“I set goals and when I do, I’m determined to keep it. And that’s why I finish.”
They say you’re never too old to learn something new, and Betty Jean (BJ) McHugh, is no exception. Known as the ‘Flying Granny’, BJ has been running marathons since 2009, with her first invitation from a coordinator in Rome. Less than a decade later, and having just turned 90 years old, she now owns several 10-kilometre, half-marathon, and marathon records for seniors.
She has raced in London, Boston, New York, Chicago, and Big Sur, but it is the Honolulu Marathon, one of the largest in the United States, that is an annual family tradition. And in December 2017, one month after her 90th birthday, she broke the Honolulu marathon record for her age group. This win broke the previous record by two hours, with a time of 6:47:31.
It’s A Family Affair
Born in 1927 in a small town near Campbellford, Ontario, Betty Jean McHugh was a born athlete. From helping her father on the farm hauling bales of hay to playing tennis, cycling, hiking, and skiing, Betty Jean was always moving.
Running her first marathon in her fifties, has run in over 20 marathons over a 35-year span, and has broken world marathon records, all while working as a nurse in Toronto, and raising a family of four.
Though always active, she didn’t get her start running until later in life, in her late fifties, when looking for an activity while her daughter, Jennifer was at swim practice. Unable to watch the practice, she first took up hitting tennis balls, but was admonished for being on the court before 7 a.m. So, she took up walking along the Seawall, and it was here she discovered a love for running – as walking became running.
Today, she is the matriarch of four children and four grandchildren, many of whom either have joined her on marathons or are athletic in their own right. Her daughter who’s swim practice she couldn’t watch? Jennifer went on to become an Olympic swimmer for Canada in 1972.
Slow Down? No Way
In the early 80s, between the ages of 53 and 57, she ran almost one 10k per month, and in 1988, ran 14 races between March and November. She felt at peak fitness then, and in the best shape of her life, she recalled and wrote in her memoir.
In her native Vancouver, she holds the age-group world record for the W80-84 in the half-marathon, in 2008.
Running and quietly setting records for nearly 40 years, she’s still going strong. BJ has broken not only world marathon records but has shown that intense activities like running are not detrimental to aging as originally thought. In fact, today, plenty of evidence suggests regular exercise like running can reverse some of the effects of aging. One American study found that an athlete’s endurance dropped only five percent over the course of a decade of interval running, while sedentary adults lost twice as much.
Bucking against the norm, BJ’s body, rather than begin to decline in middle age, only got stronger. Just a few years after she began running and entering marathons, she was running 44-minute 10ks and besting times she’d set when she was several years younger. She became faster, as she got older. So against the norm was her capabilities, fitness scientists from McGill University ran tests on this “super senior.”
Though BJ spends the bulk of her time running, she also understands the importance of cross-training. So, in addition to her running, she also lifts weights, does yoga, and was doing spinning until a bad fall made her worry about further injuries). Her running regimen includes 60k a week of track intervals, hills, and a long run on at the weekend. Having traveled to a number of places for her marathons, she also took a two-week walking pilgrimage in May from Porto, Portugal to Santiago, Spain for the Portuguese stretch of the Camino de Santiago – about 200 kilometers.
Though quite active in her regimen, her approach to running is casual. She has no coach and isn’t adamant about getting a certain number of kilometers per day. Preferring half marathons to full marathons, she makes sure its about enjoying life, and has been known to sip a glass of wine the night before a race. Though her diet consists mostly of salad, she doesn’t deprive herself of foods such as the odd vanilla ice cream from time to time.
Role Model for Runners
A firm believer that today, age is simply a number, Betty Jean McHugh is a role model for a number of women both on and off the track. Not only has she been breaking records on the track, but she was also an outspoken advocate for fair prize winnings for runners who won their age categories – regardless of gender.
A lover of life, Betty Jean McHugh exudes energy, optimism, and happiness, and shows others what is possible – proof that time outdoors can help lengthen and enhance life.