** Guest post ** I am very pleased to share this article by Ais North who started running at 64 in 2014 and soon found out that her preferred distance was ultras. Ais is one of a small number of women over 60 who are challenging ageist attitudes about the physical competence of older athletes and showing other women what might be possible for them too.
Why do I run – I’ve been asked that question so many times and every time I pause and wonder again. Why do I run and why did I start at 64? Throughout my life I’ve always liked to feel fit and healthy, but I’m lazy and pick up things then drop them when the going gets tough or I get fed up with the repetitious nature of whatever it was that I got excited about. So why have I stuck with ultras and why do I still want to compete when I have very little chance of being the best, even in my age group?
I am competitive and I like to win but winning doesn’t necessarily mean coming first. For me, the challenge with ultras is to finish……and then to finish faster……and then maybe come first in your age group…..or compete in a really tough race that has tough entry requirements and even tougher climbs and technical trails.
I love the outdoors, once I’m there. Getting out the door for a training run on a cold wet morning in February is hard but I know that once I’ve started I will enjoy the time I spend, mostly in solitude, in fresh air and lovely scenery and a lot of mud. The ultra-races are pretty friendly too, no-one ignores you, most competitors have a cheery encouraging word for you or praise if you pass them. One of the best compliments I got as I overtook a couple on a wooded downhill was – “look at the speed you’re going – that’s amazing downhill on this trail”.
It made me smile for at least a mile afterwards. And the finish – the best-ever. I never quite understand how most folks run down the final stretch to the finish. You’re tired and dehydrated, there have been moments when you wanted to quit and then there it is the finish, and the people waving and clapping, no matter what time of the night it might be. When I think of the finishes I get a lump in my throat they are so emotional but glorious too.
If I’m honest I don’t like being 70, I don’t feel old, whatever that means, either mentally or physically. Running let’s me believe I can continue to get fitter, faster and stronger. It puts a positive spin on my health and overcoming physical ailments. Here I should say that I’ve had breast cancer (1998), a heart attack (2017) and been told in October 2019 that I should stop running because my lower discs were degenerative. Pah! Not listening – la la la la la! I’ve come back from all of these and whilst I may not be as fast as I was when I did the Fling race along the West Highland Way in Scotland, two months before my heart attack, I can still compete in a 50-miler.
I’ve learnt so much about the body and mind since I started running. I wasn’t that interested in the subjects before, even after I had cancer and I won’t claim to be any kind of expert, but I’ve learnt about my body and my mind and how I can fix myself. This is extremely powerful, and it adds to my belief that to live on into my 80s and 90s I am right to keep running even when some doctors discourage me. I want to be strong as I age. I want to be sharp witted as I age. I want to be healthy as I age. I want to have plenty of energy as I age to play with our grandchildren and to keep my business going. I love my work too. Running helps me to achieve all of this.
The first race
My first ultra-race back in 2015 was Race to the Stones, 100 kms along The Ridgeway, finishing close to where I live. It was supposed to be a walk to raise money for a London hospital charity. But I changed my mind 5 months out and decided to try to run it as it was a multi-choice race. I ran most of the first 20k before moving into a run / walk scenario and then just a walk between 60 and 80K returning to run / walk the last 20k mostly alone and mostly in the dark. I watched the sun rise as I approached Avebury. This was a familiar route as I had used it as a training trail. I knew every twist and turn from the A345 to Barbary Castle and from Barbury to Avebury, every ridge in the trail and every hill – that knowledge paid huge dividends. The last 20k was the best because I knew I could finish. I was unafraid and refreshed from the slower 60-80k stretch. I still get a lump in my throat when I think of that last 20K and the feeling of finishing the race. Not a blister on my feet, slightly dehydrated, a little hungry and very definitely tired, but I got the medal and I’d raised £2500 for the charity. I was an ultra-runner and I wanted to race again.
Family and friends
My supporters are amazing and include my family and many friends. There are so many people who have stuck with me since that first 100 km Race to the Stones back in 2015 when I set out to walk and ended up changing my life by becoming an ultra-runner. I couldn’t run without them. Thank You.
Why do I run? – It makes me feel alive.
The quotation in the title of this article is from an interview with Ais on the Tough Girl Challenges podcast, from December 2016. In the interview, Ais talks about how she came to start running in 2014, the mental strength that motivates her to continue and her experience of running Race to the Stones in 2015 and 2016.
The Ridgeway is said to be Britain’s oldest road, used for over 5,000 years. The 87-mile (139km) National Trail starts at the World Heritage Site of Avebury in Wiltshire and follows a ridge of chalk hills to reach Ivinghoe Beacon, northwest of London. The Race to the Stones ultramarathon starts at Lewknor, a village in Oxfordshire, and follows the National Trail for 100km to end at Avebury.
Read my article on women over 50 and their participation in ultrarunning in the UK. In the 12 races I looked at, I found 26 female finishers aged 60-69 (out of 1043 female finishers) and none aged 70+.