“Sometimes we underestimate ourselves”: competitive after 50

Katie Holmes photo credit: Athletic.Photography

For international women’s day in 2019, I wrote about Ais North, a runner who discovered ultrarunning in her 60s.

This year, I wanted to profile three more women runners who are challenging perceptions of ageing. Katie is the woman behind the RunYoung50 blog, and is blazing a trail for older track athletes. Angela is regularly winning V60 top spot and GFA (good for age) places in road and trail races after being told she’d never run again. And Jane is a keen marathoner, and England Masters Marathon team member for 2020.

All three women discovered running in their 40s. What shines through is not just how much they’re loving running in their 50s and 60s, but also how much they enjoy competing. When I was a younger runner, the assumption was that once you reached a certain age, your competitive days were over. Katie, Angela and Jane show that’s just not true anymore, if it ever was.

Katie Holmes

Photo credit: Lisa Chan

A keen track athlete, cross-country runner and occasional ultramarathoner, Katie started the RunYoung50 blog in 2014, after turning 50. What began as a research project to interview a range of women, from county level athletes to recreational runners, on their experience of running, evolved into a website that raises awareness of and celebrates the sporting achievements of women over 50, a group that’s often invisible. Over the years, the blog’s expanded to cover topics such as the menopause, and the history of women’s endurance running.

Katie herself has always been active, taking part in a wide range of sports from Aikido to ice skating. But although her dad was a runner, it never appealed. “I just regarded runners as sad, obsessed people.”

In her late 40s, two things happened that changed her mind. In 2009, her older sister started running, which inspired her to rethink her views on the sport. And then in 2011, the charity for which she was a trustee invited her to run 5 miles of the Robin Hood Marathon as part of a relay team.

She began running and walking without following any particular plan, until she could run 3 miles without stopping. Just being outdoors became a big motivator to stick with the training. By the time she completed the relay in September that year, she was hooked.

She joined a running club the same year, but what really got her interested in the competitive side of running was discovering parkrun in 2012. One Saturday, she noticed that all the runners passing her were breathing more heavily and seemed to be working harder than she was. She followed them, ran faster and finished with a PB.

That led Katie to becoming more active in training and racing with her club. She fell into track somewhat by accident. As a beginner runner, she’d turned up for a 5K race, not realising it wasn’t on the road. Instead, she’d be running laps in front of an audience in the stands. Slightly horrified, she decided to have a go anyway. Clearly the experience wasn’t too scary –she returned the following two years to compete in the mile race.

But it was four years later that her passion for the track really ignited. When her club put on a track championship, Katie intended to do one race, and ended up running three. Enthused by the experience, she looked around for an open track event where she could compete again.

The Charnwood AC Open, which attracts hundreds of local athletes, was rather different, though. She’d signed up for the 1500m, and realised she’d be the only adult woman running. Most of the competitors were under 17. And faster. As Katie writes in her post “Too old for track?”, she wondered whether she should even be there.

It was challenging – on a track with only 12 other runners, there’s nowhere to hide. But she told herself ‘I’m doing this for me – I can’t compare myself to the other people I’m running with.” The crowd was encouraging, and she finished in a PB time.

Over the last couple of years, her love affair with track running has continued to develop. In 2018, she set herself the tough challenge of getting a mile PB. She made it on the fifth of five events with a sub-7-minute time, one of her proudest running moments.

What are her ambitions now? To achieve an age-graded rating of 80% – she’s currently just under 77%. To reach 250 parkruns, and to get a parkrun PB.

And while many older runners only set foot on a track for a club speed session, Katie’s enthusiastic about track racing. “Sometimes we underestimate ourselves. Track and field shouldn’t just be about young people. I’d encourage anyone who’s done a bit of running to give it a try.”

Angela Kerr

Like Katie, Angela always enjoyed sport but didn’t take up running until her 40s. She fell into it almost by accident, in the late ‘90s. The instructor for the exercise class that she went to started incorporating a mile run as part of the warm up. When that got too easy, she added a hill to the route. Without noticing it was happening, Angela was becoming a runner.

In 2000, she decided to run the Women’s Hyde Park 3 mile run to raise money for charity, following the loss of her baby to stillbirth.

From there, she gradually built up to 5 miles. After becoming a group exercise instructor herself, she began running with another instructor. Her training partner ran marathons, and encouraged Angela to apply for a place in London. When she was unsuccessful in the ballot, she decided to run on behalf of a new charity, Action on Pre-eclampsia. It was 2004, the wettest London marathon ever, and she hated it. Just enough that she felt she had to try again.

What Angela hadn’t realised was quite how fast she was becoming. Her training partner ran hard, and she had to try and hang on. It was only when she joined a running club, Leighton Fun Runners, that she discovered she’d become speedy herself. At her second London in 2006, she qualified for her first Good-for-Age (GFA) place.

The five years from 2005 to 2010, Angela remembers as her best running period ever. That final year, it culminated in a first place in the women’s V55+ category in the 3 Counties Cross-country League.

Then in 2011, she became ill, resulting in a lengthy stay in hospital. It took her doctors a while to figure out what was wrong. Eventually, they realised an infection was attacking the discs in her spine. Following surgery, she had to wear a spinal brace for three months, which left her with zero core strength. She was told she’d never run again.

But she pushed herself to get better, and little by little, slowly rebuilt her fitness and strength. By the following year, she was back to running and competed in the Brighton marathon.

Although she never quite recovered the speed she’d had before her illness, Angela’s lost none of her competitive edge. She continues to win GFA awards and top spots in her age category. An elite place at the Great Western Run in Exeter, meant a dedicated portaloo complete with bouncer – no queuing for that pre-race wee. 😊  She qualified for Boston in 2018, and ran it in weather so atrocious that all the elites pulled out and the runners were served hot broth to keep hypothermia at bay.

Now, she’s got her sights on an England Athletics Age Group Masters Half-Marathon place. She’s currently at the top end of her age group, meaning she has to compete against runners several years younger. But in August, she’ll be moving up into the V65 category and plans to go for that coveted place in the Age Group Masters team.

Other ambitions? To run in all 6 World Marathon Majors – she’s done three and will add a fourth, Berlin, later this year. And to complete 100 marathons – she’s currently preparing for #42.

But it’s not all about fast times and GFAs. Angela enjoys just running, both on and off road, and is enthusiastic about getting people to try the sport. “Do the Coach to 5K programme. People think you have to go out and run straight away. They get puffed out, can’t do it and give up. Build up slowly. And find other people to do it with. It doesn’t take long to get someone running.”

Jane Hardacre

Jane first discovered running as she turned 40. What started out as a way to get fit quickly became something that she loved. Within a year, she’d gone from zero to running her first marathon in a time of 3:50. Clearly, she was pretty good at it too.

Then just a few years later, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Juggling her running with a full time teaching job and a family of three was already a challenge. Not wanting to make herself ill, she took the decision to give up running, but stayed in touch with the athletic scene through her youngest daughter, a talented track athlete. She knew this was something she wanted to return to, given the chance.

Following a move to Taunton, in the spring of 2015 Jane decided it was time to try running again. She loved the sport, and really wanted an opportunity to realise the potential she’d shown earlier. But it wasn’t easy. She’d push herself too hard, keep getting injured and have to start over again. Persistant shin splints stopped her running for more than half a year.

The turning point came in late 2016 when she ran her first half marathon since her return, and completed it in just over 2 hours. It was a huge confidence boost, and made her realise that she wanted more. She loved pushing the distance, and was curious to see just how far she could get.

She began working with a coach, Ben Riddell, in 2018. Initially, the aim was to get back into racing, something that Jane finds really nerve wracking. She was happy just to participate. When she won her age category at the Taunton 10K in September, she realised that she could compete as well.

The following year, 2019, a 55th birthday meant a new age category. Working with Ben, she decided to go all out and see just what she could achieve over the next 5 years. Ben designs her training plan, leaving Jane to focus on running. She pushes herself and works very hard. With Ben’s help, she’s been able to stay consistent and avoid injuries.

They picked the Chester Marathon as a qualifying event for the England Athletics Masters Marathon team. To get into the team, Jane would have to run sub-4 and finish in the top 5 for her age. In the end, she smashed it, running 3:32 and coming third.

For a runner who used to struggle mentally with racing, she’s justifiably proud of the result and it’s the running achievement that means the most. Now Jane’s looking forward to competing in the York marathon in October in an England Masters team vest.

Her ambition is to be one of the best in her age group, and as good as she can be. I wouldn’t bet against her 😊

It gets harder to hit the running PBs as you get older. But in our conversations, Katie, Angela and Jane really inspired me with their joy of competition. Whether it’s going all out to represent your country as a Masters athlete, placing in your age category in a race, or achieving a specific age-graded score, there are so many ways to continue to enjoy competing as you age. On road, off road and on the track.

And all three women clearly have a deep love of running for its own sake. As Katie says, ”don’t feel that you have to run. Do it because you enjoy it. Find a way that works for you – it doesn’t have to be about times. Run with family and friends, or just do parkrun. Don’t worry about other people judging you – the vast majority aren’t.”

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