A stroll down memory lane with Shaul Ladany

Former Israel Olympian, a surviving member of the 1972 Munich delegation, will celebrate his 75th birthday by walking his age in kilometers.

Shaul Ladany 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
Shaul Ladany 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
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 2008.
“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 right.”
The Ladanys eventually escaped the concentration camp in northwest Germany on the Kastner train and arrived in Israel in 1948.
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 seconds.
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.
“In recent 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 line.”
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.”
Ladany 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 work.”