MORRISTOWN?- At age 75, it could be argued that Mitch Toto of Morrisown is in better shape than many men half his age.
"He would do well on 'Survivor.' There's no doubt about that," said Mike Hudimac, a triathlete and Wheeling firefighter who recently completed an endurance challenge alongside Toto to raise awareness for Valley Hospice. During three of the hottest days in June, the pair cycled, kayaked and ran 176.2 miles on the highways and byways of eastern Ohio and Ohio County in West Virginia.
Both Toto and Hudimac have competed in the famously grueling Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii; Toto tackled it at the age of 45, just five years after he began his running career by finishing the inaugural Wheeling distance race on his 40th birthday.
Mitch Toto, right, is joined by Wheeling’s Mike Hudimac and Westerville’s Charlie Kozlesky, a native of Woodsfield. Kozlesky joined in on the 100-mile endurance challenge in June to raise awareness for Valley Hospice Inc.
He also is known as a "Wheeling Ironman" for having competed in the distance race - now the Ogden Newspapers Half-Marathon Classic - every year since it started. Toto also has run the Boston Marathon twice.
The grandfather of five has completed a personal endurance test on a large scale every five years since the age of 60. That year, he cycled 4,200 miles across the United States.
At age 65, he cycled the perimeter of the United States sporting a specially made Valley Hospice cycling jersey to raise awareness. It was a 12,000-mile trek during which he averaged 90 miles a day for 131 days. He not only persevered through mountains, deserts, high winds, snow and rain, but he and his wife, Nancy - his "support staff" - also endured the unexpected death of their daughter during that trip. They returned home for the funeral and then went back out on the road to complete the trip.
"He is just one of those guys that always comes through. ... It makes you aware of how much an older person can do," said Hudimac, who is 56.
When he was 70, Toto asked Hudimac to join him for the first Endurance Triathlon Challenge for Valley Hospice. They cycled 140 miles, paddled a two-man canoe 200 miles and ran 30 miles. For the Endurance Triathlon Challenge II, some changes were made owing to Toto being five years older, not to mention the mid-90-degree heat and accompanying humidity from June 18-21. They cut in half their kayak trip down the Muskingum River, took a one-day break and ran the marathon leg as a relay instead of individually. But Toto took the modifications in stride.
"With age, you have a natural decline in cardiovascular (fitness). There's nothing you can do about it, but you can work within your limitations, and that's what I try to do. I realize it and I accept it and I know that's part of aging, but that doesn't mean I have to stop and sit and do nothing."
Also completing portions of the challenge with Toto and Hudimac were Toto's neighbor, Bruce Miner, who joined them for the cycling leg from Valley Hospice's Liza's Place in Wheeling to Dresden. Joining them for a portion of the marathon relay was Charlie Kozlesky, who for 34 years has sponsored a 12-hour benefit run for various children's hospitals in his hometown of Woodsfield. Last year, Toto ran 50 miles in that event; this year, he plans to up his distance to 55 miles.
"One thing that motivates me is the fact that so many younger athletes will not venture out to do this type of endurance challenge," Toto said.
"Nor will they ever know what they are truly capable of."
Toto said he wouldn't be able to do all that he has done with his wife, Nancy, herself a "survivor," having triumphed over breast cancer.
"I can't say enough about the support of my wife of 52 years. No other athlete I know of has the total support in whatever crazy idea I come up with. She is there at all I ever participate in. ... She is part of the team."
Nancy Toto said not only has she driven the support van for her husband's cross-county treks and his endurance challenges, she also is the official documenter of his accomplishments.
"I probably have over 40,000 pictures, and they're all organized in albums," she said. The walls of their home are lined with photographs, framed newspaper articles, plaque and certificates detailing her husband's feats.
Among all the accolades are two decorative plaques that stand out: one says, "No whining" and the other, "Grow old with me; the best is yet to be!"
When Mitch Toto mentioned his next endurance challenge in five years, he began with the word, "If," but his wife quickly interjected, "When ..."
He laughed but noted: "At 75, you don't know what's in store for you. You hope you can continue what you're doing. You have no idea. It could be a day or it can be 20, 25 years."
He added that once a person slows down, he will continue to slow down until he "just sits."
"That's why I push myself as hard as I can as long as I can, to keep me active that much longer. ... But if I push myself too far and it ends my life, so be it," Toto said.
If he could have a say, that's not his plan, however. He is careful with his diet, eating little if any sodium, and no red meat, and he keeps in shape on a daily basis by doing physical labor on his five acres of land, including two ponds and a 3,600-square-foot recreation center he built. He is now working on digging a one-and-one-half acre pond at the original Toto family farm in Adena, where his son is building a home. Toto plans to build a cabin there, as well - he has cut all the wood for it already - and plans to move there with Nancy when he finally retires. (He already as retired twice - once from Allied Chemical and 10 years later from the heating and air conditioning business he owned. He now installs eight to 10 outdoor wood boilers a year.)
"I told my son, when I'm old and feeble I'll move in. They said, 'Well, you're already old.' I said, 'OK, then, when I'm feeble,'" Toto said, laughing.
Five years from now, Toto plans to keep his Endurance Challenge III more local. He will start out running the Ogden Newspapers half-marathon, then bike the Wheeling Trail. Then, he figures it is two miles around Wheeling Island, so he will circle it in a kayak 25 times for 50 miles.
"I think we'd do the run and bike on the same day and on the final day, do the kayak."
"And we'll get more local people to come out and do it with you and raise more awareness for Valley Hospice," Nancy Toto said.
"Yeah, and then it wouldn't be that far to the hospital!" Toto said, laughing again.
The circumnavigation of Wheeling Island would save Toto and Hudimac the difficulty they had on the recent endurance challenge of having to take their kayaks out of the water five times to walk their way around dams. The kayaking was the most difficult part of the journey for both men, partially because of these forced portages. Nonetheless, Hudimac said, Toto would seemingly easily pull his kayak out of the water and through all sorts of vines and foliage.
"He'd grab his kayak up and be out of there while I was struggling behind. At 75, he's so physically strong it's amazing," Hudimac said. He added: "It just makes you aware of how much a person who's older can still do."