I glanced at my weekly email from parkrun HQ.
“Congratulations on completing your 82nd parkrun and your 82nd at Newport today. You finished in 166th place and were the 41st lady out of a field of 311 parkrunners and you came 5th in your age category VW50-54.”
Shocked, I read the email again. Fifth? That couldn’t be right; I was always 3rd in my age category, beaten only by two excellent athletes whom I’d long accepted were much better runners than me. I’d happily settled into bronze position, remembering how it wasn’t many years ago that I struggled to jog slowly to the end of our road. Maturity had brought with it a level of fitness I couldn’t have imagined a decade ago when I was juggling a full-time career and single-parenthood.
Back then, it wouldn’t have seemed possible that one day when I was older I’d be running the 5km distance in under 26 minutes, let alone competing regularly in 10k races and completing the occasional half marathon, like today’s at Cardiff.
But at some point over the past five years, I’d caught the running bug and, unlikely as it seemed, I had started to develop a competitive streak. And the girl who once spent an hour hiding in a storeroom to avoid the weekly games lesson was devastated to know there were now four women in their early fifties who could out perform her at Newport parkrun.
What was going on? What was the reason for this running revolution among women of a certain age? My age!
When I was growing up in the sixties and seventies, women in their fifties used to ‘act their age’. My own wonderful grannie was rarely seen without a pinny tied around her ample waist and the hours we spent with her usually involved baking calorie-laden delights such as apple crumble, sugar tarts (and yes, they were as disgusting as they sound) and various butter-rich cakes. Her leisure hours weren’t spent pummeling the streets of Corporation Road, but settled down in the back room in front of the telly, her knitting needles clicking furiously. Try as I might, I cannot imagine my white-haired grannie clad from head to toe in Lycra.
I can’t actually recall any adult women taking part in exercise when I was a child, not one. Maybe looking after the home and working part-time was enough for most working class women (well, housework was certainly more physical in those days; my mother’s washing machine had a mangle on it).
Frankly, I blame Jane Fonda for putting daft ideas of fitness into so many women’s heads. Nothing has been the same since her first fitness video was released and women of all ages discovered leg warmers and stripy leotards (I had a spectacularly hideous one back in the early 80s that made me look like a turquoise bumble bee). Then along came the craze for jogging… and the even more grotesque shell suit (an item of clothing that even I couldn’t bring myself to wear).
Like fitness videos, jogging has had its day; running, it seems, is the new aerobics.
I started running in November 2008, in an attempt to manage work-related stress. My earliest runs were short and painful – ‘I’m too old for this’ I wailed to Harri as I arrived home after a mile run, red-faced and out of breath. It didn’t help that we live in Newport, the hilliest city in Wales, and it was impossible to run in any direction without encountering a hill within minutes.
Looking back, I’m not even sure why I kept going, other than some perverse desire to show the source of my work-related stress that she wasn’t going to get the better of me, that I’d use my two weeks off work to get super-fit (or at least start the process).
Soon I was pushing the distances and experiencing the adrenaline highs that the serious runner craves. My three mile jaunts gradually expanded into longer runs and before I knew it, I was clocking up the miles on a regular basis.
Five years on and at 52, I’m still passionate about running, which leads me to wonder what it is about the activity that attracts older women and often turns them into fitness fanatics for the first time in their lives.
There are many reasons I love running but below are just a few of them:
- the support – where do I start? I’ve never met such a wonderful, supportive crowd of people in my life as those friends I’ve made at my running club. While abilities vary dramatically, what everyone has in common is a passion for running and a very real desire to help newcomers achieve their goals, whether that’s beating their previous PB (personal best) at parkrun or running their very first 10k, half or full marathon.
- no need to diet – a well-known slimming club advertises on the corner of our road and every time I run past its poster I have the urge to scrawl on it ‘Ditch the diet – go running instead’. I’m not suggesting that you can run 5km once a week and eat whatever you want the rest of the time but running regularly definitely helps to keep your weight steady. Better still, women who run regularly don’t obsess over their weight and are more interested in keeping their energy levels up than dieting. Cake rules in running circles!
- being outdoors – you know the feeling, the sun’s shining and you want to be outside enjoying some fresh air but you’re up to your eyes and really can’t spare the time. Running is the perfect guilt-free excuse to grab some time to yourself; even a 30 minute run is enough to lift your spirits and make it easier to focus on whatever you need to do afterwards.
- socialising – whether it’s parkrun, local races or large events, running is one of the most sociable and friendly activities I’ve yet to experience. For example, yesterday’s ‘chicken run’ to celebrate Celia’s forthcoming wedding when lots of us wore fancy dress and ran with the bride (who was dressed as a chicken). For once, all thoughts of a parkrun PB were forgotten as we nattered and laughed our way around the course (and ate cupcakes afterwards).
- age really doesn’t matter – in running circles, your speed and distance are the numbers people want to know about, not the ones on your birth certificate. Some of the fastest runners in our club are really young… and really old… with the majority somewhere inbetween. I’m one of the older female runners but I’m inspired by others of my age and older who are running their first marathons in their fifties and are excelling in other events, like triathlons. One woman in her forties is doing her first ultra-marathon this month, which is pretty impressive. I’m equally proud of our lovely youngsters who are so fast and modest about their achievements.
- being a positive role model – my grand-daughters are too young to remember a time when I didn’t run and so they have grown up thinking it perfectly normal for their grandmother to race around in running shorts and vest. Amber recently told me that her friends’ grandmothers don’t do the things I do – I think (I hope) she meant it as a compliment. The nicest bit is when the girls run too, like at the recent Cardiff 10k when there was a shorter 2k race for children (and their grannies!)
- overcoming self-consciousness – okay, I admit I’m not terribly thrilled at being photographed in a pair of shorts and a tight-fit top and then have the pics appear on Facebook (tagged with my name!). Neither do I want to be remembered in posterity as a red-faced and pony-tailed scowler… but it has to be said, once you stop worrying too much about your appearance life certainly becomes a lot more fun.
- competitiveness – barefoot, there’s not a competitive bone in my body but whenever I tie the laces of my cherished Mizunos my inner demon is released and I’m transformed into someone who wants to run over that finishing line way ahead of the field. Yeah, yeah, I know, in my dreams… but running has taught me that, far from being a dirty word, competition can be a very motivating force, even if you’re only competing against your own previous best. And what’s wrong with dreaming that one day I can complete a half marathon in just over an hour, whilst carrying on a friendly conversation with the runner at my side… Mo Farah.
- parkrun – I’ve left the best till last. Until I discovered parkrun in September 2011, my running career had been a rather lonely affair. By then, I’d been running off and on for nearly three years but had only entered one event (Swansea 10k in 2010) and was lacking any real direction. parkrun introduced me to a whole new circle of running friends and ultimately led to me joining Lliswerry Runners when I was 50.
I completed my second Cardiff Half Marathon in two hours, seven minutes and 31 seconds today, knocking 12 minutes off last year’s time. The congratulatory text (which amazingly arrived just over an hour after I finished) informed me that I was 130th in my age category (Female 50-54). I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry!