU's ever had," the man said. "He and Rex Walters left it all on the court. That was when I had just gotten started running competitively, and they really inspired me."

Has it really been so long ago that Jordan and Walters were a speedy guard tandem for the Jayhawks that an adult can talk about how they inspired him when he first participated in athletics?

Yes, it has been that long ago. Jordan is 35, Walters 36.

What gives this story a different twist is that the man energized as a novice athlete by watching the former KU guards was 39 when they were born.

Paul Heitzman, 75, doesn't have a catchy name like Rudy, and he doesn't have a tie to a college football mecca such as Notre Dame, so Hollywood hasn't discovered him yet.

Even so, Heitzman's story stretches the boundaries of reality far greater than Rudy Ruettiger's ever did.

Record setter

A distance runner well known around here for his numerous jaunts to Oklahoma to set national age-group distance running records, Heitzman years ago sold his '86 Mercury Sable when it had 207,000 miles on it.

He won't have to drive far to run in a road race Sunday. He will compete in the five-kilometer run portion of the 10th annual Raintree Run in Lawrence.

Heitzman never ceases to amaze even himself with his latent athletic dominance.

"If you've been a non-athletic person all your life and then all of the sudden you're getting all this success, well, I just couldn't believe it," said Heitzman, his aging dog Lucky at his feet. "I'd wake up in the middle of the night and think maybe I'm just dreaming all this. Maybe none of this happened. I really did wake up thinking that."

Five years in a row, USA Track and Field named him runner of the year for his age group at its annual convention. He holds four national records. By his count, he has won national titles 52 times, the last three coming last month at the national outdoor championships in Boston. He runs about 25 miles a week, and once a week undergoes a grueling speed workout with running partner Wally Brawner, alternating weeks between the tracks at Eudora High and Tonganoxie High.

With each stride along the trails of Sunflower Nature Park, where he does his distance work solo, Heitzman puts one step of distance on a time when his remarkable youthfulness worked against him athletically.

He allowed he felt a little guilty looking back on the days when he took advantage of the half-price privileges afforded to 12-year-olds, gaining admission to movies and ballgames all the way up until he turned 18. He doesn't feel so guilty about it that he doesn't let out a laugh thinking about it.

"At the circus, you could win a prize if they didn't come within two years of guessing your age," he reminisced. "I always won the prize. They always guessed too young. Every time."

Heitzman, who lives on a farm alongside K-10 in Eudora, grew up in Wyandotte. He said he was too small to play football or basketball, but always tried out for baseball. And always got cut.

"I wasn't good enough," he said. "I didn't think I had any athletic ability. I grew up in awe of athletes."

Look at him now

And now, nobody in the country his age is better.

Think Dan Quayle passing the time during his retirement by winning national spelling bees. Picture noted former NHL goon Marty McSorley finding the figure skater within during his twilight years. Imagine Janet Reno beating out Susan Sarandon for the next round of Revlon commercials.

That stuff just doesn't happen.

So how did Heitzman make it happen?

A retired high school teacher who also dabbled in sports broadcasting, Heitzman supplemented his income during many of his teaching years farming. Once he did the math and figured out he was making about $2 an hour for his sweat on the farm, he decided to do construction work in the summers so that he could make $10 an hour.

He was deep into his 50s and deep in a ditch, digging away one hot summer day when he realized he'd had enough of that kind of work. Still, he needed something physical to substitute for the labor. He took up running, and sought the advice of a former student, Van Rose, to design a program for him.

"Most people ask general fitness kinds of questions, and I'm shocked if they stay with it for very long," Rose said. "His is just an incredible story. It makes you wonder how great he could have been if he had been a runner when he was in school."

Said Heitzman: "I try not to think about that because there's nothing I can do about it."

Rose, 60, has won 29 state titles as a boys and girls cross country and track coach at Shawnee Mission Northwest. As a senior at Shawnee Mission West, Rose had a seat in Mr. Heitzman's government class. Nearly 30 years later, a couple of years after retiring from teaching, Heitzman became an assistant coach to Rose at SM Northwest for five years ('93-'98) and ran daily with the high school athletes. Finally, he was on a team.

Run for fun

An avid fisherman and tournament bridge player, Heitzman tends a big garden. He raises feeder calves on his farm and sells them to feedlots once they're weaned at eight months.

Yet, it's the running, the competing, that gives him the most pleasure.

And the most pain.

"I'm always winning, so people think it must be easy for me," said Heitzman, who is 5-foot-9 and weighs 159 pounds. "I can't emphasize to you enough, it's not easy. It's really, really hard. I'm not a natural. I'm heavier than everyone I run against. I have a barrel chest and thick legs. But if you're going to beat me, you're going to have to run through hell to do it. I lead the world in collapses."

Once, he said, he took in four quarts of fluid intravenously after collapsing at the end of a race.

Those times he has been turned into a patient by running had been outweighed, he said, by the healing power of putting one leg after another for miles and miles, up hills, and around bends.

"Obviously, it makes you feel better physically, but it did far more for me mentally," he said. "In 1986, well before I started running, my daughter was murdered. You can't imagine anything worse. I didn't care about anything after that. I didn't think anything mattered. I had some depression. Not severe depression, but enough that I didn't want to have it anymore."

The heartache never will vanish, but life again began to matter to him.

"When I started running, I felt like if I didn't accomplish anything more today, at least I've done something positive," he said. "I haven't been depressed since I started running. After you've been running 17, 18 minutes, the endorphins kick in, and the race gets easier. People who get treated for clinical depression get treated with synthetic endorphins, so it makes sense when you think about it."

As much as he enjoys running, his interest in watching sports lies in other areas.

"I can't think of anything duller than watching a track meet," he said.

He loves his St. Louis Cardinals and his KU Jayhawks. "Stan the Man" Musial was his favorite baseball player, KU's second Charlie Black (1942-43, 1946-47) his favorite basketball player.

"He had a unique shot, kind of a throw shot," Heitzman remembered. "He put it in one hand and threw it. Back then, everyone else still had that two-handed set shot."

Back then, Heitzman could only relate to Black as a spectator. He could relate to Jordan and Walters on an entirely different level. In a sense, he was a peer. Finally, Paul Heitzman was a jock. Still is.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.