Anyone who witnessed Shaul Ladany cross the finish-line of the ultra
cross-country 50-kilometer race in Eshtaul less than two weeks ago must have
thought the man was mad.
Covered in both blood and mud after several
tumbles down the Judean hills, the 75-year-old contestant had declined multiple
offers to be taken to hospital during the race.
He didn’t even give the
notion a second thought.
After Ladany walked through the horrors of the
20th century, a few bruises and gashes certainly were not going to stop him from
completing the course, whatever it may be.
Ladany made his name as an
Olympic walker, participating in the 50km competition at the 1968 and 1972
Games, finishing in 19th place in Munich less than two days before Arab
terrorists had attacked the Israeli team quarters, storming Block One and Three,
but not Block Two, from which he managed to escape.
Born in Belgrade in
1936, Ladany spent three years on the run with his family after their home in
the Yugoslav capital was bombed by the Luftwaffe in 1941. He also spent a short
time hiding in a Budapest monastery, but was eventually transported with his
parents and two sisters to Bergen-Belsen.
“I remember every day of those
six months – the hunger, the rain, the cold, the endless roll calls, the
barbed-wire fences beside the highvoltage fence, the watchtowers, the S.S.
officers always shrieking at us, especially one with a harelip, and the Dutch
prisoners in their striped clothes in the adjacent camps,” Ladany wrote in his
autobiography “King of the Road” (Gefen), which was translated into English in
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“These sights viewed by an eightyear- old boy are etched so clearly
on my memory that 50 years later, on a visit to the memorial site, I pointed to
a relief map of the camp and informed the director that the fence was indicated
in the wrong place.
Unwilling to rely on my childhood recollection, he
checked a British aerial map and found, to his astonishment, that I was
The Ladanys eventually escaped the concentration camp in
northwest Germany on the Kastner train and arrived in Israel in
Despite never having become a professional athlete, Ladany – an
Emeritus professor of industrial engineering at Ben-Gurion University in
Beersheba – seems to have an endless passion for his sport.
He may no
longer be able to match the pace he walked when he set a 50-mile world record of
7 hours, 23 minutes and 50 seconds in 1972, which still stands today, or when he
won the 100km world title in 1973.
But he still participates in the
7-day, 300-kilometer walk from Schleswig, Germany, to Viborg, Denmark and five
years ago, during a teaching sabbatical, he became the first 70-yearold to walk
100 miles in 24 hours or less, clocking a time of 21 hours, 45 minutes and 34
He plans to give up the dangerous ultra races after his latest
experience, but despite his recent injuries, he will still be keeping up the
tradition he began 25 years ago of walking his age in kilometers when he
celebrates his 75th birthday near his home in Omer on April 2.
years I have discovered that each kilometer seems to get longer, each mountain
seems to get higher and each ascent seems to get steeper, but I guess that is
only natural,” Ladany told me this week. “I am still covered with dozens of
bruises and gashes from the ultra competition in Eshtaol, but the following day
I already took part in another march.
“I think my choice of long-distance
walking is a testament to my stubbornness.
“There is a saying: ‘winners
don’t quit, and quitters don’t win.’ I am not a quitter. When I’m asked by
people what I enjoy the most from walking they don’t understand when I answer
that my favorite part is finishing.
Every event is a struggle, you think
to yourself how much more is there to go and when will the end finally arrive,
but there is a great joy and satisfaction when you cross the finishing
Ladany, who speaks nine languages and has eight patents to his
name, as well as over 100 scientific papers and more than a dozen books, was
diagnosed with skin cancer several years ago and has come up with an original
way to train at home to avoid the searing Negev sun.
“I open the doors in
the house, roll up carpets and create a 25-30 meter circular route,” he said.
“It is not an ideal course because it doesn’t allow me to build up any speed and
occasionally I hit myself on one of the posts, but I manage.”
survived the Holocaust and the Munich Massacre and went on to become one of the
legends of Israeli sport.
He may be getting slower with every birthday
walk, but he will forever remain a true inspiration.
“Life is always a
struggle. You have to fight and work for success,” Ladany said. “I wouldn’t say
that I’m a lucky person. What I achieved was not by luck but by hard
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