MEET an 81-year-old runner who has raced barefoot for 66 years. Charley (Doc) Robbins, a retired physician from Middletown, started running when almost nobody else did.
”In 1947 when I ran in Central Park, a policeman asked what I was doing,” Robbins said. ”I said, ‘Running.’ ” ‘Nobody does that in the city,’ he said, ‘And you’d better put your shirt on.’ People stopped to say running was bad for my heart. I heard the myth of the ‘athlete’s heart’ in medical school.” Robbins said that was turned around when one of Dwight Eisenhower’s doctors, Dr. Paul Dudley White, prescribed exercise after the president’s heart problems.
Robbins said he started running in 1936 because ”My future father-in-law took a dim view of me. So I’d meet my girlfriend” — and wife-to-be, Doris Stevenson — ”at her grandfather’s farm, about four miles from my home in Bolton. I ran home at midnight over dirt roads, and barefoot. Then I thought if I could run the four miles without stopping, I might as well join the cross country team.”
He successfully competed for Manchester High School, then the University of Connecticut from 1938-42, and had a prolific amateur racing career. He won Amateur Athletic Union national titles, including five 20-kilometer titles, two 25-kilometer, two 30-kilometer and two national marathon championships between the years of 1944-54.
Robbins completed his 50th consecutive Manchester Road Race in 2001. He has participated in 20 Boston Marathons, finishing as high as third over all in 1944.
”Running barefoot seemed natural,” said Robbins. ”Five million years of evolution didn’t include shoes. I run the same or little better speed than with shoes. Sometimes I race halfway with and halfway without shoes. The change feels good.” He said his Size 8 mediums have the same footprints as years past, and a good arch. ”When you run barefoot, you don’t pound,” he said.
Bill Tribou, 80, a college running teammate, rival and close friend of Robbins, is a top national senior runner. ”I tried barefoot running for about 10 yards,” said Tribou, who lives in Granby, ”and thought I’d ruin myself for life. I accused Charley of trying to injure me so he’d beat me,” he laughed. ”Charley’s feet are like elephant hide, the only tender parts between his toes.”
”I don’t know anyone running barefoot,” said Allan Steinfeld, 56, president of the New York Road Runners Club and director of the New York City Marathon, ”except for Kenyans who grew up without shoes, and South African Zola Budd, who won women’s gold in 1984 at the L.A. Olympics.”
Steinfeld doesn’t know Robbins or his daughter, Barrie Robbins-Pianka, who lives next door to her father. ”I ran initially with shoes,” said Robbins-Pianka, who is 55 and started running in 1978.
”Dad showed how, and it spiced up running for me. I don’t love shoes anyway, and I’ve run my best races barefoot.” Pitfalls? ”You might hit a shard of glass or small rock, but you see those coming. With shoes you can roll your ankle.”
She describes barefoot running as ”Feeling more in touch with the road, like a sports car versus a mushy sedan.”’
In 1952, Doc Robbins joined the United States Public Health Service assigned as a doctor aboard a weather ship around Greenland. While he could run around the deck, he found it wasn’t enough physical activity. In 1954 he took a residency in psychiatry at Connecticut Valley Hospital, a mental health facility, and served there 43 years; he still volunteers there.
He was among the first doctors to advocate running and he integrated it with career and family. ”I always thought of running as his way of life,” said Robbins-Pianka. ”When I was small, we went to Boston, and other races. Our Thanksgiving morning tradition is the Manchester Road Race.”
Robbins, despite his experience, isn’t one to proffer advice. ”I don’t give unsolicited advice, which I say is of no use. I don’t spout any philosophies, and try to be nonjudgmental.”
Citing the period when his family lived in New York City, he said he joined the New York Pioneer Club in Harlem. That club was a largely minority running club started by the runners Joe Yancey and Horace Wall.
”They did a lot for getting running on the map and getting kids involved in good activities.”
Robbins-Pianka describes her father as ”an honest, waste-not, want-not person. He’s pre-ecological movement, but in that mold. He lives sparely, and doesn’t need things. Less is more describes Dad.”
Robbins added about himself: ”I stay huddled around my wood stove. But I like outdoor activity, like sawing and splitting wood. And breaking up rocks with a sledgehammer to make gravel for filling holes.”
He said he does an hour of rocks and gravel, an hour of wood, and then runs a half-hour ”to take the soreness away.”
His diet is spare, with six graham crackers with peanut butter for breakfast, raisin bread with peanut butter for lunch, and maybe a salad, soup and piece of pizza for dinner. ”I have hot water often,” he said, ”I like the heat. I add a little powdered milk as a token of calcium.”
”I look like a reject,” Robbins said, laughing. Always slim, he is five feet seven inches, and weighs just 100 pounds, although he was a slim 122 in college.
”When I don’t feel well, I go out and run and things seem better,” Robbins said. ”I think exercise combats neurosis. I used to think a fair amount of brains were involved in living longer. I’ve grown fatalistic, and now I think it’s 99 percent luck and 1 percent anything else. And if exercise feels good, do it, it probably is. And if food tastes good, it also probably is.”
Bill Tribou said there are many more masters runners today.
”I once won a trophy for oldest runner when I was 47,” he said. ”Today runners are in their 80’s.”
Steinfeld of the Road Runners said: ”We have many more runners in the 85-89 category. People run, then have careers and families, then return to running.” In the 2001 New York City Marathon, there were 112 finishers in the 70-to-90-plus category. Robbins and Tribou go on running, and being friends. ”We talk every Monday on the phone at 8 a.m.,” Tribou said.
Robbins is described by friends and family as ”sharp as a tack,” but, he said age does, take some toll. ”I can still go the distance,” he said, ”just slower.”