Israeli race-walking champion, academic and Holocaust survivor Shaul Ladany celebrated his 80th birthday on April 1 by walking nonstop for 80 kilometers, one kilometer for every year of his life — almost 50 miles.
Ladany walked a circular track on the streets of his home community of Omer, near Beer Sheva in Israel’s south. He was joined by some athletes for part of the track, leaving behind people half his age, and was cheered on by a large crowd of proud residents wishing him a happy birthday.
“Very few athletes succeeded in walking the whole 80-kilometer track,” said Nissim Nir, spokesperson for the Omer local council. “I walked with him for 20 kilometers and he did not stop for even a moment.”
Ladany is famous for racking up achievements in long-distance walking. He is the world record holder in the men’s 50-mile race walk, a record set in 1972 that still stands. He won the world championship in the 100-kilometer walk, won the Israeli championship for over 30 years, and set a world record in 2006 for ages 70+ by walking 100 miles in under 22 hours.
On April 1 he encircled a 5-kilometer-long track 16 times with a final result of 11 hours and 15 minutes, starting at 4 a.m. and finishing at around 5:15 p.m. Afterwards, Ladany invited all the participants to his home for pizza and refreshments.
“I solve all my difficult problems while walking,” Ladany told TPS. “It’s the best brainstorming session I have.” However, he added, he does not have the same mental luxury when competing professionally. “In competitions, I only think about walking,” he explained.
He also represented Israel in the Olympic Games in Mexico City in 1968 and in Munich in 1972. In Munich, he was one of only five Israeli athletes to survive the massacre by Palestinian terrorists.
Ladany was born in Yugoslavia in 1936, and his family fled to Hungary during World War II. He survived the Bergen-Belsen Nazi concentration camp with his parents and arrived in Israel in 1948.
“What I went through in the Holocaust definitely left its mark on me,” Ladany told TPS, but he attributed his athletic drive and stamina to something even deeper: “It’s in my genes,” he said.
Ladany started his career as a marathon runner in 1956 and switched to race-walking in the early 1960s. To this day, he participates in all Israeli marathon and ultra-marathon events. He is one of the only athletes in the world to be awarded the Pierre de Coubertin Medal by the International Olympic Committee. He received the medal in 2007 for “unusual outstanding sports achievements during a span covering over four decades.”
Apart from his walking career, Ladany is also an accomplished academic and a professor of industrial engineering at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer Sheva. Ladany won a lifetime achievement award for his academic career. He also owns a number of collections that have been shown to the public in exhibitions and museums around the country.
“I certainly have no plan to stop walking,” Ladany said. “I want to live as long as possible and to die while walking.”
Jesse Lempel contributed to this report.