Meet the marathon runners refusing to slow down
There was a time when the sight of someone well past retirement age out for a run would have seemed highly unusual. But today the UK is in the early stages of a late-life running boom. Almost 240,000 British over-65s are regular runners, including nearly 40,000 over 75. And many of them are running regularly and seriously, too.
Around one in four finishers in this year’s London Marathon were over 50 – that’s 11,490 people. They included 2,643 finishers over 60, of whom 323 were over 70 and 16 were over 80. The number of women over 70 finishing the London Marathon (99 this year) has doubled since 2017.
Many are drawn to running because of all the health benefits it can offer. Not only do runners live longer than non-runners by up to seven years, but they also enjoy more years free from chronic illness or disability.
Studies show that regular exercise can delay the onset of up to 40 chronic diseases, plus it’s good for bone density and mental wellbeing. As for the old chestnut that running will ‘wreck your joints’ – according to research, there is no clear evidence that running causes knee osteoarthritis.
On the other hand, the benefits of running are so huge and life-enhancing that people who have never run before are taking it up in middle age or later. Many also find running empowering: an activity that builds strength and confidence and opens up their lives to new experiences and connections.
The women interviewed here have different motives and different stories. What they have in common is that they have shed the inhibitions that keep many older people indoors.
Hilary Wharam, 81
“It’s nice if I can inspire other people”
Hilary Wharam, from Rawdon, near Leeds, was in her early fifties when she began running and, 30 years on, has completed 175 marathons. She first started to run with her daughter-in-law.
“We ran about three-quarters of a mile, stopped three times and were absolutely stuffed,” she says. After two months, she tried a local 10k race, and a few days later a man came round to her house with a trophy.
“I hadn’t run very fast, but I was fastest in my age group.” Soon she felt confident enough to start training with her local club, the Horsforth Harriers.
Three years later, aged 55, she got a place in the London Marathon.
“I got round in four hours, seven minutes, and apparently that’s ‘good for age’, which means you get a place in the following year’s race.” She went on to run London 14 times in a row. Her fastest time was “four hours and six sodding seconds”. But she slowed down as the years passed, and the annual pilgrimage to the capital, which she last did in 2016 when she was 75, lost its appeal.
She had, however, found a new role at the club by then: as the kindly leader of an ‘absolute beginners’ training group.
“When you could ‘beat the old woman’, you could move up to the main group,” laughs Hilary, a former social welfare officer. She lost her husband in 2015, and the social connections of running are now more important than ever. “I have to go out if I want to speak to somebody,” she says.
She hopes to reach 300 marathons, but she finds them very hard now.
“I’ve got a spinal stenosis, which means that you run more bent,” she says. Yet she’s far from frail. Finding the main stadium gate locked when she arrived for the Saga photoshoot, she astounded everyone by climbing over a 6ft (1.83 metre) fence!
She limits herself to the local, off-road marathons organised by It’s Grim Up North Running.
“I’ll never do a road marathon again unless I can start early or they have a very generous cut-off time,” she says. And although she’s usually among the last to finish, the younger runners find her presence encouraging.
“I shout, ‘Well done!’ to every single pair of legs that passes me and a lot of them call my name. It’s nice if someone’s feeling inspired, just because you’re there shuffling along.”
Dot Kesterton, 71
“I’m 71, and I’m revisiting my childhood”
Dot Kesterton, from Sheffield, showed promise as a teenage cross-country runner but then gave up the sport, until being talked back into it 40 years later, aged 56.
She was dropping the eldest of her seven grandchildren at school, when a much younger mother persuaded her to go jogging with her.
“I hated it. I felt ill, everything ached afterwards,” she recalls. In fact, on one early run, she was even sick in the woods. “Yet somehow, astonishingly, I was bitten.”
After a few months, she ran a 5k Race for Life, then a 10k race. She was absurdly slow by her current standards, but loved the atmosphere at the finish.
She had just retired from her job as a PE teacher, so running quickly became a big part of who she was. “You go through life with these roles that you identify with: student, wife, mother, teacher. Then you retire, and it all slips away.” Now, however, she is a runner.
Dot, who has three grown-up children, joined a running group, the Smiley Paces, and ran her first London Marathon, aged 60, in 2012. The following year, she ran 12 minutes faster. “I remember telling myself that I might never get another chance to do this.”
“Running gave me continuity, recovery and headspace”
She nearly didn’t. The following January, she was diagnosed with breast cancer – an “incredibly distressing” experience, requiring surgery and radiotherapy. But running, she believes, helped her to endure it. “I used to run three miles to the hospital for treatment and then run back. Running gave me continuity, recovery and headspace.”
She has been in remission for almost ten years, and is running better than ever, helped by a supportive Sheffield running club, Steel City Striders. She has tried everything, from marathons to 800-metre track races, and also loves fell running.
In recent years, she has raced, with increasing success, in organised Masters athletics, where runners aged from 35 to over 100 compete in five-year age groups.
By 2019, Dot felt confident enough to compete in the European Masters championships.
“When you’ve survived cancer, you’ve got nothing to lose,” she says. She came home with three silver medals in the over-65 category. Then, last year, she won the over-70 gold in the 10k road race at the World Masters championships in Tampere, Finland.
For all her competitive success, which also includes two world championship silvers, Dot still believes that running’s main rewards are wellbeing and camaraderie.
“I love running with my friends, many of whom are 30 years younger than me. It’s fundamental to the person I’ve become.”
To anyone thinking of trying it, she says simply: “Don’t wait till tomorrow. Go out and enjoy yourself. Just go for a walk, enjoy being in the outdoors, and then if you feel like it, try trotting for a bit – and think about what that felt like when you were a child, just having a play. That’s all I’m doing, really: playing. I’m 71, and I’m revisiting my childhood.”
Chris Hobson, 69
“It’s about making me fit enough to enjoy my older age”
Chris Hobson started running at 60, six months before retiring from her job as a head teacher. Now she has run marathons on all seven continents including, last December, the Antarctic Ice Marathon, which she was the oldest woman ever to finish.
When her daughter first talked her into joining her local running club, Holmfirth Harriers near Huddersfield, Chris was apprehensive.
“I had high blood pressure and I was overweight,” she recalls. However, she started by mixing running with walking, and before long she was signed up for the London Marathon.
“I retired from work on the Friday and ran the marathon on the Sunday.” She finished in five hours and 52 minutes, and ran another marathon that September, in Chester.
“That’s when I heard about the 100 Club – people who’ve done 100 marathons. So I thought, maybe that’s something I could aim for.”
Nearly a decade on, she’s training for her 120th marathon – and hopes to run it fast enough to secure a ‘good for age’ place in the 2024 London event, given that she’ll have just turned 70 by the time she runs it.
She likes to run a marathon every five or six weeks, and much of her time in between is devoted to training. As well as daily mobility exercises and having regular sessions with a chiropractor, she monitors her sleep and her blood glucose, tracks her running data with a Garmin watch, and tries to stick to a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet.
“I eat the equivalent of five chicken breasts a day,” she says. This ‘athletic lifestyle’ is not just about marathons. “It’s about making me fit enough to enjoy my older age and do all the things I want to do,” she says.
She hopes to run the North Pole Marathon one day, and perhaps also the Dead Sea Marathon in Israel. To Chris, “age is just a number”. And, she insists: “If I can do this, anyone can.”
To find out about running clubs in your area, see runtogether.co.uk and englandathletics.org for England. For Wales, see welshathletics.org. For Scotland, see scottishathletics.org.uk. And for Northern Ireland, it’s athleticsni.org
The Race Against Time: Adventures in Late-Life Running by Richard Askwith (Yellow Jersey Press, £18.99) is out now