Michael Vitez / The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — Hugh Campbell started running at age 86, joined a running club at 87, and broke the world indoor record in 3,000 meters for his age group at the University of Delaware last month, at 88.

“They got all excited,” said Campbell, “because they found when they had a world-record beater, there was a need for a drug test, and they didn’t know what in the world to do about it.”

He waited for nearly an hour as officials huddled. “The new masters drug-testing rules were difficult to interpret,” said Robin Jefferis, a meet official. They finally sent him home, concluding no test was needed. Hugh is sure he would have passed.

“The only pill I take,” he said, “is a multivitamin.”

Campbell, of Wilmington, Del., attributes his record times to “fresh legs” — the very fact that he never ran before. But more satisfying than setting any record has been discovering a new sense of purpose and joy so late in life.

“My take is this is great,” said his wife of 55 years, Naomi. “An 88-year-old man comes alive!”

One way of looking at Campbell’s success as an old runner is that his whole life has been preparation for it.

Born in Canada, in Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island, he joined the Canadian Navy in 1944, and after the war earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He spent his career with DuPont and retired in 1985 at 60. “I’ve been retired nearly as long as I worked,” he said.

He is the youngest of 10. His oldest sister died at 104. A brother lived to 101. Other siblings thrived well into their 90s. Virtually every day since he retired, until he started running, he played golf. He had a foursome with other retirees. Two died, and the third grew ill. So he started golfing with his son.

Unexplainable urge

Two years ago, feeling an urge he can’t explain, Hugh ran around the block. He wasn’t tired.

So he measured a three-quarter-mile loop with his car, and soon he was running four laps. In May 2011, he entered his first race at the Red Clay Creek Presbyterian Church in Wilmington. Naomi tells the story: A woman at the registration table saw his age and said, “You’ve been running a long time, haven’t you?”

“No,” Hugh replied. “This is my first race.”

“Why are you starting now?” the woman asked.

“Because I figured before I die, I wanted to run a race.” “Oh, it’s on your bucket list.” When Hugh finished, said Naomi, “and didn’t look like he was going to drop dead, the gal came up and gave him a big hug.”

Hugh can’t recall his time. “My mind isn’t as capable as my legs anymore.”

At first, his knees ached, and he went to his doctor, then to rehab. He didn’t quit. Research shows that the very old can still build muscle and increase strength. Soon the pain went away, and what was left was the joy of running, improving.

In May, at 87, Hugh was running one morning at Delcastle Recreation Area near his home. He met Dave McCorquodale, 68, who soon hopes to complete his 100th marathon. The two got to talking. McCorquodale runs for the Pike Creek Valley Running Club, one of 10 masters clubs in the region, including the Greater Philadelphia Track Club. McCorquodale knew immediately what a recruit Hugh could be.

The 10 clubs vie against one other in the Grand Prix Challenge. Runners compete in age groups, 40-44, 45-49, and so on. Hugh runs in 85-89. Each runner gets an “age grade” — his time compared to the world record in his age group.

If you equal a world record, your grade is 100.

“An age grade of 90 or above is considered world-class,” McCorquodale said. “Kenyans get that kind of age grade.”

The team with the best age-grade runners wins.

McCorquodale and others urged Hugh to run a USA Track & Field 5k race in Syracuse, N.Y., in September.

As he finished, Hugh said, “there was an announcer calling out, ‘Here comes Hugh Campbell, and he’s breaking a world record!’ That’s pretty exciting.”

Hugh ran 26 minutes, 45 seconds, smashing the 27:42 record, achieving an age grade of 101.93. (His time ended up only a U.S. record. A younger Brit, just 85, ran 24:57 last fall.)

Hugh broke his own U.S. record March 16 at the Adrenalin 5K in Haddonfield, N.J., running 26:33, averaging 8:32 a mile.

He is the top individual in the 10-team grand prix, and his club is leading.

“Here’s a guy that’s world class,” said McCorquodale, “but he’s a work in progress because he doesn’t really know how to run. It’s fascinating.”

How can Hugh run so fast?

One reason is genetics. Scientists now believe people like Hugh and his siblings, who live to be very old in good health, have the same bad genes as everybody else.

But they also may have “protective variants,” genes that slow aging and decrease risk of disease, said Boston University’s Tom Perls, head of the New England Centenarian Study.

Hugh also exercised and ate right.

“Aging is not something that happens to you,” said physiologist Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko of the University of Illinois. “Your decisions definitely have an impact.” Hugh has his own theory: “I’ve played golf almost every day for the last 25 years,” he said. “I like to walk when I play golf, and carry my clubs. That gave me the kind of strength in my legs that kept them in good shape without burning them out.”

“People who have been running for years aren’t still running at 88,” he adds. “They’re either dead or had sense enough to quit.”