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94-year-old runner says getting his miles in now 'takes a little more ingenuity’

Bob Gralley, 87, stands in front of a wall filled with various awards in a 2013 photo

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By NATHAN RUIZ | The Baltimore Sun | Published: May 4, 2020

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BALTIMORE (Tribune News Service) — Five days a week, Bob Gralley steps out of the Oak Crest nursing home apartment he shares with his wife, sheds his mask and goes for a run.

At 94 years old, Gralley still manages to run almost 20 miles a week, using the mile-long loop road around the Parkville facility as a track. In a black ledger, he’s logged every mile he has covered since he started running about 50 years ago, and each trip around the loop inches him closer to 60,000.

Even as the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted much of everyday life, it has not stopped Gralley’s running routine.

“Running is wonderful for me,” Gralley said. “It inspires me. It gets me excited. I get out and I feel tremendous. Frankly — I don't want to brag too much — but at 94, I don’t see many other 94-year-olds out there running around doing the things that I enjoy doing. I don't keep track of it to brag about it. I keep track of it because it's encouraging. It encourages me to do a little more.

“Now, I’m glad you didn’t ask the question, 'Have you gotten faster?' "

A former Maryland basketball player who served in the Navy, Gralley didn’t start running consistently until he was in his mid-40s, deciding he wanted to test himself by seeing whether he could run a mile when badminton and swimming weren’t lightening him up as he had hoped.

At the time, Gralley remembers, casual running was fairly uncommon.

“If anybody saw you running down the street in a pair of shorts,” he said, “they’d think you were being chased by the cops.”

He’s spent the next 50 or so years encouraging others to start running themselves. Jeff Getek, Oak Crest’s regional communications manager, is among those Gralley has inspired.

Getek has worked at Oak Crest for about 13 of the 19 years Gralley has lived there, and Gralley spent much of the first decade trying to get Getek into running.

“All these years, Bob has always kind of teased me, ‘When are you going to join me? When are you going to come out and run with me?’ " Getek, 49, said.

In 2016, Getek finally accepted the invitation. With Gralley’s encouragement, he spent the year training and eventually ran the half marathon at the Baltimore Running Festival, doing so in 2017 and 2019, as well.

“What makes Bob such a special person is not only did he encourage me, but that year of training, he would check in to see how it was going, how it was progressing,” Getek said. “He’s a former U.S. Navy veteran, so he would give me a friendly kick in the pants when I needed it, too. I will always appreciate him for that.”

Gralley himself is a regular in the Baltimore Running Festival, missing at most a couple of years in the event’s two-decade history. In recent years, he has run the half marathon alongside his sons, Kevin and Craig, and Kevin’s daughter, Sara. The 2019 event in October marked his 19th half marathon to go along with the 42 full marathons he ran in his younger years; his personal best of 3:04:26 came in both the New York and Boston marathons as a 56-year-old in 1982.

Gralley fully intends to participate in the 2020 festival, though he recognizes that the pandemic could still affect its scheduling. For now, running represents a chance to get out and breathe fresh air, though he enjoys the comforts that come with being home and playing computer games, solving crosswords, reading books and spending time with his wife, Betty.

With the gym at Oak Crest closed like others around the country, Gralley is also finding ways to work out at home.

"It takes a little more ingenuity now," he said.

Oak Crest, which has reported 24 cases of the coronavirus in residents and staff members to the state as of Wednesday, has asked residents to wear face masks when in shared indoor areas, which in Gralley’s case is the hallway outside the apartment where he and Betty go to pick up mail. Once outdoors, Gralley runs around the facility without a mask, which Getek said is acceptable because Gralley follows other protocols such as social distancing and avoiding groups.

Oak Crest, like many similar facilities, has worked to ensure residents have no need to leave, delivering meals, packages and groceries directly to their doors. Gralley is avoiding leaving the campus on his runs, sticking to the same loop road where 10 years ago he ran his 50,000th mile as Oak Crest staff and residents cheered. Getek added that if Gralley or another resident did leave Oak Crest, they would need to be screened and have a temperature check done each time upon their return.

“I don’t go outside the property,” Gralley said. “Once you go outside the property these days and come back in, you’ve got all kind of tests and so forth. I'm not into that.”

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s stay-at-home order allows for outdoor exercise as long as social distance guidelines are followed. Gralley encourages those who haven’t exercised before this quarantine period to use it as an excuse to start.

“Unfortunately, in life, sometimes, we don’t try to do things,” Gralley said. “Instead of saying, ‘Well, I think I’ll give it at least a try,’ we don't go that far. We say to ourselves, ‘Oh, maybe I don’t really like exercise, I don't think. I haven't tried enough of it, but I don't think I'll try.’

“Give it a shot. If you don't try, you'll never know."

A half-century after his first try, Gralley is still going. Even during a pandemic, he has no plans to stop.

“He really sets an example for all of us that there are no excuses when it comes to trying to be mindful of your health and wellness when you can," Getek said. “We’re all looking for these little sources of joy and little sources of normalcy, and he’s providing that to a lot of people right now.”

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