Born to run, but in which year?

Times Staff Writer

His “100th” birthday party last year was covered by the BBC and his run in the London Marathon on Sunday is being touted by one of the country’s best-known public relations firms.

Pierre “Buster” Martin and his backers say that if he completes the race, he will be the oldest person to ever finish a marathon. The only problem: He may be no older than 94.

Martin, who says he is 101 but looks as though he could be 20 years younger, rises before the sun to run, eat a hearty breakfast and arrive at work by 5 a.m. After his day toiling for one of Britain’s best-known plumbing companies, he often walks a few more miles before heading to the pub for a pint of beer.


“I don’t know why they make all the fuss about me really,” he says. “I was asked to [run the marathon]. I said I’d try.”

Martin, often called Britain’s oldest regularly employed worker, is hardly a newcomer on the celebrity scene.

During his “centennial” year, he also celebrated hitting No. 26 on the British music charts as a debut drummer for a geriatric rock group, the Zimmers, on the band’s vibrant cover of the Who classic “My Generation.”

“I’m a bit of a nutter, so they put me on the drums. It was the first and only time I’ve ever played the drums,” he said. “There’s always a first time for everything. You’re never too old.”

Martin also took a brief turn as FHM men’s magazine’s “agony uncle,” answering questions from the young male audience. Asked by a man in his late 20s whether he should marry his girlfriend to make her happy even though he wasn’t in love, Martin replied in his characteristic, no-nonsense style, “If you don’t like her, then why the hell are you with her?”

None of that prepared him for the attention he has received in his bid to take the longest run of his life.

This is Martin’s first marathon, and he began training only in December when asked to represent the official charity of his employer, Pimlico Plumbers, for which Martin cleans and helps service a fleet of vans. The charity, the Rhys Daniels Trust, offers a “home away from home” for the families of children in hospital care.

As a former physical training instructor in the armed services, Martin said, he has always exercised.

“I used to do boxing and all that when I was in the forces. . . . You had to be fit.”

The Guinness World Records organization says the oldest person to complete a marathon was Dimitrion Yordanidis in Athens in 1976 at the age of 98. Guinness officials said Friday that they did not consider Martin eligible for the record because he had never provided proof that he is 101.

A review by The Times of the documents Martin offered as proof of his age reveals that none were obtained with anything more than his own assertion that he was born Sept. 1, 1906, in France. The certificate of naturalization he provided was issued by the Home Office on Friday, based on an application made Thursday, when The Times first made inquiries.

“At the very least, there’s no birth certificate. There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors,” said Robert Young, an independent senior consultant for gerontology for Guinness World Records, though he was not speaking on behalf of the organization. Young said his sources had told him that Martin had two birth dates registered with the government: Sept. 1, 1906, and Sept. 1, 1913, which would make him 94.

Martin said he was born in France and raised in an English orphanage and had little original documentation verifying his birth date. His birth certificate, he said, is with one of his granddaughters in Canada. His publicity agent said Martin had applied for a passport to provide conclusive proof that he is 101.

“He’s very active, and his mind’s very alert. That’s obviously causing people uncertainty,” said Charlie Mullins, managing director of Pimlico Plumbers, known for its celebrity clients and hefty fees.

“People don’t expect a 101-year-old to be active and do things. People expect them to sit in a chair and become a cabbage, and Buster doesn’t do that.”

Besides, he said, “this isn’t about getting records; this is about raising money for charity.”

Because there are no age divisions in the London Marathon, Martin will start Sunday in the midst of an estimated 36,000 runners.

“I’m confident that he can finish,” said his trainer, Harmander Singh, who specializes in elderly runners. “But it’s up to Buster. . . . You can’t predict anything. Life is unpredictable.”

Singh worked with the London Marathon’s over-90s record holder, Fauja Singh (no relation), who did it in 6 hours and 2 minutes. He offered to train Martin for the event and to run at his side in what will be his own 24th London Marathon.

“You can train different people in different ways, but the elderly have one thing in common,” he said. “They like to have respect, which is no bad thing. They don’t like being patronized.”

When it comes to his secret to a long life, Martin says he follows a diligent regimen of beer, cigarettes and red meat.

“I’m rather open about that. I just wake up in the morning and get out of bed,” said Martin, who says he’s been smoking and drinking for the better part of a century and doesn’t intend to stop until he’s dead.

“If I don’t have my beer, then I don’t want to run,” he said. “I run as far as I like. When I want to stop, I stop.”

Although Martin’s training tactics are unconventional, Singh says he focuses only on a runner’s physical and mental endurance.

“Most people would say don’t drink because alcohol dehydrates you, but that’s the only thing Buster drinks,” he said. “If they’ve been doing something for a hundred years, why should I change it?”

Buster may put away his running shoes by Sunday night and be off to the next adventure.

“If I went and ran every marathon I was asked to do, that would be about six to seven a year. I wouldn’t have any time to meself!”