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Pensioner power! The rise of the senior runner in East Anglia

PUBLISHED: 18:29 26 October 2018 | UPDATED: 18:29 26 October 2018

Ken Bowman, 71, pictured at the British Masters Championships 5000m at Birmingham  in August

Ken Bowman, 71, pictured at the British Masters Championships 5000m at Birmingham in August

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Running is experiencing a huge renaissance across the UK with pensioners in particular lacing up their trainers and pounding the pavements. Nick Richards investigates the boom in older runners

Maureen Walker, 73, after becoming the second fastest female over 70 at the 2016 New York MarathonMaureen Walker, 73, after becoming the second fastest female over 70 at the 2016 New York Marathon

We’ve all been told to do more exercise and get more active – from school children being told to walk a mile a day to office colleagues regularly counting their steps – but what about the over-65s?

Well, the days of them driving to the golf club for a gentle 18 holes or a sedate afternoon bowling appear to be long gone. For pensioners are ripping up the rule book and challenging the stereotypes of older people being active as well as anchoring their lives around the simplest of sports as they move through their senior years.

The running world of pensioners is an extremely positive, friendly and sociable lifestyle choice and in many cases it’s a pastime that has become a badge of honour in the battle against such health issues as depression, being overweight, drinking too much, major surgery and even battling cancer.

And these lean, mean, silver-haired running machines are producing times and achievements that would make younger athletes turn green with envy, not to mention bright red with both embarrassment and sheer puce-faced exhaustion.

Of course many runners in their 70s have been running for a big chunk of their lives and, by eating healthily and looking after themselves, have preserved their fitness levels, but there is a rapidly growing athletic army of pensioners who are getting into the sport for the first time.

Many of these runners have been inducted through parkrun, the running phenomenon that has recently seen its five millionth person register worldwide. According to parkrun’s Mike Graney, the over-65s are turning out in huge numbers for their free Saturday morning timed 5k. He said: “They are the fastest age group we had nationally in 2017. Last year a total of 196,745 parkruns were completed by those over 65, a growth of 38 per cent compared to the previous year.

“Nationally there were 14,979 unique runners aged 65 and over at UK parkruns, a growth of 37 per cent”

Last weekend alone in the 24 parkruns that took place in Norfolk and Suffolk, a total of 249 over-65s took part.

Ron McCullough, 73, who credits running with saving his lifeRon McCullough, 73, who credits running with saving his life

Among the runners who started later in life is Ipswich Jaffa member Maureen Wright, who is 73. Maureen, from Ipswich said: “I started running when I was 50 having only ever done a few races at school. I started going to Ipswich Jaffa and enjoyed it as the support was really good. I have been lucky to be able to keep going without too many problems, although I did have breast cancer but running helped me stay positive because I missed it so much so and couldn’t wait to get back out there. My club gave me so much support.”

Despite only starting to run in her 50s, Maureen has gone from strength to strength. Next April she will run her tenth marathon in London, having previously been the fastest over 60 in the 2006 Palma Marathon and the second fastest female over 70 at the 2016 New York Marathon.

Jim Hayes from Melton Constable, near Holt, is 72 and has been running for more than half his life. He said: “I started running in the mid-1970s to get fit for playing football when I was living in Essex so I’d say that I’ve been a reasonably serious runner for 45 years – but until 2005, when I was 59, I ran on my own. I moved to Norfolk in that year and thought I’d joined a club so started going to the North Norfolk Beach Runners.

“The running scene even 13 years ago is a lot different to now. I found that even as a 60 year old I was reasonably good and was winning prizes in events for my age category, but it has really boomed in the last couple of years – so much so that the running community hasn’t really kept up. Some events only have prizes in the over-60s category which is a tad unfair for someone in their early 70s.

As if to prove a point, three years ago Jim and the North Norfolk Beach Runners entered Ipswich Jaffas’ Ekiden relay event as a purely over-70s team which he said the organisers loved to the extent that they now have on over-70s category. Before that, they’d classed a super veteran as anyone over 50.

Jim helps to run a local running group on a Wednesday night which attracts members in their 50s and 60s. “As a general rule as soon as they start coming along their fitness seems to rapidly increase, even from a standing start,” he said.

“A lot of the members of the Beach Runners who are in their 70s have been running forever but there are some newer members in their 50s and 60s who are joining up.”

Jim, who is a vegetarian and says he maintains a healthy diet to aid his running, has no intentions of stopping. “There’s an inevitable slowing down process,” he said. “But I never want to stop. I get more injuries these days but I still enjoy it and I never want to say I’m too old to run”.

Sam Weller, 70, who was the fastest over 70 runner at this year's Run Norwich 10kSam Weller, 70, who was the fastest over 70 runner at this year's Run Norwich 10k

Another sprightly sprinter is Ken Bowman, 71, who lives in Dilham, near North Walsham. Ken played football in his early adult years before starting to run but didn’t enter a competitive race until he was in his late 50s, joining the Coltishall Jaguars as something to do in his retirement. At the age of 68 he ran a sub-20 minute 5k and a sub-41 minute 10k and he says it is key to have a goal – currently he’s focussing on track racing rather than road running.

He said: “I run to compete with and compare my form with others of my age and younger – I believe it has made my joints and my immune system stronger.

Most friends of my age seem to think I am an exception and wouldn’t dream of starting to run now – they envy my health and fitness.

“I have encouraged younger friends into running and quite a few members of my running club seem to do better because they don’t want to be thrashed by an old boy – although the great thing about running is that I have friends of all ages to whom my age doesn’t matter.”

Colin Richards, 72 and Richard Pilch, 71, have been running together in Norwich for the last five years, having previously worked together at the city’s branch of John Lewis. Colin of Eaton Rise, Norwich said: “We meet at Eaton Park for a 5k run and we often take part in parkruns together at Mulbarton. I only started running six or seven years ago when skin cancer on my nose meant I couldn’t swim. So I started using the treadmill at my gym. I came running with Richard but really struggled to do more than two miles.

“I entered my first running event, the Reepham 10k in 2012 just a couple of months before turning 66 but since then I’ve got fitter and faster. Today will be my 200th parkrun and I will be running the Trowse 10k tomorrow.”

Colin was the fastest over-65 runner at last year’s Trowse 10k despite being 71 and was the second-placed over 70 in this year’s Run Norwich 10k for the second year in a row. But he said helping his friend Richard run again after he had a hip replacement four years ago was just as important as any silverware.

Richard from Mulbarton said: “I ran to a decent standard in my mid-30s, completing the 1984 Norwich Marathon in 3:11 and the 1985 London Marathon in 3:08. After my hip replacement in my late 60s, the surgeon advised me not to run anymore. I was soon back in action though, doing a 5k in 34 minutes and running with Colin has really helped. It keeps my weight down, is so sociable and has helped me make great friends which is why it’s so great.”

Running friends Richard Pilch, 71, left, and Colin Richards 72, who run each week together at Norwich's Eaton ParkRunning friends Richard Pilch, 71, left, and Colin Richards 72, who run each week together at Norwich's Eaton Park

HOW RUNNING SAVED MY LIFE

Ron McCullough, a member of Ipswich Jaffa, who is 73, said: “I had been fairly active in my youth, mostly playing football until my early 20s.

“Then work, marriage and family life got in the way and I did basically nothing for years. I was smoking, drinking too much beer, eating too much, was grossly overweight and I had a sedentary desk job. On top of that I was on medication for depression and anxiety.

“One day I looked in the mirror after a shower and I saw a bloke who was a primary candidate for a heart attack. I decided I had to do something about it and so gave up the fags, started jogging and gradually came off the medication.

“Because of my poor mental and physical health at the time, I believe the decision to start running saved my life. I became fitter, lost a lot of weight and two years later I joined my then local club, Wigan Harriers.

“Nowadays I am more careful about my diet. I used to eat virtually anything but now am a lot more careful. I eat a very mixed and varied diet but I eat much less sugar and processed food (particularly processed meat such as bacon, sausages, ham, salami and chorizo) than I used to. I try to follow the Mediterranean diet with plenty of complex carbohydrates, fruit, vegetables, fresh meat, dairy and healthy fats. I still enjoy a beer or two but my alcohol consumption has gone down considerably. I do like a nip of Scotch at bedtime though!

“Several non-running friends have mentioned that they are envious of my fitness and I always give them the same answer – don’t be envious, do something! Find what suits you and just do it regularly, be it running or some other sport or activity. It’s NEVER too late to start.

“My late father-in-law was inspired to start jogging at the age of 75 and carried on with it for the next 20 years, not bad for a man who had smoked all his life! He died a few days short of his 97th birthday. My sister-in-law also believed me about the benefits of running and started jogging. She is still going at age 70.

“People used to fear that too much running would give them trouble with their joints, arthritis etc, but recent research has shown that running actually benefits your knees and hips.

“But I think I get the most satisfaction from being told by other runners (youngsters in their 50s and 60s) that I have inspired them to carry on running.

“It can be a very frustrating sport when you are injured but I can’t see me packing it in anytime soon!”

I STARTED RUNNING AT 65 - AND NOW I’M NORFOLK’S FASTEST 70-YEAR-OLD

Sam Weller, 70, who lives in Aylsham is getting ready for tomorrow’s Trowse 10k where he will be targeting victory in the over 70s category. In August he was the first runner aged over 70 in the Run Norwich 10k setting a new course record for runners over 70 of 47:05.

The speedy septuagenarian said : “I did a couple of half marathons in my late 30s but didn’t really do much else until my mid-60s when I saw an advert for North Norfolk Beach Runners who were putting on a running workshop for six-eight weeks and I thought I would go along. I was soon bitten by the running bug. I was reasonably fit as I cycled a lot but that’s not really a winter pastime, so I thought I would try running again and loved it. I’ve managed to maintain a healthy weight of 69kgs and am in fine health – not only physically, but also mentally.

“I try and eat healthily, things like blueberries, bananas, nuts, spinach – but as all runners will testify, I reserve the right to demolish a packet of biscuits if I feel like it!”

“Parkrun has been the major factor for the running boom, I take part in the event at Blickling – it’s a fantastic initiative for its all inclusiveness and the fact that it doesn’t discriminate or have any prejudice against body shape or age or speed.

“And of course it is incredibly sociable which is important as we all get older.”

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