The record-breaking runner who wants us to follow in her footsteps

The ultra-runner who is breaking barriers and records – and says it’s more important than ever to keep moving.

Angela White is a world record breaker. In 2019 she became the oldest woman to run from John O’Groats to Land’s End. Aged 62, she ran over 62 peaks in the Lake District in under 62 hours. And this summer she’ll be running the 192-mile Coast to Coast Path from St Bees on the Irish Sea to Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire.

But the retired surgeon insists she isn’t a natural athlete. She only started running in her fifties and says it is never too late to follow your dreams.

a woman running in the mountainsCredit: James Kirby
White on her 62 Peaks Lake District challenge

I hear people saying that if they had their time again, they would do this or that,” says White.

“You don’t need to have your time over again. It may not look like it would have done when you were in your twenties or thirties, but you can still dust off those dreams and challenges and do them.”

White is out to change people’s mindsets. Her message is not to take it easy as we grow older, but instead to get moving and change our attitude towards ageing.

“I’m 64 now,” she says. “My life expectancy is 87, so that’s another 23 years, a whole career’s worth of years, so what am I going to do with it? That is my message for anyone approaching their fifties and sixties – that life actually can begin there.”

White isn’t just an evangelist who happens to have blessed genetics. As a retired orthopaedic surgeon who specialised in the care of the elderly, she knows her stuff.

Why we need to keep moving

“We now know that ageing by itself doesn’t cause major problems until we get into our 90s,” she tells us.

“A number of research projects are looking at ‘super-agers’, where a high number of the population already survive to their nineties or hundreds.Our muscles and bones are living tissue and develop in accord to what we ask them to do. Do nothing and they won’t serve you well. Keep moving and move more and they’ll happily develop to support your movement.

“We shouldn’t be taking it easy as we get older: in fact it’s more important than ever that we keep moving.”

White worked in the computer industry before starting medical school in her thirties and went on to qualify as a surgeon.

For the next two decades she juggled her career with raising three children.

“Then I had three close family members who became seriously ill and died within four months of each other,” she says. “One of them was my husband Alan, who died from a brain tumour. I didn’t give myself any time off.

“I threw myself into work and I became overworked, overweight, unfit and unhappy. Over the next two years I had a couple of minor health problems and I realised that if I didn’t help myself then I wouldn’t be able to help anyone else”

So White started walking: just 15 minutes a day after work. She admits even that was hard.

“I got home then I would have to go straight out again. I felt guilty because there were things I had to for my family, in the house and for work. I was ridiculously unfit and was huffing and puffing up the smallest hill.

Woman runner below rocks on a mountainCredit: Eddie Winthorpe
White says being outdoors can help us all

First steps to an ultra marathon

“A couple of years later, in December 2011 I saw an advert by a lady called Sandra saying she was setting up a small running group for older women. It took me weeks before I picked up the phone to ring her. I thought I would either be too slow, that I would look ridiculous, or they would laugh at me.”

When Sandra announced she was running an ultra-marathon, White was fascinated.

“Sandra had started running at the age of 62 and now at the age of 67 she was planning on taking part in the Joss Naylor Challenge,” White says. “It’s a fell run of 48 miles over 30 mountain peaks and with a total of 17,000ft of ascent. She was checking out the route and it all sounded terribly unsafe. I was very curious, so I asked if I could come and join her.”

White bought some trail shoes, and a whole new world opened up.

“I’d moved to the Lake District decades before with the intention of walking in the hills. But that had never happened,” she says. “Now I joined Sandra and it was liberating. You can have a beautiful sunny day, but it’s more likely going to be wet in the hills. The clag will be down, it’s blowing a hooley – but it makes you feel alive. It appealed to me at a very deep level. It sparked me into life.”

Sandra didn’t complete the challenge that year due to injury, but White was with her the following year when, at the age of 67, Sandra became the oldest woman to finish.

From there, White got the bug herself.

A woman standing on a hill by a trig pointCredit: Angela White
White discovered a love of hill running

Taking a step up

White saw an advert for a multi-day ultra-marathon called the Northern Traverse, which follows the 192-mile Coast to Coast Path.

“I had no ambitions to do it when I saw it,” she remembers. “In my naivety I imagined it would be very fit young men taking part. But I started to think about it. My first granddaughter was born that year. She would never know her grandfather, Alun, and he would never know her. I decided to take it on as a challenge to raise money for the brain tumour charity.”

It was the toughest thing she’d done.

“As a junior doctor I had experienced the sleep deprivation but not with the physical fatigue and pain,” she says.

“When it got tough, I reminded myself I was there out of choice and that people who suffered from brain tumours and their families are suffering a lot more and for a lot longer than I was. The pain from my blisters would heal, but their pain won’t.”

Running from John O’Groats to Land’s End

“I’d never had a dream, any ambition at all, to run the length of the country,” says White. “I was looking for a way to raise awareness of the need for all of us to take action to stave off ill health as we age. In the end, I chose JOGLE (John O’Groats to Land’s End) because my concerns around healthy ageing affecting every individual living the whole length of our country. I found that if I could complete it, there was the possibility of a Guinness World Record as the oldest woman to do so. I wanted to inspire other people to follow their dreams and not let our perceptions of ageing be a barrier.”

By now White had created her “Running Granny” website to encourage older people to stay active, but it took her another two years to prepare for JOGLE – and she admits the logistics were even harder than the training.

She says: “I didn’t use a trainer, didn’t read any training plans. There aren’t any for someone my age planning on running more than 800 miles. I’d planned to run 40 miles a day, with six hours rest each day until I reached Land’s End. But in reality, the daily mileage varied from 70 miles on the first day to about a dozen on the last.

“The logistics were a lot of work – working out timings, finding crew, producing maps, organising tracking devices, writing instructions and even cooking and freezing all my food for the route.”

White also used her analytical skills to plan what could go wrong, what she could control and what she couldn’t.

“Mitigating risks included training to prevent repetitive strain injuries like shin splints and dealing with blisters. Running a long way day after day is a trauma and, like any other injury, the body responds with inflammation. This is most often seen in the legs and feet with swelling which makes your legs heavy and limits the oxygen flow to the muscles. I spent some time each night during my JoGLE with my legs at 90 degrees up the wall, then propped up with pillows and duvets in the motorhome.”

Angela White standing by the Lands End signpostCredit: Angela White
White at the end of her JOGLE run

She completed the 875-mile challenge in 18 days, 10 hours and three minutes, in September 2019. Along the route she was spurred on by hundreds of other runners who joined her for short stints to keep her company. But she admits it was the toughest thing she has done.

“I would talk to my body, say that it was going to be okay and to crank down the pain from 10 to one so I could get through the next bit. That did work for quite a long time. But it did get to the point where I had never experienced anything like it. The pain would spiral out of control so I would have to stop there and then to rest.”

Sixty-two peaks at 62

After completing the challenge, she launched a not-for-profit organisation, “Going For Old”, to encourage more people to keep moving as they get older. But then the pandemic came along and everything stopped.

So White set herself another challenge. In 2021, aged 62, she ran 62 peaks in the Lake District with a total elevation – that’s all the uphills– of 45,000ft. Her run time was 61 hours and 32 minutes, plus 14 hours for transitions between peaks and rest breaks – including just three hours’ sleep.

“I wasn’t confident going into it,” she says. “I hadn’t been able to train in the hills because of Covid restrictions, so I wasn’t as hill fit as I should have been. It was a tough challenge, but I had a fantastic support crew. None of these challenges would have been possible without their support.”

Her challenge was turned into a YouTube film.

 

The Coast to Coast

Since then, she’s had a year off due to a knee injury.

“Investigations revealed I have three different problems in the knee, but both my consultant and I were surprised things were as good as they were,” she says.

In February she completed her first ultra since recovering, the 75-mile Lady Anne’s Way.

In terms of practicalities, food is important – as are the right layers. “On  multi-day ultras you need to be grazing on different snacks as you go, but you also need proper food, so I spend time preparing meals I think I might eat. Among things that work for me are homemade pizzas and bran loaf.

“I use technical fluid and foods such as energy drinks, protein shakes and some energy/protein bars because they are easy to eat while running especially on the short events. For longer events over multiple days I keep them to a minimum as my stomach is happier with proper food.”

She also recommends carrying a lightweight mid-layer, for when you get cold. “I have a Haglöfs jacket –  unfortunately, they don’t make that particular one anymore, but it’s very light and thin. When I get cold and put it on, I feel warm within 20 seconds.”

Her next challenge is Wainwright’s 192-mile Coast to Coast national trail this summer. “Although I’ve done it before, I really love the route and I’d like to have another crack at it to see whether I can complete it in a faster time than before.

“I am not an athlete. I am a back-of-the-pack shuffler, but I can keep going. It is amazing what your body can do when you ask it.”

A woman running on a hill in the sunshineCredit: James Kirby
White says staying active is even more important as we get older

Inspiring tips from an ultra-runner Angela White

How to start getting active

“Go for it, as long as you don’t have any medical conditions. Speak with your GP if you do and get some realistic advice. Then be sensible, as your fitness won’t come back overnight.

“You might have an image of yourself running, playing football or rugby in your teens and twenties, but you are 50, 60, 70 or older now and if you think like that you’ll end up injured or find you can’t walk the next day.

“Be realistic and take time to recondition. Take it slowly and build up over weeks and months giving the body time to adapt. Remember that a good diet and rest are important components of reconditioning so don’t attempt to go all out every day.”

It’s never too late to run an ultra marathon

“It’s never too late. But it’s different to running 5km, 10km or even a marathon. Ultra-running involves an awful lot of walking. But it is accessible to almost everyone. An ultra is anything from 26.3 miles up. Start by walking longer distances, join the Long Distance Walkers Association to train your body to walk over rough and uneven ground.

“If you already have a good level of fitness be mindful that you still might not be ready for walking/running on uneven ground – if you’ve only ever run on a treadmill you can’t expect to do a 50-mile race in the Lake District.”

“The only limits to what you can do are within your own head. You can still do all of the things you might have wanted to do or used to do; they just won’t look the same. But they are just as important, just as satisfying and just as challenging now as they were then.”

Phillipa Cherryson

Written by Phillipa Cherryson she/her

Updated:

Phillipa Cherryson is a senior digital editor for Saga Exceptional. Phillipa has been a journalist for 30 years, writing for local and national newspapers, UK magazines and reporting onscreen for ITV. In her spare time she loves the outdoors and is a trainee mountain leader and Ordnance Survey Champion.

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