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Going the distance

At 76, former NASA and CIA man Dale Ruth is one of South Florida’s top senior endurance athletes

By Steve Dorfman

Blessed with a keen and curious mind, an adventurous nature and a preternatural level of endurance, Dale Ruth has spent a lifetime exploring — and often exceeding — the boundaries of what conventional wisdom previously thought possible.

He’s done so professionally, as a research and development scientist, first for NASA as part of the Apollo program, and subsequently for the CIA during the Cold War, in the development of surveillance-satellite technology.

And now, in semi-“retirement” (he still provides tech support for his daughter’s international private investigation firm), Ruth, 76, continues pushing his physical limits, as one of South Florida’s most-accomplished, plus-70 runners/triathletes.

A marvel of metronomic consistency, Ruth has not missed a single day of training in some 25 years (“His discipline is amazing,” notes Teri Rustmann, one of Ruth’s three daughters with his wife of 53 years, Roberta) — and the lean, wiry grandfather of five shows not a hint of slowing down.

Ruth still maintains an enviable nine-minute-per-mile race pace (“Beating a lot of people half his age,” marvels Palm Beach Marathon Training Group founder Bob Anderson) and estimates he enters some 20 to 30 distance races annually (usually winning his age group because, he deadpans, “When you’re as old as me, the age group is pretty small.”)

But those weekend competitions are simply the byproduct of what Ruth considers the most important part of the process: the training.

“The key for me is training with other people,” Ruth explains. “If I was on my own, I am not sure that it would happen. The people that you meet while training, or doing a race, form an instant bond. It is because we are doing something hard and we all have that similar drive and determination. I consider every person I train with regularly to be a friend.”

That’s certainly not surprising, considering that the social dynamic of endurance training — that is, pursuing a solitary endeavor while part of a larger group — is ideally suited to both Ruth’s personality and background.

Military upbringing

Raised in a career military family, Ruth’s childhood was marked by annual, or biannual, moves.

“I was born in Washington, D.C., at Walter Reed Hospital, but we lived all over the country — Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Montana — as well as overseas in Germany,” Ruth recalls.

Because of this peripatetic existence, Ruth says, “I was pretty cautious about becoming too connected to anyone.”

A self-described “bookworm,” the studious Ruth spent countless hours reading science and physics tomes, and “exploring the outdoors. I always liked being outside.”

He did try out one year for his school’s track team but, “The coach told me I wasn’t fast enough, and that was that.”

He was a national level player and tournament winner in chess. Good enough, in fact, to play legendary Bobby Fischer in a 1956 match that “I should have won,” Ruth said. Fischer must have thought Ruth was a worthy opponent: He listed the match in his book, “My 160 Memorable Games.”

After earning his bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Oklahoma and completing a graduate program at the U.S. National Institute of Health, Ruth spent a few years working in the research and development division of a Fortune 500 company.

“But, I didn’t like being assigned projects based solely on their potential profitability,” he says. “I wanted something more exciting and challenging.”

So, in 1967, Ruth joined NASA.

Living in Alabama, he worked on projects that involved both the Lunar Rover, and space satellites.

As to what he recalls about the astronauts he encountered during this period, the 5-foot, 8-inch, 125-pound scientist says, “The media always portrayed them as these larger-than-life figures. But, they were actually pretty compact men — smaller than me, even — which makes sense when you consider that they’d be confined to these tight areas.”

When the CIA approached him in 1972 — at the height of the Cold War — to help it develop satellite surveillance systems to, as he puts it, “spy on the Russians,” Ruth leapt at the opportunity.

He’d spend the next quarter-century working both at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. and in various overseas locales.

While he describes his workaday world at “the Agency” as anything but “this glamorous spy-versus-spy atmosphere,” he’s also a bit circumspect on the details because, he notes, “much of it is still classified.”

Health and fitness take over

At age 50 in 1987 and living in Vienna, Va., a buddy talked him into training together for an upcoming 5K race: “I did that Jingle Bell Race in 26 minutes, 17 seconds — an eight-and-a-half-minute-per-mile pace. I ran the Marine Corp. Marathon in Washington, D.C., the following year, and I’ve been hooked ever since.”

A habitual “data collector” (the home office in his Jupiter Farms residence houses three computers), Ruth has the race results of every one of the hundreds of events he’s entered stored electronically.

After retiring from the CIA in 1996 and relocating to South Florida, Ruth’s data collection has led him to become a lay expert on biochemistry, gerontology and age-related metabolic rates.

About a decade ago, he adopted a vegan “calorie restriction” eating regimen. Proponents of this dietary method believe that research supports the potential life-extending, disease-preventing benefits of restricting one’s caloric intake.

As for those who “think I’m crazy to eat this way — and that includes my wife, who’s a registered nurse! — I say look at how active I’m able to be,” Ruth counters. “And, whenever I go for checkups, my doctor tells me I’m his healthiest patient.”

Nonetheless, this unique, diversely accomplished — yet humble, wholly unassuming — gentleman insists, “I’m not special at all.”

Safe to say, most might beg to differ.

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