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Dashing Through His Golden Years, Miller Spreads The Word

Photos courtesy of Bob Hallett and Blaine Penny.

Having made the one-hour train ride up from Southampton, a mother and her daughter are enjoying a night on the town in London.

It’s getting a bit late, though, around 11 o’clock on a Sunday night. So they’re starting to wind down, thinking about grabbing a bite.

Strolling across London Bridge toward them is a three-person party.

And, truth be told, the ladies may have heard the group before seeing them. Because one of the strangers is creating a distinctive clanking sound — that would be Gerry Miller, who is marching along with his friends Blaine and Sarah Penny.

Explains Penny: “Gerry had all these medals around his neck and they’re clinking together — like a cow bell.”

The three Calgarians have just left the awards banquet of the Abbott World Age-Group Marathon Championships.

Hence Miller’s loud collection of hardware:

  • One medal for finishing the London Marathon
  • One for completing all six marathon majors (Tokyo, Berlin, Chicago, Boston, New York, London)
  • One for capturing the world title in his age category, 80 and over

At the after-party, Miller had been treated like a celebrity. There were photographers, all eager to coax a pose out of the beaming 84-year-old, who, that very morning, had conquered his latest 42.2-kilometre test in 5:10:54. (“Here I am, finally competing in the world championship — and I win the damn thing. That was a shock to me.”)

There were interview demands, selfie requests.

“Gerry stole the show — point blank,” said Penny. “The oldest runners were presented last … sort of the grand finale of the night. It was like the paparazzi piled in to get a piece of him, to get his photo. He was the highlight of the night, for sure.”

Eventually, Penny and his wife decided it was time to depart — “Gerry would have stayed much later” — so Miller gathered up his medals. The trio began the long walk to the tube station.

That’s when they bump into the mother and daughter from Southampton.

Striking up a conversation, there’s no indication that the chatty old man standing in front of the ladies is at the tail-end of an exceedingly long day. “Gerry wasn’t hobbling along like he’d just run a marathon,” said Penny. “Just walking his normal gait.

For Miller, the audience is small — a couple of non-running passersby on London Bridge — but his trademark charm never wavers.

“Gerry, of course, being as friendly as he is,” said Penny. “They asked him about his medals and what they meant. We said, ‘Oh, he just ran a marathon today.’ And they’re, ‘Are you kidding me? A marathon? Tell me again how far a marathon is.’ So we explained and they’re like, ‘Holy smokes.’ They were blown away.”

They all walk together for the next 10 minutes, everyone soaking up Miller’s aura.

“They were completely gobsmacked by what he had done and what an inspiration it was,” said Penny. “Honestly, it was life-changing for these people.”

No matter how brief, the Oct. 3 encounter seems to strike a chord with the daughter, in particular.

“I got the sense she walked away feeling if an 85-year-old man can run a marathon and still be out partying and walking around town,” said Penny, “there are no excuses stopping us from pursuing our life goals. And, wow, that’s the impact he can have on people. It was pretty cool.”

Mind you, this is no one-off.

In the summer, a woman named Louise Gallagher, while walking her dog, crossed paths with Miller. She blogged on about the experience: “In our brief encounter Gerry reminded me of the value of ‘attitude.’ His was infectious. Exuberant. Invigorating. So much so, I wanted to drag my running shoes out from the back of the closet and hit the trails again … I don’t know when I will leave this earth (none of us do) but I do know, I want to spend each day with an attitude like Gerry’s. Active. Engaged. Eager to take on new challenges. Excited about the next opportunity.”

Penny understands. Talking about the positive influence of his close friend — an elite runner, an elite person — he repeats something he’d said earlier in the conversation.

“The world needs more Gerrys.”

Sitting across the restaurant table the other day — and eagerly anticipating the $1.99 breakfast special — is the legend himself.

To the interview, Miller brings a stack of notes and brochures, plus those medals. He is wearing the London Marathon’s official T-shirt. He’s got photos.

And personality. Oodles of personality.

He introduces himself, then reels off 14 minutes’ worth of background information. The only interruptions are well-wishers coming by to bask in his Gerry-ness.

Miller taps the brakes on his spiel to take a sip of coffee. “I’ve been talking quite a bit,” he said pleasantly. “What do you want to know?”

Prompted, he starts at the beginning.

His parents split up when he was three years old. Grandparents took in his big brother. His big sister stayed with their mother. But Miller and his twin brother Don went into foster care.

“It was traumatic, a bit tragic, but everybody overcomes things.”

Moving to a farm near Galahad, in central Alberta, was less about a family wanting to look after a couple of unfortunate kids and more about securing a couple of labourers. “We picked roots. We picked rocks. We cleaned barns. We milked cows.”

They rode a horse to their one-room schoolhouse, put her in the barn, fed her, then went into class. “Sitting at a desk was always a pleasure because we worked so damn hard before school and after school and getting to school.”

A few years later when the foster family took over a dairy operation, the boys’ chore-load increased to include delivering milk before school. The pace was relentless.

But even on this, Miller puts his signature spin.

“What I’m getting at here, I was in some excellent cross-training every day of the year,” he said. “When you grow up with rural roots, it seems to me that you automatically become relatively fit, because you’re working or you’re running or you’re going to school. You’re always busy.”

Following graduation, the twins found work on the rigs.

Miller squirrelled away enough cash to attend the University of Alberta, where he became an academic standout. The University of Oregon recruited him to be part of a research team. In Eugene, he earned his PhD.

In September 1966, Miller arrived at the University of Calgary as an education professor.

“The campus was, I think, two buildings. They were just beginning to plant trees, to landscape,” he said. “I remember running from Dalhousie to my office early in the morning — I just loved that — through a farmer’s field at that time.”

As the year ticked by, Miller, as a husband, a father of four, kept moving. There was squash, handball. He jogged regularly. “I was always interested in fitness. Always active. Always enjoyed being out.”

The stakes changed one day when he was registering for a 10-K. John Stanton, founder of The Running Room, wandered by. “He said, ‘Miller, I don’t know you, but pay a little more, and go run the half-marathon. You’ll be just fine.'”

And he was, more or less. He won his age group, but he was “completely exhausted and shaky.”

But Miller was not done expanding his horizons.

One of his adult sons, training for a marathon, encouraged him to come out for their weekly long runs. It went so well that Miller travelled Vancouver and took on his first marathon. At 58, he was hooked.

Since then, there have been dozens more. He says 50, then rounds down to 45. This on-the-fly estimate is something that would make his good friend Bob Hallett cackle. “I ask him now and then, ‘How many marathons have you run?’ And he’ll throw some number out. And I’ll go, ‘Oh, Gerry, I’m sure it’s twice that.’ I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s run 60 or 70 marathons.”

What cannot be debated is Miller’s status on the local scene. He’s a fixture.

Penny remembers reading a story about this little senior citizen, striding swiftly through his golden years. Despite having not yet met Miller…

“He instantly became my new hero — ‘I want to be like Gerry when I grow up. I want to run forever,'” said Penny. “You get a two-dimensional view from reading an article. Then you meet him and he’s four or five dimensions, right? Even though he’s nearly 85, he’s so youthful, he’s so optimistic.”

Miller often serves as a “pace bunny.” Able to maintain a steady clip for the entirety of marathons, he’s an in-race aid to newbies. “Just a positive voice and a mentor,” said Penny. “Talk to anyone who’s run within one of his pace groups and they’re like, ‘Oh my god. How can I not be inspired by his message, by his walking the talk?'”

When MitoCanada, headed by Penny, was aiming to raise awareness for mitochondrial disease by setting a Guinness World Record for most linked people to complete a marathon, Miller demanded to be included. They did it — 2017 in Calgary — and, of the 112 tethered runners, he was no weak link.

“He was one of the strongest,” said Penny. “Seriously. I kid you not. He was like a horse out of the barn, just wanting to go.”

No wonder he’s so well known. Trotting down any road in Calgary, he draws waves and greetings, according to Hallett. One time he and Miller were jogging in a park in Berlin. Suddenly? “This person goes, ‘Gerry! Gerry Miller!’ You can go across the world. And if he hears his name, he stops and has a conversation.”

Four years ago, he was honoured as one of “The Top 7 Over 70” in Calgary.

He’s appeared on television, in newspapers and websites. And now that he’s a world champion, attention is as keen as ever.

He finds the fuss a little baffling.

“I’m a farm boy at heart … this has just been completely unexpected,” said Miller. “You know we’re all ordinary, but, all of us, we can make a difference. We need to be proud of that. When our glass is half full, we’re better able to help those who are less fortunate. It’s OK to spread the word, because maybe it’s going to help one person.”

His gospel isn’t based on religious leanings or running regimens.

Rather, he preaches about the critical nature of human contact, of interaction, of engagement, offering free lectures on the subject to running groups, to seniors homes, to whomever.

Miller, who has 11 grandchildren, had made his peace with “iPads and Instagram and whatever,” but he feels strongly about youngsters staying active and staying plugged in socially. “If we could keep kids involved, there’s a good chance they’re going to overcome these terrible tendencies that some of them have — harming themselves or harming others.”

Miller pauses before continuing.

“Yes, sharing happiness and sharing tragic moments — it’s the sharing of emotion,” he said. “I cry a little more than others because of some of this stuff. But we have to continue to share.”

Pestered often about the secrets to a long and active life, Miller is the picture of health.

An upright 5-foot-4. A trim 130 pounds.

Living in Deer Run, he likes to hit the trails in Fish Creek Park. Three times a week, he runs eight to 12 kilometres, with longer jaunts on the weekends.

He doesn’t wear glasses — “I can read the newspaper in bed” — nor does he require hearing aids. He doesn’t smoke. He drinks only an occasional beer.

At meal time, he keeps his portions small. “I eat fruit, vegetables, a little bit of meat. But coming from a farm, I’m not fussy.”

His doctor recently told him: “Gerry, you’re like a 25-, 30-year-old. Your heart rate is better than mine. So you can just keep running.” But he has no coach, no trainer, no physiotherapist.

In stride, he tilts forward, eschewing the (formerly) long-held notion of heel-landing. “I’m sort of a natural runner.”

Refusing to over-do it — “If something happens, I slow down” — Miller on the limp is not a common sight.

For loggers of heavy miles, however, there is always the potential for adversity.

At the 2008 New York Marathon he tripped and landed on his noggin. Dragging himself to the side, he regrouped, refusing to quit and declining medical help. “If they take you off the course, you don’t get back on,” he said. “It had been raining, so there were various clothing items along the way I was able to use to keep the blood out of my eyes.”

One time at the Boston Marathon, in the face of a freezing rain, he got hypothermia. “I was getting dizzy and losing balance.” That time, he was yanked.

Asked about Boston in 2013, the year of the deadly bombing, Miller nods and pauses.

He clears his throat before telling the tale.

He had trotted most of the way with his chum Bill Iffrig. But in the late stages, hearing bystanders hollering his name, Calgarians as it turned out, Miller veered over for a quick chat. Naturally, his pal carried on — and directly into chaos.

Iffrig is recognizable from iconic photographs — “The old fellah in the orange T-shirt who got blown (over by the blast). He got up and crossed.”

As for Miller himself: “If I hadn’t stopped …”

As it turned out he missed the finish-line bombing by barely a minute. (“I saw someone with their leg dangling from their body, it was terrible,” Miller told the Calgary Herald.)

The horrifying experience left him “broken,” according to Hallett, who, the following year, accompanied Miller to the race. “It meant a lot to him to get back in the saddle and re-run Boston and be there in the name of ‘We will not give up. We will not be overcome,'” said Hallett. “It had a big healing effect on Gerry.”

Said Miller: “That’s the kind of friend Bob Hallett has been.”

Of the many ways to describe this gentleman, appreciative is certainly one.

In fact, it is a striking aspect of Miller. More than a dozen times in the conversation, he talks about “blessings.” And Penny says he means it. A trip down the trail is never taken for granted. “Gerry is truly grateful every day he wakes up and he can put on his running shoes,” he said. “A lot of people get too caught up in (stuff like) fancy watches collecting umpteen numbers of data points, whereas Gerry is just like, ‘I’m going for a run. I’m going to listen to the birds. I’m going to soak it all up. I’m going to have a great chat with a buddy.’

“I don’t think there’s any magic formula, but the biggest thing is his positive, optimistic attitude. That does flow over into him physically. It flows over into everyone he touches.”

Hallett echoes that sentiment.

“Gerry is absolutely the most precious person on the globe.”