Running Up New Times for Seniors

By Jean Sorenson

BJ McHugh stretches after a run. Photo by: Jean Sorenson
Betty Jean “BJ” McHugh challenges today’s concept of aging and the elderly. The 84-year-old North Vancouver running legend, dubbed the fastest senior in the world, has just finished the James Cunningham Seawall 9.5-kilometre road race clocking in at 62 minutes. 

“I thought it was a terrible time,” says BJ, who has been running since her 50s and has set some 30 world records for marathons, half-marathons, and shorter races. But, the time was good enough to earn her first place in the age-graded runners’ category. She acknowledges that age has taken its toll on her times. She once ran the 9.5 kilometre James Cunningham Seawall Race - a favourite with runners in Halloween costumes - in 43 minutes and 52 seconds in 1979, three days before her 52nd birthday. 

But as she runs - with other elite senior runners such as the 100-year-old Fauja Singh, who holds world records for his age category in eight different distances, including the Toronto Marathon, and Vancouver’s 74-year-old Rod Waterlow who ran the Vancouver 2011 Fall Classic half-marathon in one hour and 46 minutes - BJ makes society question seniors’ capabilities. And, opens new horizons. At age 80, she set a new world record at the 29th Royal Victoria Marathon. 

When she first started running, there were no age categories. Today, races have not only a winning time for the fastest runners, but runners are broken into age brackets of five or 10 years. In addition, runners are handicapped according to age using a computer formula, which determines overall performance. In the Cunningham race, BJ’s age-graded performance outranked more than 900 other racers that day putting her at the top of the podium.  

BJ’s “running times” are chronicled in a new book My Road to Rome co-authored by her and CBC reporter and runner Bob Nixon, who first met BJ three years ago when a note about her came into the television studio. He subsequently reported on her invitation by the Rome Marathon organizers to run the 26-mile course. 

“I could not get her out of my mind,” says Nixon, “not just because she was such a remarkably lively and fun person to interview, but also because I discovered that her world marathon record as an 80-year-old was faster than I had run the same course when I was in my 30s. I had never met anyone that age who was so fit.” 

The CBC story grew into a book that tells the life of BJ, who was born in the small village of Stanwood, Ontario. She grew up on a farm and recalls adventures such as horse-drawn sled rides in winter to her grandparents’ home at Christmas, and follows her dream of nursing to a Toronto school. After graduation in Toronto, she moved to Vancouver to work as a nurse, where she met her husband Robert, a car salesman, who landed in her hospital ward.

BJ laughs because she is not the only nurse to meet her husband as a patient. One day, while working out at the gym, a nurse stopped by to tell her how much she had enjoyed the book. “We both have something in common,” quipped the nurse. “We both met our husbands in bed.” 

BJ’s story is full of urban family life - such as the rigours of manually defrosting fridges, sewing new dresses for social events and the kids, seeing her daughter Jennifer off to sporting events, swim meets, training sessions and finally the 1972 Olympics, and outfitting the family for skiing trips to the North Shore mountains. BJ’s recounts are far from dull as she delves into the fabric of life. Nixon says she describes those new ski pants of the ‘70s as “so tight that if a woman put a dime in the pocket you could tell if it was head or tails” and “the whole book is dotted with such McHugh gems.” 

Throughout the story, her four children and husband are focal points of her life. But, after finding tennis hard on the body, unable to ski during summer and with the children flying from the nest, she sought out a new sport - running. It turned into a passion and led to record-smashing performances.       

Today, BJ says she never set out to smash any records, although the records started falling as she entered races. She continues to run for the pure joy of the sport and, along the way, has developed a group of friends that are as foundational as her sneakers. She doesn’t wear a runner’s watch but marks time with a stopwatch, nor does she worry about pace or the distance she has run. She also doesn’t use a heart monitor. “I know my body,” she says, adding that really is what she listens to when she is running in or out of a race. 

She also doesn’t follow a special diet, like many runners who are vegans or vegetarians, nor takes dietary supplements. Instead, she cooks regular meals, although she does watch what she eats, especially near a race date; she suffers from a mild form of irritated bowel syndrome. Her big meal is breakfast - fruit, oatmeal and a bagel.    

Regularly running with a group of women starting out at around 6 a.m. three times a week for an hour, she runs a fourth, longer run on Saturday mornings and can last up to three-and-a-half hours, if a marathon is beckoning. She cross-trains with cycling, lifts weights in the gym, and practises yoga.  

BJ credits her group of friends - all younger - as her inspiration. Having younger friends is important as one ages, she feels, as they keep her active. “It’s hard to stay in bed when you have friends waiting - even if it is raining outside,” she says. They also provide a source of energy, optimism and humour. 

At the crack of dawn, they are a noticeable crowd, chattering down the street. She tells of one North Vancouver resident, who obviously rolled out of the wrong side of the bed to set out his garbage, turning to the noisy group and said: “Why don’t you girls shut up!” Then, there was the morning when an owl swooped down and tried to wing off with the ponytail of a running buddy.   

The group works as a team planning events, booking hotels and airfare. “I’m really quite spoiled,” says BJ about the group cheering her accomplishments at events. But, they celebrate their victories together. “Thirteen of us ran the [2011] Chicago Marathon,” she says, adding that all completed the course to take home finisher’s medals. 

BJ has not come through the record books unscathed. Husband Robert, long a support member for her and friends at the events, and the family’s main breadwinner, fell 23 years ago on a sidewalk curb, hit his head and sustained brain trauma. Through his decline into dementia, and financial difficulties, BJ tells in her book how she continues to run and stay by the side of the man she calls “the great love of my life.” 

BJ has also sustained numerous injuries: she once tripped over her dog as it darted out to catch a squirrel and injured her shoulder, which required surgery. Her running buddies came to the rescue during her convalescence and ran over dinners for her and Robert, adding the occasional bottle of wine. What comes from BJ’s life is not being down, but getting back up.    

As she ages, BJ continues to open new doors for runners, as race organizers have to add new age categories to accommodate more seniors entering road racing. Nixon says that what has intrigued him as a journalist in his 50s about BJ is her “secret” to aging as he found himself facing that “slippery slope” of declining health expected in old age. But, here is BJ healthy at 80. And she doesn’t see any mystical fountain of youth; running is part of her active lifestyle. Her book sets out 10 life lessons in the last chapter, including “think young” and “don’t just get into shape - BE in shape by being active.”    

She plans to take that perspective into the Honolulu Marathon in December 2012. She has two daughters, Jennifer (the Olympic swimmer) and Jillian, and two sons, Brent and Gyle. They all run or have run, but son Brent competes in marathons. 
“My granddaughter Ava wants us to do a three-generation run in Honolulu,” says BJ, an event that takes place a month after her 85th birthday.

BJ’s optimistic she will make it, but quips, “At my age, you don’t buy green bananas.”


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