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81 years old, 63-mile ritual

S.L. man walks to his birthplace in Payson for 8th time

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An 81-year-old man has been walking quietly from Salt Lake City southward since Tuesday. He wears a BYU baseball cap, a black fanny pack and white Reebok shoes, and he walks without fanfare.

But sometime this afternoon, John Whiteman will complete, for the eighth time, a three-day, 63-mile walk from Salt Lake City to the place of his birth — just two weeks before he turns 82. This father of 11 has been joined in portions of the walk this year by a son and grandson. And when he's alone, he has his thoughts to keep him company.

"When you're 82 years old, you've got a lot of things to think about," he said. "You think about your past, your relationships with all your children and your wife, you think about all the mistakes you've made and what you'd like to do better if you had another chance. You just kind of reminisce in your mind."

Whiteman first made the trek in 1996 for his 75th birthday because, he said, "I wanted to do something interesting, challenging and worthwhile." He decided taking a three-day walk to Payson, the town that his grandfather and great-grandfather helped to found and a place where he vacationed during his childhood, would fulfill those requirements.

"I just had a place in my heart for Payson."

The first year he trained for three months, walked the three 21-mile legs with two of his daughters, and celebrated with 25 family members in Payson by visiting the house he was born in. He's completed the walk every year since.

"I guess it's just determination," he said. "I want to prove to myself I can do it."

At 81, he has little to prove. A six-time Huntsman World Senior Games competitor, he has three gold medals and two silvers from participating in the triathlon, which consists of a 500-yard swim, a 12-mile bike ride and a three-mile walk. He plans to compete again this year. He walks three to four days a week, swims every other day and rides his stationary bike almost every day.

His motivation?

"The longer you live, the more you accomplish, and the more you do, the longer you live," he said.

As he makes his annual walk, he listens to books on tape (in the last eight years he's been through Dostoyevsky's daunting "The Brothers Karamazov" three times), ponders life and tries to figure out the quickest and most efficient way to walk. This year he's also tackling the Greek alphabet.

"I look at the mountains, too, and you know, it's beautiful. It's just quite an experience."

Whiteman finished the first leg of his walk in Lehi on Tuesday, had his wife pick him up and slept at home. On Wednesday morning, his wife dropped him off where he left off and he walked to Provo, where he stayed the night in a motel. When he finishes his walk today, he plans to go out to dinner with his wife and then drive back to his Salt Lake City home. There will not likely be any spectators, any parties. And that's OK with Whiteman. He will have completed the walk, improved his health and thought a little bit more about life.

Next year, he hopes to do it again.

"I plan to do it as long as I can," he said. "But when I'm crawling on my hands and knees, I probably won't do it anymore."

E-mail: achristensen@desnews.com