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The Gifts of Dr. Elmo

March 31, 2022 6 min read

The Gifts of Dr. Elmo

Elmo's song has legs. So does he. Running in Costa Rica to get ready for 2022. (photo by Pam Wendell).
Elmo's song has legs. So does he. Running in Costa Rica to get ready for 2022. (photo by Pam Wendell).

 

Dr. Elmo Shropshire and I are in someone’s Hall of Infamy, not Hall of Fame, for our inelegant framing of “old” in our creative work. His is for a song. Mine is for this newsletter, Geezer Jock.


I am many rungs below Elmo as far as being famous, or infamous. He is the delightful man who sings Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer, which he first performed in 1978.


Yep, you haters, he’s the remorseless one who once knocked Bing Crosby off the top of the charts for Christmas songs.


How blasphemous that Grandma has hoof marks on her nightgown….
…and how uproarious. The song is a slap back at the unamusing and uninventive folks who won’t open up to slapstick.


The song about the resilient Grandma (yes, she lived) is irrepressible, but I’ll be honest, the rest of Elmo’s story is better. From his running competitively at 85, to breaking in a Kentucky Derby winner as a teenage rider, to refusing to be that grateful passenger as he gets older, Elmo is a chart topper off the stage.
Take the next four minutes to read Elmo’s story. Please.
***
First, Dr. Elmo was a practicing veterinarian, a man who nursed sick animals back to health, and not the least bit an ogre, which is what the anti-ageist Gray Panthers labeled him 43 years ago for the Grandma-trampling song.
Elmo is 85 years old now and a world class Masters track athlete who might just be reaching his ceiling. I know, the man is 85, the ceiling should be crashing down on him, but Elmo has a double-shotted vigor that is carrying him. He is training until Saturday, Christmas, in Costa Rica for what he expects to be a breakout year on the Masters circuit in 2022.
Like his 43-year old song, Elmo’s got legs.
Here is the resume he is building on:
No. 1 in the U.S. in the 3K 85-89 cohort.
No. 3 in the World in the 3K.
No. 2 in the U.S. in the 400 meters.
No. 3 in the Steeplechase 80-84 cohort in 2021.
Dr. Elmo, who was ranked No. 1 in the U.S. in the 5K (80-84) outdoors in 2018, insists he has more to give his sport, which is why his story is so alluring. His goal is to win first place in the National Senior Games in Ft. Lauderdale in May, 2022 in the 400, 800, 1500, and 5K and medal again in the USA Track & Field Masters in Lexington, Ky., later in the summer.
Elmo has thoughts of challenging the Europeans in the World Games in Finland, too.
“For the first 10 years, or so, of running competitively, I didn’t win,” he said, “but as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned a few things, what my best races are, and I can win now.
“I’m really looking forward to 2022.”
The resurgence of Covid along the East Coast means Elmo’s calendar is free this Christmas after 40-plus years of booked-solid holiday tours singing his song. Elmo is not unhappy about that because now he can train.
In December, he was running three or four days a week in Costa Rica. The ground there is uneven, the hills can be a chore, and the jungle humidity is taxing, yet Elmo thrived in the conditions with his wife, Pam Wendell, driving along “to make sure I didn’t get lost or eaten by a jaguar.”
Imagine his resolve in a close race in 2022, especially next May in Florida in 85-90 degree swelter at the National Senior Games.
The song continues to make him wealthy, but Elmo easily put it aside this month to run.
“Every December we’re always so busy with bookings for Christmas, so I couldn’t run at all,” he said. “Now, I’m training. I didn’t want to take the month off from running. I wanted to start to get ready for 2022.”
If you are looking for some mysticism from Elmo, this is pretty good:
“The more you use your legs, the more they allow you to use them,“ he says.
Elmo is convinced he keeps arthritis at bay with his regimen of Cross Fit and running. I get it. He doesn’t sit around and allow infirmities to catch up to him.
Let’s stick on this subject of legs because they mean a lot to him. There is something about Elmo’s legs and four-legged animals who can fly.
He was a boy in Ocala, Florida and was an exercise rider for the modest thoroughbred stables in central Florida. The affection for horses came naturally because his father, who was also named Elmo, was an accomplished jockey in the U.S. in the 1920s.
When Elmo, Sr., had a growth spurt in his late teens, he could no longer ride professionally and he became the manager and trainer of a horse farm. Elmo, Jr., came along and started making a living on thoroughbreds, as well, exercising the ponies before school and after school for a wage starting at 12 years old, which would have been 1948.
One of the horses in the Ocala stable was “Needles”, a sickly colt that got his name because vets were always trying to find a remedy for his ailments, which meant shots. It was 18-year old Elmo Shropshire, Dr. Elmo, who broke Needles as a yearling in 1954, which means he got the horse to settle down, and ease into his powerful frame, and learn some obedience through commands and a firm hand on the reins.
Needles, it turns out, had more juice than he was given credit for.
In 1956, he stormed the grand stage of horse racing winning the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes, two legs of the hallowed Triple Crown. Needles was the first Florida-bred horse to win the Derby. He finished second in the Preakness, which meant he was one position away from claiming the Triple Crown.
Overnight, Ocala became a haven for thoroughbred farms and the area still rivals lordly Kentucky as a training ground for race horses. The Shropshires first plowed the ground.
It was a bittersweet time for Elmo. He found his calling toward being a veterinarian, but when he was 22, his father and mother were killed in a head-on car crash.
Elmo had to make his way on his own. He graduated from the University of Florida, then went to vet school at Auburn. Dr. Elmo was the track vet at Belmont Park in New York, but he also developed a touch for music, bluegrass and country.
A friend wrote the Grandma song in 1978 while stranded during a snowstorm in Reno. Elmo performed it…and away he went with another fast, and flying four-legged creature, the Reindeer.
His running career started a couple of years later at 55 while trying to keep up with Pam, who was a distance runner. She would start out on a long run and Elmo would be exhausted after a half-mile trying to keep pace.
Gradually, doggedly, he built endurance for the long runs. In time, Dr. Elmo was a pro and ran the New York City Marathon. He was 70 when he finished the NYC Marathon ninth in his age division out of 121, and in the top five among Americans in his age group.
But his sweet spot was shorter distances and he found it by accident.
Elmo was 65, and in a mile-race race in Sacramento, when he suddenly found himself off the back shoulder of the leader and said to himself, "I can win this!” He flew past the leader and won the race.
That day, Dr. Elmo wrote himself a prescription: run shorter races, dude.
“All the time I was riding (race) horses, I never thought of running myself, the racing,” Elmo said. “Once I started running I loved the competition of it, and I love the competition more as I’ve gotten older, and I love the good health that it brings me.”
I hope after four minutes of reading, your perception has changed of the Grinch who sang that song about Grandma being run over by Santa’s thoroughbreds. This man, Dr. Elmo, cared for sick, or injured animals, and he’s caring for the rest of us now in his 80s by showing us the way to good health. The song is just a sliver of his story.

 

Elmo's song still rocks after 40 years. (photo courtesy of Holiday Express).
Elmo's song still rocks after 40 years. (photo courtesy of Holiday Express).

 

Elmo, 18, on Needles, the future Kentucky Derby winner. Needles created an overnight boom in the thoroughbred racing industry in Central Florida.

Elmo, 18, on Needles, the future Kentucky Derby winner. Needles created an overnight boom in the thoroughbred racing industry in Central Florida.


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