Meet the marathon runners refusing to slow down
Sitting on the side of the road, I held my head in my hands. At 59 years old, I’d reached the last leg of my first-ever Ironman competition – a 2-mile 700-yard open water swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a run the length of a marathon (26.2 miles). But, suddenly, I’d become dehydrated and confused.
As I reached the 20-mile marker, I’d lost any sense of how far I’d run and couldn’t make head nor tail of it: did it mean I’d run 20 miles, or still had 20 left to go?
The strain of the race had left me completely disoriented – and when an ambulance picked me up and took me to the finish line, I realised I’d failed my dream of finishing an Ironman competition.
That day, as I recovered, I didn’t have time to feel disappointed. But the next morning, instead of feeling defeated, I felt a familiar fire surging inside me.
It turned out I’d only been six miles from the end of the race when I’d had to give up – which meant that next time, with the right approach, I knew I could do it.
Unlike many women, I found turning 40 a breeze. My husband Stephen and I were busy working on his transportation business and pursuing our love of travel, and I didn’t have time to worry about getting older.
But when I turned 50, it was a different matter. Being halfway to 100 felt significant, plus I’d let my fitness slip a bit and put on some weight. It felt like I was standing at the top of a spiral staircase that was heading downwards and it was quite alarming.
I wanted to find a way of getting fit but, although I’d always been quite active – dancing when I was younger and going on lots of walks – I’d never set foot inside a gym.
“I’m not going if it’s full of young things in leotards,” I told Stephen, so he agreed to go first and find out what it was like. When he returned, he promised me it was fine, so I booked an induction day.
Stepping through the doors, I was quite nervous, but the thought of it turned out to be much worse than the reality. It wasn’t filled with young girls looking like film stars, as I’d expected, and everyone was so friendly – especially the gym’s manager, who would check in on me once in a while.
One day, she approached me and told me she could see I was doing well – but perhaps I could do more. “I see you walking on the treadmill, but have you tried running?” she asked.
“Oh no, I don’t run,” I said firmly. But she encouraged me to give it a go and I was surprised when I managed half a mile on my first try. Encouraged, I carried on running regularly, gradually increasing the distance each time.
Meanwhile, a young friend we worked with, called James, was becoming interested in triathlons – endurance races where you swim, run and cycle over different distances. He brought a magazine into work one day and read out some of the articles while we were working.
“Listen to this,” he said, describing the annual Ironman World Championship: an ultra-triathlon held in Hawaii featuring a 2-mile 700-yard (3.9km) open water swim, a 112-mile (180km) bike ride, and a 26-mile 385-yard run (42km 195m).
“That sounds ridiculous,” I scoffed. “Nobody could do that in one day!”
It piqued my interest, though, so when James competed in his first triathlon, my husband and I went along to support him. Stephen is 10 years younger than me, and had been a competitive swimmer in his youth, so he began entering competitions with me watching from the sidelines. I didn’t dream of joining them, though. “Surely I’m too old,” I thought.
But when Stephen bought a new bike and gave me his old one, I started cycling, pedalling alongside James as he went on his training runs. I also began running on the road as well as in the gym – first 5km, then 10km – and Stephen offered to teach me how to do the front crawl, which is the swim stroke used in endurance races.
Gradually, as my 51st year marched on and I got stronger and stronger, it dawned on me: “Maybe I could really do this.” As I watched more triathlons, I realised it was mostly women a lot younger than me competing – there were very few in their fifties. So, what did I have to lose?
Less than six months after I first set foot in a gym, I competed in my first duathlon – an 800m (875-yard) swim followed by a 10km (six-mile 376-yard) run. It was a big leap but, as I headed for the finish line, younger competitors egged me on as they passed: “Come on, Daphne, you’re looking great!”, which gave me such a boost. I thought I’d be in everyone’s way, but it was quite the opposite.
Some people didn’t approve and my mother-in-law would ask: “When will you stop this nonsense?”
At the end of the race, to my utter astonishment, I was called to the podium as the female winner in the over-50s category. I’d never been any good at sports, yet here I was clutching a big bunch of prize flowers, with all the younger entrants cheering for me. It was an incredible feeling.
I was still 50 years old when I competed in my first full triathlon, swimming 1,000 metres (1,094 yards), cycling 25 miles (40km), and running 10km (six miles, 376 yards). And, as the only entrant in my age group, I found myself on the podium once again. I’d achieved something that had seemed impossible and that fuelled my determined to get even better.
Some people didn’t approve and my mother-in-law would ask: “When will you stop this nonsense?” But I was spurred on by the thought that perhaps I could motivate other women approaching middle age to get out there and try something new – things they might not have dreamt of doing before.
At each event, at least one woman would come up to me and tell me I’d inspired them to give triathlons a go. Just a few weeks ago, I was waiting to start the Windsor Triathlon when another competitor approached me.
“I worried I was too old to do this,” she said. “But then I read about what you’ve done and realised if you can start at 50, I can do it at 47.” It’s knowing I’m making a difference that keeps me going.
Over the years, I’ve competed in local, national, and even international championship events, often as the only woman in my age group.
Incredibly, I even came third in my category in the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii at the age of 60 – the very same competition James had told me about all those years ago, and the competition that I’d failed to finish first time around just one year earlier.
So, to the people who think they’re too old to try new things, I say: go for it.
Only two months ago, I competed in the European Sprint Triathlon Championships in Madrid and came first in the female 80-84 age group.
As I’ve got older, I’ve had to be a bit more careful about training to avoid injury or accidents. I’m always careful to look where I’m going rather than at the scenery around me. I’ve given up on 100-mile bike rides and I do more flat seafront runs these days, but I don’t mind. The main thing is that I’m still out, feeling strong and adding to my CV.
Now I’m 83, I have no plans to slow down. Getting into sport in mid-life has boosted my confidence and mental resilience, showing me that you’re never too old to try something new.
I believe it’s important to keep healthy and bright in as many ways as you can. Just because you’re older, doesn’t mean you can’t still be a beginner again.
It’s wonderful discovering what you’re capable of and trying new things, whether that’s learning a new language, or watching a film you’ve never seen before.
I can’t think of anything worse than getting stuck in the same routine.
Since doing triathlons, I’ve tried my hand at writing poetry and making stained glass. I’ve even had tattoos to commemorate my successes, including a pair of wings on my legs, which I got when I was 60 to inspire me to carry on flying!
So, to the people who think they’re too old to try new things, I say: go for it. You don’t have to be David Hockney to pick up a paintbrush and it’s important to make time to learn something you’ve always wanted to do. And if you follow the “little and often” rule – until you’re struck by enthusiasm, at least – you’re less likely to give up.
At 50, I was terrified of what the future held for me. But, at 83, I know if I put my mind to it, nothing can stop me.