Why you should care
Because this man is still setting a brisk pace, at age 81.
At first sight, Shaul Ladany’s home in the suburbs of Be’er Sheva, Israel, looks like any other: Two dogs greet you at the door, vases and plants adorn the entry and pictures fill the walls.
Then you look to the right, where an entire living room wall is encased in glass, and filled — floor to ceiling — with trophies of all shapes and sizes, stacked one atop another. There’s so much metallic flare that it’s hard to read the inscriptions. Ladany, 81, says there are roughly 800 trophies inside — a case befitting any university athletic department.
The former Olympian — who was born in Belgrade, fled to Hungary during World War II and moved to Israel when he was 12 — has been collecting trophies and oodles of medals and certificates for more than 60 years. His athletic career began as a runner at age 15, back when long-distance running wasn’t a big thing in Israel. In his youth, people would tell him he was “meshugana,” Yiddish for “crazy.” Some, in fact, still see him this way.
He’s … a little bit crazy — a very tough competitor.
Peter Marlow, former British Olympic race walker
Ladany’s switch from runner to race walker began in 1955 and took years. He never had an official coach and learned everything by reading a book. Ladany remembers the physical pain after completing his first East Regional 50-mile Walking Championship, in New Jersey in 1966, a race he won in 8 hours, 35 minutes. On his way home, he could barely walk to the subway, and it took him and his friend three minutes to cover a 15-yard distance. His wife had to carry their bags, but “we still carried the trophies,” he says, laughing.
Ladany’s most successful year, and among his darkest, was 1972. That year he won the 100-kilometer World Championship, competed in the East Regional for the fifth time, setting a new world record of 7:23:50, and was selected to represent Israel on the country’s Olympic team — the team targeted by terrorists in Munich.
Ladany completed the 50-kilometer race in the Munich Olympics before the massacre, but he came in 19th. How did the man who set the world record for the 50-mile race a few months earlier barely make the top 20? He says that as a longer-distance walker — 50 miles and 100 kilometers — he didn’t pace himself correctly for the shorter walk. He walked too fast during the first 10 kilometers and then couldn’t keep the needed pace. While he didn’t medal in the games, he did survive — one of only a few Israelis to walk away from what’s been dubbed the Munich Massacre. Palestinian militant group Black September entered the Olympic Village on Sept. 5 and began raiding the Israeli dormitories, killing some athletes immediately and taking others hostage.
Many would consider Ladany, also a survivor of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, a fortunate man, and he acknowledges that “a person needed a series of lucky events to survive [the Holocaust].” That is how he survived Munich as well: The terrorists bypassed his room — he believes they decided to skip the door because his roommates were part of the shooting team — giving him a chance to escape. Hearing screams next door, he jumped from his window and sounded the alarm.
Luck may have saved his life, but Ladany says not being an “emotional person” is how he’s managed to thrive. He credits his matter-of-factness with helping him overcome the tragedies to live a normal life and enjoy a successful sporting career. Ladany appears most engaged and emotional, in fact, when talking about his races and trophies, not when referencing the Holocaust — for him, it was the Hungarians who affected him more during World War II, and he still recoils at the sound of Hungarian, not German — or the massacre.
He also loves talking about setting records and continues to train every day. Former British Olympic race walker Peter Marlow, who saw Ladany compete at the 1972 Olympics, says the Israeli is fantastic and obsessed — in a good way — with his sport. “He’s tough … a little bit crazy — a very tough competitor,” Marlow says.
Ladany’s world record in the 50-mile race notably still stands. That event is not part of the Olympic Games, which has helped, but the Israeli notes that he also finished that 1972 race in “excellent time.” Since then, “one rival from England came some 10, 11 minutes close to it,” he adds. But since it’s not an Olympic event, he acknowledges, “the effort that a person should devote to it is not of the same importance as an Olympic distance.” The world athletics governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations, declined to comment as to why the 50-mile race is held so infrequently. Marlow also points out that there aren’t as many race walkers these days. Back in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, “there were masses and masses of walkers,” Marlow says.
Whether Ladany’s record will ever be broken is anyone’s guess, but he has no plans to slow down. As an octogenarian, he still walks every day. “From year to year now, every kilometer gets longer,” he admits. But he still walks at least 11 kilometers every day, and every year on his birthday, he walks his age in distance. This past April, he walked 81 kilometers, finishing in 14 hours.
The yearly tradition is now a staple of the community. Neighbors and friends come to cheer him on, and some even walk with him. At first he used to hide food and water along his loop, but now his daughter sets up a stand with water, fruit and dates. Despite several health setbacks over the years — a battle with lymphoma, a disk extraction and open-heart surgery — Ladany has recovered every time, walking away a healthy man.