Keeping with tradition, man runs 80 miles on 80th birthday

EAU CLAIRE, Wis. — Bernie Hoefgen of Eau Claire turned 80 in early August and commemorated the milestone by doing something that not a lot of 20-year-olds, much less octogenarians, do: walking 80-plus miles — more than 160,000 total steps — over four days.

This was the 40th consecutive year that Hoefgen used extensive exercise to celebrate turning another page on the calendar.

“When I turned 40 in 1981, I began the tradition of celebrating my birthday by a physical activity,” he said. “I called this the ‘thank God I am not dead yet birthday celebration.’ “

Hoefgen, who is retired, said he didn’t start the tradition by walking long distances in the same month as his birthday.

“For 28 years I did a variety of activities,” he said, “beginning with a 10-mile run, which led to running the Twin Cities Marathon five years later. Then I rollerbladed one year and began biking my age in one day.

“After 28 years of these activities I began walking my age in four days in 2009,” which continues to this day. “The activity was arbitrary but was always something that was challenging and that I knew I could accomplish. I started walking because biking my age in one day became unpleasant.”

Dr. Martha A. Hidalgo, an internal medicine physician with Marshfield Medical Center in Eau Claire, said it is unusual for an 80-year-old to do what Hoefgen does.

“Inactivity is a global problem for every age group and, certainly, later in life,” she said, “for different reasons of health limitations, cognition, living situation, etc. Although, I have seen senior citizens running the Eau Claire Marathon.”

Hidalgo added that there’s no way to predict at what age a person would be unable to perform such strenuous activities as the 80-mile walk, the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram reported.

“Although the maximum aerobic capacity declines with advancing age,” she said, “there are many factors affecting the physical performance of a person” including training and willpower.

“The limits of human performance are unpredictable,” Hidalgo said.

Hoefgen said his wife, Karla, and friends help with the logistics of the annual walks, including driving him to the starting point, picking him up and other needs. Hoefgen also said Karla downloads books onto his iPod, “and these were very welcome distractions over the many hours of the walks.”

Hoefgen said the routes change every year and are based in large part on lodging availability.

“All of them have involved the wonderful (Chippewa River) bike trail from Cornell to Menomonie,” he said. “Two years I walked from home to Menomonie and back.”

This year’s route was to Chippewa Falls and environs on day one, to nearly Jim Falls and back on day two, back to Eau Claire on day three, and various routes in the city on day four to complete the 80 miles.

Hoefgen said he works throughout the year to ensure he can finish what he starts.

“Every day my to-do list includes a physical activity,” he said, including biking, walking, weightlifting or swimming. “The variety provides a balance of strength, stamina and flexibility.”

Hidalgo said that kind of exercise regularity is important “to create the adaptive response and be safe without risk of injury.” She also cautioned those seniors who might want to emulate Hoefgen’s efforts to “start slow and progress patiently and regularly on any aerobic activity they decide to embrace” and to consult their primary care physician.

But it is important to stay active at any age, Hidalgo said, since “regular exercise has been linked to decreases in mortality, the risk of chronic diseases, nursing home admissions, development of cognitive disorders and decreased functional capacity.”

Hoefgen said he usually walks alone and carries necessities in a small backpack. He eats in restaurants if available or hits a gas station/convenience store for liquids and snacks.

“I do take (trail mix) of chocolates, nuts and raisins and sometimes fruit,” he said, “but in order to pack light most of my food is picked up along the way.”

The weather is a consideration, but Hoefgen said he walks rain or shine: “Over the years it has seldom rained hard. … Actually, the heat and high humidity are more a problem than rain.”

Two days this year, he said, the heat was so bad on the trail, “the soles of my feet burned so that I had to step off the trail and walk in the grass. The heat made parts of these days a slog.”

He tracks his steps with a pedometer to ensure he gets the requisite number in; this year it took 167,342 steps to seal the 80 miles.

Even after 40 years, Hoefgen said, he still relishes the challenge: “Completing these walks has always been exhilarating. This is especially true this year.”


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