Bob Lutz: Magician pulls running shoes out of his hat

You swear there’s some magic involved when Max Armstrong, who has pulled a few rabbits out of his hat during his 80 years, runs up one side of Pikes Peak and down the other.

People his age aren’t supposed to run marathons. Especially not marathons that involve running up a mountain that increases in altitude from 6,000 to 14,115 feet and then running back down.

Armstrong defies logic, though. And when you consider he didn’t even take up running until he was just a few months shy of his 65th birthday, you can roll logic up in a big ball and make it disappear.

These references to magic aren’t by happenstance. Because Armstrong, on top of doing almost everything else in a colorful and diverse life, has made his biggest mark sawing women in half.

Not literally. It’s just an act.

“Magic has always been something that’s kind of haunted me,” said Armstrong, who will be on the course as a zone manager during Sunday’s Prairie Fire Marathon. “I got into it when I was a kid, just as a hobby. My uncle showed me stuff, a bunch of card tricks. And I never could get away from it.”

Armstrong, who graduated from East High in 1951, has put a lot of variety into his life. He was in the Marine Corps and a captain when he got out. He then spent 22 years in the Wichita Police Department and was a captain when he retired in 1977, at the age of 44.

He went on to own the Aloha Restaurant near Towne East, taught criminal justice classes at Wichita State and ran several martial arts studios in Wichita, specializing in judo and aikido.

“Aikido is a good form of defense with police officers,” Armstrong said. “It helps control people without really hurting them.”

Armstrong grew up in Dallas and, because his father was a troubleshooter for an oil company, went to 13 schools in nine states. He started high school at East and has been in Wichita since.

But it wasn’t until 15 years ago that he took up running. It wasn’t until 15 years ago that he ever thought about taking up running.

“I hated running,” Armstrong said. “I never wanted to run when I was in school. But I had to get out of the martial arts business when I started going on the road doing these magic shows for schools, and I wondered what I was going to do to stay in shape.”

Armstrong first tried walking, he said, but became bored. Not enough action.

“That’s when I took off running,” he said.

And he’s never stopped. Armstrong estimated he’s run in 275 races and in two weeks will participate in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., along with about 30,000 others.

“I try to use my running as inspiration for others,” Armstrong said.

A couple of years ago, he was sitting in a restaurant in Colorado and a man next to him saw Armstrong wearing a running T-shirt.

“He was kind of slumped over and he saw my shirt and said he couldn’t do anything like that,” Armstrong said. “I asked him how old he was and he said, ‘Fifty-four.’ Well, I was 77 or 78 at the time and I told him he was never too old to get out and do things.”

Armstrong doesn’t know whether the man took up running. But probably not. Let’s face it, there aren’t many people like Armstrong.

“Now I like running,” he said. “And I’m training real hard right now for this upcoming race. Running a marathon isn’t the hard part. The hard part is training for a marathon, all the miles you put in.’’

Armstrong’s friend and magic act partner, Connie Little, trains with him. This is the same woman who levitates above the stage to the amazement of school kids during Armstrong’s magic show.

“He’s extremely difficult to keep up with,” Little said. “Max is such a go-getter. He got me into running the Pike’s Peak marathon and we’ve run that twice now. And the magic is wonderful. I was a shy girl who wouldn’t come out of my shell. How he commandeered me to help with his show I’m not sure. When I started, I never thought I would get cut into pieces or float in the air.”

Armstrong spends his summers in Colorado Springs as the resident magician at Santa’s Workshop, a Christmas-themed amusement park.

“I leave in May and come back the first part of September,” he said. “And I do about 450 to 500 shows. People always ask me about my best trick and I tell them it’s the one that works. I do mostly larger magic — platform, stage magic.”

But there’s no sleight of hand when it comes to running and Armstrong is determined to keep his 80-year-old legs churning.

“I haven’t run a marathon for a couple of years,” Armstrong said. “I did run a half-marathon three or four weeks ago in Hutchinson.”

Armstrong doesn’t just run, he runs fast.

“He runs circles around people a lot younger than he is,” Little said. “Max has done more in his life than any four people I know.”

Related stories from Wichita Eagle