BEACHCOMBING: At 90, Still a Running Man

Photos by Arnold Gold

Oh, what a lucky man is Herman Bershtein! At age 90½, he is still an avid runner and working at his Hamden law firm with his son and two daughters in the house where he was born.

But even Bershtein is human. He was reminded of this recently when he suffered a mild stroke that has temporarily forced him to walk, not run, around his neighborhood and to cut back a bit on his hours at the family firm.

As a runner myself, I have long been aware of Bershtein’s presence at road races around the state, where he is often the only one competing in his age group. (This helps him bring home a lot of trophies.)

It’s amazing to see him out there in action, and he’s an inspiration to younger runners who hope that they, too, can continue to run into their 80s or 90s.

​Bershtein was a tad fidgety when I interviewed him at his Hamden home, not far from his office. I asked, “Are you going a little crazy not being able to run?”

“Absolutely!” he says. “I’m climbing the walls here. I’m only allowed to walk for 30 minutes twice a day.”

After that little stroke, whose main effect was impairing his vision, Bershtein asked his neurologist if he could still run. The response: “Very, very minimal.”

Bershtein didn’t like hearing that, so he asked his heart doctor the same question. “No! No! No!” Bershtein pantomimed the doctor, slamming his fist down on the kitchen table.

Bershtein’s son, Richard, who sat in on our interview, noted, “He’s getting a stress test this week. Then he’ll have heart monitors (for 30 days). We’ll just await the results.”

Bershtein first got into running because he had what he terms a “mini stroke” in 1976. “My doctor asked what I did for exercise and I told him I played golf. He said, ‘That’s not strenuous enough. Why don’t you get into running?’”

His son also took it up; in 1984 he ran in his first marathon. His dad wanted to try that distance, too, and so they ran in marathons together, including the famed events in New York and Boston.

Herman Bershtein recalled a romantic encounter during one of his Boston Marathons, which at about the halfway point offers participants the mind-blowing experience of running through a veritable tunnel of whooping Wellesley College women.

“There were all these good-looking girls!” he said. “And one of them came up to me and said, ‘Hey, sir ­— you look a little tired. Would you mind if I ran with you?’ And she ran about a mile alongside me. What a lift!”

Bershtein has run in 19 marathons. He has also run in “probably about 33” of the New Haven Faxon Law 20K (12.4 miles) Labor Day races. As a rare concession to his age, he began running in the 5K version of that event two or three years ago.

You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but Bershtein is also a cancer survivor. “I’ve had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma since my wife (Shirley) died in 1994. But it hasn’t had much effect on me.”

His son remembers that his dad’s first question to the doctor when that diagnosis came was, of course: “Can I still run?” He was told he could do so.

Smiling at this memory, Bershtein delivered a phrase that recurred throughout our talk: “I’m very lucky.”

And persistent as well as stubborn. He was running in the Hartford Marathon in the late 1980s when, about a mile away from the finish, he tripped over a pothole. “I went face down onto the ground. An ambulance driver came up and saw blood on my face. He took my runner’s number off and told me, ‘You’re done. It’s over.’ I grabbed my number away from him and I very politely said: ‘You wanna bet?’ And I did that last mile, with a bloody face!”

His son said this determination and work ethic is also on full display in his dad’s law work. “Usually if the light is on in our offices on a Sunday night, it’s not me up there; it’s him.”

Bershtein said that in addition to loving the law practice, he has another motivation for keeping it up full-time: “I have education funds set up for all 10 of my grandchildren. My salary is forwarded into those plans.”

As for the work itself, he said, “It’s not easy. You have complicated problems. That’s one of the reasons I like running; I say to myself, ‘I’ll take this problem with me on my run.’ It helps me work out the solution.”

He set up his law practice in 1954 in the house where he was born on Dixwell Avenue. “I lived in the attic there. When I was at Yale, I took a trolley down Dixwell to the campus downtown. Then I took the late trolley back home at night.”

Much later, his son and his daughters, Joy and Jan Bershtein, joined him at the law firm.

As he recuperates, Bershtein has not given up his goal of running in a 20th marathon. “I expect to do it at a slower pace. It’ll probably take me at least 6½ hours.”

As for running itself, he said he’ll keep at it “as long as my legs can go.”Randall Beach is the longtime columnist for the New Haven Register, where his column appears Fridays and Sundays. He enjoys his New Haven neighborhood, running through the city’s streets and parks and hanging out in its coffee shops. At home he plays his many 1960s and ’70s rock ‘n’ roll albums and CDs.

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