Moses faces his highest hurdle in turning back time

Published : Oct 04, 2003 00:00 IST

Former Olympic champion Ed Moses is back in training at 48 as part of his `scientific and emotional experiment' — to compete in the US trials for Athens next July.

AGEING is a damned nuisance. Just when you think you have the experience, the style, the wisdom, the confidence to be gorgeous, it turns out your body parts are descending without the aid of a parachute and you need one of Thora Hird's lifts to go up the stairs without gasping. Where is the justice in that?

Red wine was invented as the consolation but now one man wants to take the challenge to nature. If the radical dream of Ed Moses comes true, we will no longer think of 48 as middle-age. It will be the prime of life, bounding and brimming with youthful energy and potential. One of the greatest track athletes of all time, the 1976 and 1984 Olympic champion in the 400 metres hurdles, is back in training.

Oh, don't be daft Edwin, all his friends and colleagues have been saying. Michael Johnson, Seb Coe, Daley Thompson have all looked him in the earnest eye and forewarned him of terrible injuries and humiliation. Time is a tide that no man may turn back, not even one who went unbeaten in his event for nine years, nine months and nine days, winning 122 consecutive races and driving despair like rods of steel into the hearts of his miserably trailing rivals.

They think he is in dangerous King Canute territory, a prey to unretired ego, or trying to drum up publicity for the Laureus Sports Awards, for whom he is the devoted chairman. There is no way — no way on earth — that an athlete in his 49th year can contest the 400m hurdles at the Athens Olympics next year.

But then you catch the expression of quiet, serious intent behind those trademark glasses and all preconceptions are thrown into chaos. Maybe? Could it be? Is senile dementia catching? Because as you watch the fittest 48-year-old you have seen jog round a running track in Paris and then limber his slim frame through a set of stretching exercises that Rudolf Nureyev might have found too exacting, you come to the conclusion that you are watching something special. "A scientific and emotional experiment," said Moses.

But first, he needed shoes. And there they were, upstairs in the attic at his home in Atlanta, five boxes of ancient equipment that he had refused to throw away. "An artist doesn't throw away his brushes," he explained. He had tried the modern running shoe, with its three-inch cushioning sole, and kept falling off them to one side. So now he trains in his old flat-bottomed model, some so decayed he had to glue them back together.

So let the game begin. Moses — at least he possesses a miraculous name — means it. "Track and field has always been my hobby and passion. I always knew I would get back on the track, it was just a matter of when. Recently, I looked at the competition in the 400m hurdles and the standard in the United States was pretty low. I reckoned that some of the guys in the Olympic trials would only be running around 50 seconds. Then I thought: "I could do that."

"It was a kind of drip, drip effect. For a guy my age I'm in excellent shape, I have always looked after myself, I know how to protect myself from injury, my diet's excellent. All these things were going round in my mind. So last November I really started talking about it seriously."

It sounds mad. But you have to remember the athlete that was. He was literally like no other. Taking 13 graceful, powerful strides between hurdles instead of the customary 14, those tremendous 9ft 9in paces destroyed any lingering opposition that had not already wilted in the glare of his personality on the start line. "When I sat in the blocks I knew no one could beat me."

Within four months of his first one-lap hurdle race he was the Olympic champion. He lowered his own world record on numerous occasions, culminating in the 47.02sec he ran in 1983. Studious, scientific, painstaking on one hand, aloof, lithe and resplendent on the other, he prompted the US track and field coach at the Montreal Games in 1976 to say: "We are in the rarefied presence of an immortal here."

We will soon find out if the coach was right. The myth lives on, certainly in Moses's own mind. He believes in his talent and possibilities, fortified by muscle memory, but any potential arrogance is leavened by God's honest truth. "If I went out and tried to run a 400m hurdle race right now, I would injure myself," he admitted. "My ligaments and tendons are 48-years-old. I might have a heart attack. I've got to be realistic."

As a sharp reminder he went out for a training run in Paris, two days before his 48th birthday on Aug. 31, and earned a serious cramp in the calf. For most of us that would mean swift repair to an armchair, the swish of a ringpull on a beer can and the sweet surrender to bone idleness. For Moses, it meant, a deep muscle massage with an analgesic cream, a spell of self-applied acupuncture and a three-mile walk around the city looking to borrow some ice.

"You know, I couldn't find ice anywhere," he said in amazement, as though all the street cafes in Paris had nothing better to do with their ice cubes than strap them to the ailing limbs of old Olympians. But that is the way he thinks. Optimum preparation for an optimum performance.

"I've been sitting in ice-baths since 1983," he said in reference to this masochistic practice that we foolishly thought came in with Paula Radcliffe. Pilates? He got there first. "I do `Moses'," he said, the inventor of his own muscle-strengthening regime. He never ceased such practices, even in retirement, even in pain — sometimes chronic pain — from the disc injury in his back that precipitated his withdrawal from track and field in 1988. (Whereupon he went bobsleigh racing, finishing seventh in the World Championships in 1991, but that is another story.)

Can you imagine a man who would voluntarily sit in a bathful of ice, feeling a spectacular agony for 20 minutes before merciful numbness kicked in, when he didn't absolutely have to. Just for the goodness and discipline of it all.

"But I exercise all the time, every day," he said. "I'm always in good condition. I bound up three or four steps at a time all day. I maintain my flexibility and, for the last three years, I have been pain-free. My back has finally recovered.

"As soon as I get back to Atlanta, I'm going to pack my training clothes, pick up the dog and head west." Americans have been heading to California to live their dreams for over 200 years but not all with a German Shepherd called Basil and the ambition to turn back time.

It was the novelty of painlessness after 15 years of back problems that has partially convinced him to return. It is why he believes that a three-stage training regime might have him fit enough to run 50.50sec at the US Olympic trials next July. Stage one will be strengthening and conditioning phase: at least two hours twice a day including work-outs with weights in the gym. Stage two, from Christmas, will be stamina work and the rekindling of the old technique. Stage three, from mid-March, will be the most intense, the speedwork and getting ready for competition.

"You don't just show up on the track and run 48, 49 or even 60 seconds. It takes work. I'm the only one who knows what it takes to get out there. People think, because of my reputation, that it will just happen. I know it won't. When I was competing it took me 10 months of work to produce just 12 minutes of racing in any one year.

"But I don't have to be a gladiator any more. It is very, very unlikely that I will make it all the way to Athens. But I just think it's fantastic to set myself a higher goal. I think this attempt should be seen as a way to use sports positively. It's not just about me competing. It's about inspiration. There are so many people afraid of a task. They get so overwhelmed by the obstacles in front of them that they shy away from reaching beyond a position of safety. I want to reach. I can make the Olympic qualifying time. I believe it is possible."

Moses is a scientist. Born into a family of educators, descended from the slave of a Jewish family, in South Carolina, he grew up in Dayton, Ohio, more an academic than an athlete. He won a scholarship to Morehouse College in Atlanta to study physics and engineering. "I took biology and chemistry. I studied diet and the biomechanics of running and hurdling. I didn't have to take steroids. I never even took vitamins."

His son, Julien, aged eight, is regularly lectured on the subject of vegetables. He lives with his mother in California but sees a good deal of his father, who taught him to hurdle, aged three, over a set of plumped up pillows. He has graduated to his own set of mini-hurdles now and is showing fine form. "He calls me a VPI," said Moses, smiling indulgently at the misdirection of letters. "He wants to know if he can train with me. He especially wants to know if the dog can train with us, too."

Moses is undoubtedly earnest. Track and field is the love of his life. "It is so unfortunate that at 30-35 years old you are forced to walk away. I want to challenge that whole philosophy. It is already being challenged by athletes like Frankie Fredericks and Merlene Ottey. This is my contribution."

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