Discovering the limits of the human body has always fascinated Bob Lida.
Lida was a standout sprinter at the University of Kansas from 1957-59, but a devastating knee injury cut his senior season short and ended his sprinting aspirations for nearly 40 years.
Typically when people enter into retirement, they want to travel or work on their golf game or go fishing. Lida wanted to see how fast he could run 400 meters.
As age and physics continue to tell him his body should begin to give, Lida keeps rewriting the record books. He is the owner of five world records in his age group and is inducted in two Hall of Fames.
Lida, the 76-year-old Wichita resident, will receive his magnum opus on Saturday in Barcelona, when he accepts the 2012 Best Masters of the World award from the International Association of Athletics Federation. He’s the third American to receive such an honor.
“Before long they all end up in shoeboxes anyways and it’s not about winning anymore,” Lida said. “It comes down to how fast I can make a 76-year-old body run. I’d like to do it faster than anybody ever has. I think there is a satisfaction in that.”
* * *
“It was like having your favorite team win the Super Bowl. He’s a gentleman on the track and off the track. When you talk to him, you almost forget you’re talking to one of the world’s best sprinters. I couldn’t ask for a better mentor or friend than Bob.”
— Larry Slaton, 63, who is training under Lida
* * *
Lida does not want to be remembered for his achievements on the track.
He realizes they will be linked with him inevitably, but Lida doesn’t understand why others obsess over them.
“I desperately don’t want that to define myself,” Lida said. “I’ve never considered myself to be that special. I was stunned when I got this thing to go to Barcelona. I don’t think you can go any higher in our sport, but I don’t think that ought to define your life.”
What Lida does believe in is working hard, showing respect and being gracious in victory or defeat. And in recent years, Lida has discovered he has a passion for teaching. For the past three seasons he has coached the sprinters at Kapaun Mount Carmel.
Like everyone who interacts with Lida, the Kapaun kids adore him.
“He’s that grandfather figure to a lot of kids on our team,” said senior sprinter Hannah Bongers. “I’m going to miss a lot of people when I graduate, but the biggest person I’m going to miss is Bob. There is only a few people that truly make an impact on your life and he is one. He’s my greatest role model.”
* * *
“You look around and see how many 76-year-olds can run, let alone walk, and that’s why I’ve said for years that Bob, at his age and the quality at which he runs, makes him the best athlete in the world.”
— Wayne Bennett, 76, who has competed against Lida since 1997
* * *
Lida is modest when you prod him about the secret to his success.
“I’ve never really considered myself exceptional,” Lida said. “I have some good genes and don’t have anything wrong with my hips or knees. I’m just very fortunate.”
A little more insight was gained from a recent trip to McGill University in Montreal to have his body tested and studied. It was uncovered that Lida has the heart of a 35-year-old and the brain of a 56-year-old.
It’s not a medical marvel to Lida. He knows no one his age is working as hard as him.
“I train to exhaustion every time I work out,” Lida said. “I take it to muscle failure. I think by pushing my heart to its max, you tend to keep it at its max. Other athletes don’t train like that.”
Lida holds the world records for his age group in the outdoor 100 (13.49) and 200 (27.73), the indoor 60 (8.56), 200 (27.64) and 400 (1:05.08).
Based on the age-graded tables published by USA Track and Field, Lida’s indoor records in the 60 and 200 are equivalent to 6.35 and 18.72 for his prime. The actual world records are 6.39, held by Maurice Greene, and 19.92, by Frank Fredericks.
Slaton likes to tell a story about one of his rare races head-to-head against Lida where the two were neck-and-neck to the finish line. It was ruled Lida won by less than a tenth and Slaton joked that he let up at the end.
“He looked at me, in all seriousness, and said, ‘Never ever do that,’ ” Slaton said. “That’s how Bob is. He never pulls up, never quits, never backs off. It’s 110 percent all the time.”
* * *
“When you’re starting up the hill, you know how you’re going to feel when you get to the top but you do it anyway because you know when you’re done, you are better than you were 30 seconds ago.”
— Bob Lida on his workouts
* * *
The Soapbox Derby Hill in Wichita is revered among runners. If you can make it up the hill, then you have conquered some serious pain.
Bob Lida doesn’t just run the hill, he sprints it.
“It’s a near-death experience,” he said. “You know the pain is going to go away. It’s not forever. It’s something you have to go through to be where you want to be.”
Every year when Lida turns another year older, he checks the age-grade tables and uses the suggested times as his motivation.
“Honestly, I expect to beat them,” Lida said. “The way that I train, I enjoy extending myself and seeing how far my body can go.”
But Lida’s body has been going so hard for so long, it’s a question of how much longer it can hold up.
Even Lida is curious, but he views it as just one more limit he’s going to test.
“I am going to run until I am physically unable to,” Lida said. “I hope I can keep running until I’m 80. I’m going to keep pushing myself until I can’t push any longer. That’s what I love to do.”