As an author and a motivational speaker, Brad Barton is known for using magic tricks to spice up his presentations on achieving personal goals. But Barton is also an accomplished runner, and his greatest trick might be demolishing world records. In June, the 53-year-old clenched his fourth masters age-group world record, this one for the fastest mile in the men’s 50-to-54 age category. His time—an astonishing 4:19.59—bested the previous record by more than five seconds. But this is simply what Barton does: he’s made a habit of running faster than any man his age should run.
“Anything worth doing is worth overdoing,” Barton says from his home in Utah. He’s talking specifically about his beekeeping hobby—he tends 56 different beehives on two separate ranches—but the motto could easily be applied to his running career. In college, as an all-American specializing in the steeplechase, he was ranked 19th in the world and had a legitimate shot at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. Then a hip injury dashed his Olympic dreams and left him unable to run for three years. “I flew all over the country trying to find a doctor with a solution to my hip, but I wasn’t comfortable with any of the surgical options, so I left it alone,” Barton says, adding that he spent the better part of the next two decades only running for fitness.
When Barton was 44, he watched a masters mile at a high school track meet, where the coaches of each team competed. Inspired by that race, and curious if he could run a sub-five-minute mile, he began working out with the high school track team that his wife coached—and ran 4:40. Then, a year later, at 45, he ran 4:32. His bum hip never slowed him down. “It was sore for the first few years that I started training again, but it’s gone now,” Barton says.
The 4:32 mile was enough to lure Barton’s former college track coach, Chick Hislop, out of retirement in 2013. “He said, ‘Let’s go do something that’s never been done,’” Barton says. “It gave me chills.” The two started working toward world records in the men’s 45-to-49 age group. Soon after, Barton was winning. He claimed the men’s 45-to-49 indoor mile record with a 4:16.84, beating the previous best by almost four seconds. A year later, he set men’s 45-to-49 world records in the indoor 3,000 meters and the 3,000-meter steeplechase, the latter besting a time that had stood for 30 years.
Despite these records, Barton hasn’t escaped all of the inevitable side effects of aging. He had only dealt with small running-related injuries between his record-setting races in 2013 and 2014, but after the steeplechase world record, the wheels fell off. Over a five-year span, Barton separated his shoulder, broke his foot, shattered a toe, ripped his quad, broke his foot again, and sustained a series of concussions through freak accidents. “I’ve broken more bones than records along the way,” Barton says. “It’s been a comedy of errors that caused a lot of doubt. But eventually, Hislop and I figured out that I was training the same way I did when I was in college, and that wasn’t going to work anymore.”
The two men reconfigured their approach in recent years to account for Barton’s age, this time with an eye on nabbing the mile world record for the men’s 50-to-54 age group. Hislop started limiting his weekly mileage, dropping from 60 miles to 50, and reduced his hard track workouts from three times a week to twice a week. “We built in more rest, and that’s made all the difference,” Barton says. His track workouts intensified as he got closer to the Music City Distance Carnival in Nashville, Tennessee, this year, the race that Barton had earmarked for his world-record-breaking attempt. “Running the actual world record wasn’t that painful,” Barton says. “But the training for it was excruciating at times.”
The hard work paid off. In June, Barton went head to head with Shane Healy, a former Irish Olympian flown in by the race organizers to specifically tackle the standing world record. Barton beat Healy by more than three seconds.
Barton’s work ethic is impressive, but what’s more impressive is his ability to stay focused while dealing with injuries that would sideline him for months at a time. The trick to keeping motivated, according to Barton, is to know why you’re running in the first place. “When I wasn’t chasing a record, I didn’t enjoy the workouts,” Barton says. “But when I had a goal, a reason big enough, all of the hard things along the way are manageable. So many people focus on ‘being the best that we can be,’ but that’s overwhelming. Getting better is something all of us can achieve. Do your best today and a little better tomorrow.”
And true to form, Barton’s tomorrow is looking bright. He doesn’t plan to live off of his four world records. Later this month he’s going to try to beat the men’s 50-to-54 world record for the 3,000-meter steeplechase. After that, he’ll start eyeing some 55-to-59 age-group records. “If the burn is still there, and there are some M55 records on the table, someone has to get them. Why not me?”