Older Faster Stronger: More speed, less distance?

The fastest 60-year-old woman in the world, Torontonian Karla Del Grande, once thought, like the vast majority of us, that running means distance running. Then, at 50, while trying to boost her speed for a half-marathon, she hit the track for interval training and rediscovered her love of speed.

She ditched the long run, took up sprinting and now considers herself fitter, stronger and more powerful than she’s ever been in her life, including when she did high-school track.

Here’s how she replaced distance with speed and thrived: 

Older, Faster, Stronger: Going the Distance

Last summer, I was soundly beaten in a 60-metre sprint by a 76-year-old great-grandmother. I expected the trouncing; after all, I was up against the world’s fastest 75-plus female sprinter, Christa Bortignon. The Canadian was named World Masters Athletics Female Athlete of the Year for 2013, after breaking 14 world records over the past two years.

See the story in the Globe and Mail


Celebrate Gay Athletes and Protest Putin

On February 6, between 5:30 and 5:20 p.m., runners and walkers will create a giant flowing PINK TRIANGLE on the walkways of Queen’s Park to celebrate gay athletes, support LGBTQ global equality and tell Putin, we remember 1936 and we say, NEVER AGAIN.

Wear pink, bring a flashlight or pink glow stick to hold aloft like an Olympic torch to show the true spirit of the Olympics and invite everyone along (this will be a family friendly event: we are inclusive not divisive!) to create PERFORMANCE PROTEST ART: A flowing pink triangle of runners and walkers.

Let’s create a stunning visual message for the world that says Canada celebrates the accomplishments of all athletes, including gay athletes, and we stand up to Putin’s horrific hate mongering.

Please join me and hundreds of walkers and runners in the middle of Queen’s Park by the giant horse, just north of Ontario’s legislative building in Toronto at 5:20 p.m., to get ready for that 5:30 start. In the meantime, please post notice of the event to your facebook time line and send to friends far and wide

On the eve of the 2014 Olympics, Putin is trying to steal the show in his efforts to be the big strong man of the world, and he’s trying to do that by scapegoating people, as Hitler did in 1936.

We must say, no, we will not stand for Putin’s demonization of LGBQT people. We will not stand silently while he hijacks the Olympics for his propaganda. United we run.


Older, Faster, Stronger: Fix Your Weakness

At the start of every training year, I commit to doing one more thing to make myself fitter, stronger, faster. Last year I overhauled just about everything in a bid to get in the best shape of my life after 50, for my book Older, Faster, Stronger (coming out in October with Rodale Books).

So what was left to tackle?

Remarkably, I would never have thought of My Left Foot, a severely flat and pronating thing that I thought it could never be “fixed.” It had become so sore and inflamed after last year’s intense training, I began to fear that my biggest weakness as a runner might actually end my running career.

And then a running pal introduced me to Muscle Activation Technique (MAT), a relatively new and little known non-medical muscle therapy. See my column in the Globe and Mail: How Correcting Muscle Imbalances Can Heal Injuries and Make You a Better Runner.

My pal worked with James Cummins at the Toronto Athletic Club. He also happens to work with Canada’s lone gold medalist at the 2012 Olympic Games, Rosie MacLennan.

MacLennan, 25, is a trampolinist so her feet a beating. She starts off her personal training sessions with a MAT session, where Cummins tests for joint stability and muscle weakness. “We only twist one way so there’s imbalances and compensations,” MacLennan told me. “I use MAT as part of my training to make sure imbalances don’t turn into problems. James tests if a muscle has shut off and he does some reactivation. Some days, we just do that. Other days, things are pretty clear, and we get into the training, lifting weights and cardio.”

She says that in the year leading up to the Olympics new rules required “more time in the air” and changes to equipment made it more powerful but less stable. With little time to adjust, many trampolinists struggled with plantar fasciitis. “James really focused on a preventative routine (of MAT) and worked on my feet a lot to strengthen them,” says MacLennan. “It really helped over last few months. I didn’t need time off from training.”

Ron Marek, a 39-year-old accountant who has run 15 marathons and two Ironmans in the past five years, also started using MAT to correct muscle imbalances before they became injuries.  “Running causes imbalances, and I tend to get pain whenever I was training for a marathon,” says Marek. “I was always chasing the injury versus solving the problem.” Now, he makes MAT part of his personal training routine, to make sure all his muscles are firing properly. He says the therapy has also helped him develop overall body awareness and muscle awareness. “I learned how to activate a muscle I was never aware of. It’s amazing how the body adapts.”

Frankly, I’m amazed by how My Left Foot is responding to treatment. After a few MAT sessions, I am running pain free and the foot is at least 50 percent stronger.

My MAT specialist, Brad Thorpe, who works out of Striation Six, explains the treatment this way. “Imagine a marionette weighing 100 pounds and 10 muscles are acting like strings to hold it up so each muscle holds 10 pounds. But if three muscles stop working either due to injury or because a stride pattern causes some to be underused and stop contracting, suddenly seven muscles are carrying more than 14 pounds each.

“Those overcompensating muscles get sore and chronically injured. Most treatments attack the pain and those overcompensating muscles, but those muscles aren’t the problem. It’s the underutilized muscles that are the problem, and that’s what MAT addresses. Sometimes those muscles are so underused and weak, they stop receiving a signal to fire. MAT gets those muscles firing again. And then you can train to strengthen those muscles so they’re pulling their weight.”

Now consider that the body has more than 350 pairs of muscles, and some 26 muscles in the foot alone. That’s a lot of muscles that can fall off the grid and out of balance. That’s also a lot of muscles we can fire up and strengthen to make us healthier and more balanced runners.

MAT, followed by a routine of isometrics to strengthen weak muscles and reinforce correct joint movement, corrected a tightness in my left shoulder that I didn’t even realize I had. As for my severely flat and pronating left foot, I can now activate muscles to make an arch. It’s a beautiful thing.

Older, Faster, Stronger: Going the Distance

Join me in my 2014 challenge: To get fitter this year than I was last. After trying to achieve the fitness of a 20-year-old in 2013 (by some measures I made it; by marathon measureI fell 3 minutes short), I will “re-do” key races this year, in an attempt to best last year’s personal bests. Redoing the exact same races is a fantastic way to measure fitness improvements.

Another runner on her own version of that challenge is sprinter Christa Bortignon (see picture below; she’s in the black T, to right of me), a 76-year-old sprinter who set seven world records and won 16 gold medals at world championships in 2013, earning her the World Masters Female Athlete of the Year Award. But is she resting on her laurels?  In an email last week, Christa told me she felt sore after back-to-back personal training and sprint-training sessions. Clearly, this 76 year old is not letting turning 77 slow her down.


I explain the Do-Over Year challenge in my new running column, Going the Distance, to be published each month in The Globe and Mail. Targeting one race for a PB could lead to disappointment because so much can go wrong. A saner approach, suggests one of Canada’s top running shrinks, sports psychologist Kim Dawson, is strive for an improvement over the entire year.

Each month in the Globe and more often here, I will share what I’m learning along my journey. The goal is not only to get faster and stronger as I get older — and the book on that will be published by Rodale Books in October 2014 — but to keep up training intensity or, in other words, stay young by training young. Because my ultimate goal is to be running strong and long at 101 and having a blast doing it.

And one of the best lines of advice I received to achieve that came from ultra runner Pam Reed: “I run to protect my running.”

If you have advice, thoughts, questions, drop me a comment and I’ll do my best to address them in a column.

Happy running and happy holidays.


Competing in the World Masters Games 1/2 Marathon in Italy.  # 73 pulled far ahead of me to take the bronze, but I managed a 4th in my age group.

Why All Women’s Races are Winning Fans

An inside peak at the biggest phenomena in running: Women’s only races

By Margaret Webb, first published in Canadian Running Magazine, 2013

It is the forecast that race director Cory Freedman dreaded: Predictions of 75 kilometre-per-hour winds, a 25-centimetre dump of rain, potential dangerous flooding around waterways like the Don River, which roils right alongside her race course in Toronto’s Sunnybrook Park. From across Southern Ontario runners are driving through the deluge to participate in Freedman’s usually sold-out Toronto Women’s Run Series. Typical for a woman’s event, many of the 1200 women and girls struggling to the start line of the 5 and 8 k events are relative novices or even racing for the first time. On top of that anxiety, they have no idea what to expect. Will the races be cancelled? Will they actually have to run through this petulant precursor to Hurricane Sandy that will smack into the city two days later? And how does one compete, stay warm, keep safe when Mother Nature is throwing a major hissy fit?

The one thing not stressing the runners is the nature of the race itself — that it is all women. When they arrive and hear the event is on, the tribal sisterhood of runners heaves into full-estrogen, she-wolf bonding frenzy that seems to stop the storm in its tracks. Or at least nothing seems quite as bad while women are hustling about in packs, always in packs, middle-aged gal pals, mothers and daughters and grandmothers, nine-year-old pony-tailed phonemes about to find out how awesomely fast they are. Even sponsored elites cuddle clump together from portapotties to bag check-in to start line as if the first rule of women’s racing is to leave no woman behind.

All around me, they shout out fuzzy feel goods (Girl, you are so going to do this!), tease each other into hysterics (I think we need our third pee! Now!) and hug, oh lord, but do women racers hug. They are inventing an entire language of skin speak at these events, from the oh-my-frig-I-lost-sight-of-you-for-a-minute! wrist grab to the you-are-so-awesome back rub and the we’re-so-fabulous full-body mugging at the start, which is repeated with suffocating intensity at the finish, because, well, it would take a huge piling on of words for women to communicate the glory of what it means to run together.

On this rare occasion, I am racing without my own she pack, yet I’m enthusiastically hailed to the start line by two veterans of the women’s running community, Charlotte Davis and Francis Lamb. Davis wanted to race in the inaugural event five years ago, but it sold out before she could even sign up. She volunteered instead and loved it so much she’s been working the start line every year since. Ditto for Lamb. Their job in the chute is to keep the runners not only safe but feeling special. The race director “is adamant that volunteers greet, encourage, cheer, celebrate and congratulate every single runner,” says Davis. “It makes it a more welcoming and supportive atmosphere than most mixed races and that attracts a lot of women who might not normally race. It’s striking a chord. I can’t deny there’s a movement going on and it’s fairly powerful.”

Indeed, though the Toronto series struggled to attract sponsors when it launched during the recession in 2008, it has had no trouble attracting runners, regularly selling out. Now sponsors are starting to take note of the surging popularity of women’s events. A fledgling national series, Run for Women, will double to six races across Canada this year and landed a title sponsor in TKTK. South of the border, women’s events have exploded with some eight national series (more than 200 events) vying for the fastest growing segment of the running market — according to Running USA, women now account for 55 percent of all participants in road races and nearly 60 percent at the half marathon distance. Yet with women out numbering men in most races, it begs the question: Why the huge demand for women’s events?

Back in the starting chute, the announcer, Debbie Van Kiekebelt, a former Olympian, urges racers to step up to the start line. It may be her toughest call of the day. Davis and Lamb have been waving, encouraging and cajoling women to close the gap and join the elites on the line. The women seem more interested in giving each other send-off hugs. Lamb, a 2:55 marathoner in the 1980s who has watched the women’s running boom explode, laughs. “That would never happen in a mixed race,” she tells me later. “Men would be elbowing and pushing people out of the way. In the mixed runs, the men are in front, men get the attention and the glory. This is about women, for women, and it celebrates the women’s experience.” These races, Lamb has no trouble saying, are “about the love” and likens the supportive atmosphere to a giant hug. “If you could bottle this energy, it would be amazing.”

Comparing a race to a lovefest may seem bizarre until you consider the tribal nature of running, that women — and men — can’t help but bring our prehistoric brains to the start line. And those brains, fired by ancient hormonal circuitry, shaped by primordial evolutionary goals, have developed vastly different reactions to stress according to Dr. Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain.

To alleviate anxiety — say of a race — men strive for rank in the social pecking order, for power, respect, even domination, which explains the aggressiveness of some at the start line. Or the thousand-yard stares. Or the quiet, individual focus. It’s fight or flight time.

But women, four times more likely to suffer from anxiety given that our brains are hardwired to intuit danger lurking everywhere, get our stress-relieving oxytocin rush by making social connections, to support and watch out for each other. Women’s genetic inheritance, after all, comes from cave gals who formed female bonding communities to protect each other and their young, in some cases from the sort of caveman behaviour some men unwittingly display during racing. Rather than fight or flight, women runners are learning to marshal up a third and ancient response to stress, a let’s unite and fight. As Brizendine puts it, a hug seals that social pact and releases calming oxytocin, which gives women runners a high even before the race starts — and clearly energy.

When the horn finally blasts, the frontrunners go out hard, not competing against each other so much as with each other. I am swept up in that pull, flying out at a PB pace rather than my planned practice pace for a half marathon the next weekend. I struggle to slow down, remind myself not to blow my target race by going too hard in this one. But as I near the 2.5K turnaround of the out and back course, I feel fantastic, fast yet in control, my brain dosed up on feel-good hormones.

The frontrunners charge back, clearly buoyed by the blast of being in a rare place — the spotlight, leading the race clean. Elites love competing for the chance to win the race outright, not just be first woman finisher. And without men clogging up the course, age groupers can also see their competition and race head on. Swept up in the you-go-girl vibe of the event, I cheer and clap on the frontrunners rounding the turn until I realize, whoa, I am among them. There are maybe only 15 ahead. This is an entirely novel place for me, I assure you. And that first-ever whiff of the front-end excitement of a race gives me yet another adrenalin kick.

Farther back in the field, the race means something different to every woman in it. One told me later that she had only run six times before, ever. Dragged to this by friends, she was thrilled to run her first 5K nonstop. “Now I’m hooked on running,” she beamed, “and racing!” Same story from a 50-something woman who hadn’t raced in years and finally succumbed to pressure from her running gal pals to give this one a try. Loved it. Hooked. Another who had taken up running to lose weight said she would be too self-conscious to ever run in a mixed event. “I don’t want men looking at me,” she laughed. “I mean, I know they’re not and everything, but I just feel more comfortable here.” Others told me they love women’s races because they’re generally smaller and more intimate and definitely more welcoming for all sizes, paces, experience levels, ages (many young girls run with their moms) and ethnicities (some women run in burkas). Another big draw, the races tend to support charities that focus on women and families. And gals love the female-centric touches — clean and abundant portapotties, chocolate stations, sometimes jewelry instead of yet another gaudy hunk of finisher medal, the post-race festivities with women’s music, firemen at the water stations, though the latter is a disappointment today. “It was too cold for them to take their shirts off,” lamented one racer.

With more women’s events emerging, each are developing their own unique character while keeping a celebration of fitness and the running sisterhood at their core. At a very few — too few say some critics — there’s a focus on drawing elites and developing the next generation of talent. Ottawa, for instance, is one of the few to offer prize money to top finishers while this series offers free registration to elites. Other races held at destination hot spots, such as Niagara Falls and the Zooma and Diva half marathon series in the US, have developed a girlfriends’ weekend-away theme with resort getaways, local tours, and parties adding to the hoopla. Yet others haul out gender stereotypes, playing up girly, pink princess themes, encouraging racers to wear tutus and tiaras, inviting firefighters to beefcake up water stations and medal presentations. That super femmy-ization is a trend some women race directors aren’t thrilled about. “We’re women and we like to do things women do and that’s how we design our events,” says Zooma’s Brae Blackley who left corporate law to found the series. “But we don’t want over-the-top girly. We want women to take themselves seriously: onour your training, honour your commitment. So we don’t encourage people to run in costumes or feather boas.”

Priscilla Uppal, a professor, poet in residence at the London Olympics and author of the resulting Summer Sport: Poems, says she will only run in women’s races and can “defend” the girly frills “slightly.” She likens the events to a testing ground, a place women can explore what it means to compete and be an athlete. “There have been a lot of bad stereotypes with being a female athlete. What goes on (at a race) is a lot about breaking down those stereotypes. Women are battling the idea that being an athlete is not sexy or integral to who they are. They might find it difficult to make running a priority in their lives when they have so many other responsibilities. They may feel vulnerable and exposed when they try to get in shape after many years or having kids. Women understand all this. They’re so supportive and encouraging. And the firefighters make them feel that there’s a community of men who support what they’re doing.”

Still, Uppal, who regularly places top three in her age group, laughs that she’s running too fast to notice the firefighters. She’s more intrigued by the nature of the competition — that the race provides a safe space for women to unleash their competitive drive and also learn how to compete with each other. “Competition isn’t male or female, but women who display competitive characteristics have been looked down on, for being ruthless or single minded or not compassionate. Competing isn’t about putting each other down. It’s about pushing each other to achieve goals, and that spills over into all areas of life.”

In this race, the top three gut it out right to the finish, seconds separating them. In mixed races, this last dash can be the toughest for women. So many elites have stories of being locked in foot races with overzealous guys who use every nasty race tactic to claim bragging rights of beating the first female finisher — cutting her off then slowing down in front of her, crowding her, clipping her heels, even bursting ahead at the last second to take the ribbon put out for the first female finisher, as happened to pro triathlete Suzanne Zelazo when she won the women’s Toronto Goodlife Half in 2009.

In this one, Sasha Gollish takes the ribbon clean, to ecstatic congratulations from race announcer Van Kiekebelt. The Pan Am games gold medalist in 1971 has been calling these races since the inaugural one and gushes about how much she loves it. “There’s just such sheer joy and excitement. It’s like a collaborative team effort. It’s us girls against the world. When I was competing, women didn’t have this incredible camaraderie that they have today, that has developed from women running together, and it shows in these women’s races.”

As runners cross the finish line, Van Kiekebelt calls out the first names of each, though I confess I don’t hear mine. I am too much in shock — by a massive PB, at age 50!, and a first-place in my age group. Rather than draining me, the effort fills me with confidence, and I will PB my next race – that target half the next week – by five minutes.

But in this moment, along with other finishers, I rush to the finish line to cheer in the rest of the field. Despite the rain and cold, we can’t pull ourselves away from the drama:  the ecstatic joy, the massive smiles of so many first-time racers crossing the line. Race director Cory Freedman, bundled up in a parka, can’t get enough of seeing the happy faces and the raucous support women give each other. “People cheered them on, they had a good time, they want to keep running,” she says. “That’s pretty cool. This is living the dream.”

Margaret Webb blogs about running at www.margaretwebb.com


An international women’s racing circuit developing future Olympic stars and attracting world-wide media attention: That might sound like a far-fetched dream for women’s running, but it’s actually history.

The guest of honour at this year’s Niagara Falls Women’s Half Marathon and the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon in 1967, Kathrine Switzer, was instrumental in launching the Avon International Running Circuit in the late 1970s. Realizing that growing the sport was fundamental to getting the women’s marathon accepted into the 1984 Olympics, she worked feverishly with Avon to launch a race series on four continents. It was a spectacular success, garnering network TV coverage of marathons, developing future Olympians and drawing tens of thousands of women to the sport. “It was an example of corporate sponsorship creating a social revolution,” says Switzer who wrote about her proudest accomplishment in her memoir Marathon Woman. “So many who became Olympians were products of that program. There was such talent out there, and they didn’t know it.”

But most of the races collapsed or morphed into other events when Avon withdrew its sponsorship in the mid 1990s, as a result of a downturn in the economy, Switzer contends, rather than any lack of interest or promotional returns. The women’s running pioneer had a chance to revisit what might have been when she opened one of the few races that endured: the Avon Women’s 10K in Berlin. Some 18,500 women stepped up to that start line last spring.

Such massive women’s races are common in Europe. In Dublin, the women’s 10K attracts 40,000, Vienna 30,000, Paris 20,000. “Imagine if Avon had stuck with the race series through the women’s running boom,” says Switzer. “Avon would own women’s running now.”

Ironically, attracting title sponsors and media attention remains challenging for women’s races. While Switzer is thrilled by the women’s running boom — “It’s truly for every one now and we can relax and have fun” — she is concerned about the development of the next generation of elite talent and believes race series, sponsors and media all have a role to play. “Women have more endurance, stamina, balance and flexibility. It doesn’t make us better than men. It makes us different athletes. Men have been running the marathon for 2,500 years, women for only 30. We’re just beginning to explore women’s capability in the sport.”

OMA Outdoors Sat 187

Older Faster Stronger: Celebrate the Running Sisterhood With an All-Women’s Race

Signing up for a race or five over the season is a fantastic motivator to step up your training. And what more fun way to test your fitness than a spin with the running sisterhood? All-women’s races are incredibly welcoming, inclusive and celebratory. And with an elite field pushing the front runners, they can be pretty darn competitive too.

Never raced? Many women choose all-women’s races as their first — check out my story, “A Race of Their Own,” in this month’s issue of Canadian Running magazine for a flavour of what these races are all about. Hopefully, I will see you at a few.

Canadian Women’s Races

Sports 4 Emilie Mondor 5K Memorial for Women, Ottawa

Billed as the fastest women’s 5k in Canada, the event has prize money for open and masters. Also has a children’s mixed 1k. June 22, 2013 www.runnersweb.com/running/EmilieMondor.html

Toronto Women’s Run Series

A three-event series featuring half marathon, 10K, 8K and 5k races, with about 1500 runners in each. Set away from traffic but on paved paths in Sunnybrook Park in the Don Valley. Fundraising partner is the Pediatric Oncology Group of Ontario (POGO). www.towomensruns.com

Island Girl

An intimate half marathon, half-marathon relay and 5K on Toronto Island, with a festive Caribbean vibe and only 500 runners. Fundraising partner is Willow Breast Cancer Support Canada. Sept 22, 2013. www.islandgirlrunning.com

Niagara Falls Women’s Half Marathon

This course takes 2,500 runners and walkers past the falls twice and follows the raging Niagara River. Special guest this year is Boston Marathon great Kathrine Switzer. Fundraising partner: Women’s Place. June 2, 2013. www.nfwhm.com

Calgary Women’s Run/Walk

This 5K and 10K (with mother/daughter divisions) is one of the oldest women’s races in Canada, debuting in 1979. Fundraising partner: Connections Counseling. Aug. 25, 2013. www.calgaryroadrunners.com/events/calgary-womens-runwalk

Run for Women National Race Series

Doubling this year to six races (Vancouver, Calgary, Unionville, Quebec City, Ottawa, Halifax), these 5K and 10K events (with a 1K for girls 12 and under) feature Olympian keynote speakers and attract some 1500 to 2000 each. Charity: Because I Am a Girl. Www.runforwomen.ca

A Sampling of Top US Women’s Races

Freihofer’s Run for Women 5K, Albany NY

Significant prize money draws an elite international field of open and masters runners, along with some 4,500 recreational runners. Celebrates its 35th anniversary June 1, 2013.www.freihofersrun.com

Zooma Women’s Half Marathon and 5k Series

An intimate boutique series run by women, set in destination resorts with post-race parties, wine, yoga and massages. Www.zoomarun.com

Diva Half Marathon & 5K Series

The largest women’s race series packs on the parties and the pink for its “diva” runners, in US vacation destinations. www.runlikeadiva.com

See Jane Run Half Marathon and 5K Series

Focus is on inspiration in this four-race series, along with complimentary chocolate tastings, champagne and sports massages. www.seejanerun.com

Nike Women’s Marathon and Half Marathon

The largest women’s race in North America, with some 20,000 runners in San Francisco (October), just got a little half sister in Washington, DC (April).www.facebook.com/NWM26.2

Run Like a Mother

Cool series of 5K races in multiple cities to celebrate mother’s day, including 1K runs for kids. www.runlikeamotherrace.com

Gazelle Girls Half Marathon

A new race that will take you to Grand Rapids, Michigan, in April 2013. www.gazellesports.com/info/255-GazelleGirlHalf.html

Thelma and Louise Half Marathon

This course in Moab, Utah runs through the desert but not, they assure us, over a cliff, June 1, 2013. www.moabhalfmarathon.com/tlhm/index.cfm

Disney Princess Half Marathon Weekend

If you love pink and tiaras, this race is for you: Feb 22-24, 2013.www.rundisney.com/princess-half-marathon

Dirty Girl Mud Runs

At these 5K mud runs, PMS stands for pretty muddy stuff. Some 50 events all over the US. www.godirtygirl.com

Iron Girl

Athleta apparel sponsors some 13 US-wide events varying from 5K to marathon, duathlon and triathlon. www.irongirl.com

A Sampling of Top International Women’s Races

Flora Women’s Mini Marathon, Dublin, Ireland

Started in 1983 with 9,000 participants, this 10K had more than 40,000 women on the start line in 2011, who made it the biggest single-day charity fundraising event in Ireland. June 3, 2013. http://www.florawomensminimarathon.ie

Avon Women Running Frauenlauf, Berlin

Prize money attracts German and international elite runners to this 18,500-women strong 5K and 10K, now in its 30th year. May of every year. www.berliner-frauenlauf.de

Austrian Women’s Run, Vienna

The glamour event of women’s racing in Europe, this 5K and 10K attracts some 30,000 women, with divisions for elite and recreational runners, even company and family teams. May 26, 2013. www.austrianwomensrun.com

La Parisienne Women’s Race

This fun 6K starting under the Eiffel Tower attracts some 28,000 women. September 15, 2013. www.la-parisienne.net

Older Faster Stronger: 85 and still running strong

Had a chance to hang out with World Record holder Betty Jean McHugh as she underwent a battery of tests at McGill University, the Montreal Masters Study, to find out how she has managed to run marathons so well for so long. Great genes? Yup, probably. Consistent running, yoga, weight training and hiking routine for past 35 years? Most definitely.

Here are a few things to ponder:

1) BJ, at 85, has a higher VO2 max than I do at age 51, and I qualified for the Boston Marathon (and ran it last spring) so I’m hardly a slouch.

2) BJ has 4 more pounds of muscle that I do.

3) BJ has less body fat than I do.

4) On our walks around Montreal, I didn’t want her walking any faster or I could not have kept up.

Hey, 85 is looking pretty fabulous!

Check out BJ’s wonderful book, My Road to Rome, which takes readers from her early days growing up on a small Ontario farm, to adventures in Toronto during the 1940s, across the country to settle in Vancouver where she raised a family before taking up running at age 50 and proving that she is an incredible athletic talent. She has set world records in the marathon and ran three marathons the year she turned 83!

World-record holder in the marathon, at 85, BJ McHugh

World-record holder in the marathon, at 85, BJ McHugh — she’s on the left. That’s me on the right.

Older, Faster, Stronger: Yes, but not invincible

Janet thought the snap was a tree branch, as her right foot, at full running stride, plunged into a pothole and remained there, while she abruptly collapsed down onto it.

I didn’t hear the crack but saw the results: her foot turned at an angle that suggested a very bad break.

The moment was sickening for a whole whack of reasons – my friend’s searing pain, the odd angle of her foot (gut wrenching for any runner who fears leg injuries); and then, finally, the terrifying realization that we were in the worst possible place on our day-break run for this accident to occur: a remote stretch of the Don Valley running trail, a kilometre from the nearest stairs leading up to a bridge and help.

And we were without a cell phone.

That was our second mistake.

About eight minutes earlier we stood on the walking bridge that joins the west and east Riverdale Parks, looking down at our usual route along the path by the river, which was covered in thick snowy slush. We contemplated taking the road, but dissed that option as if it for wimps and decided to risk getting soakers.

That would be our first mistake: That we risked far more than soakers when we did not base our decision, first, on safety.

Sometimes – too often — we runners feel so strong, so invincible, like superheroes who can extend the range of a car because we can run a half marathon or marathon distance to fetch gas should that mere machine run out of fuel in the middle of nowhere.

Tuesday morning reminded me that a) we should always carry a cell phone, even while running with friends b) we are not invincible; our bones do break c) Toronto may be a big city yet we constantly run into remote wild spots or even dodgy urban pockets that put us out of reach of easy help.

Our usual group was slimmed out that morning – by illness, injuries and yucky weather – leaving just the three of us, but thankfully, there were three of us.

Imagine yourself with a running buddy too hurt to walk, in a remote area, on a path so slushy or icy that others are unlikely to pass by to offer help. And you have to decide whether to leave your pal behind in the snow and cold – while she gets hypothermic and possibly even goes into shock – or stay with her and risk having no one pass by to help.

At least we didn’t have to make that sickening decision. Janis stayed with Janet, packing snow onto her fast-swelling ankle, while I ran back to call an ambulance and fetch Janis’ kids’ toboggan to use as a rescue sled. I grabbed a sleeping bag along the way to keep Janet warm and, as I ran back by Riverdale Farm, flagged down a runner on the street – I feared how Janet might be by the time I returned and wanted all the help we could get.

As we ran across Riverdale Park to the bridge, I asked this good Samaritan stranger if she might be able to help pull a toboggan.

“I just came back from Crossfit, dragging tractor tires across the floor,” she said.

Finally, a lucky break to follow the bad break. Mystery woman also came up with the great idea of pulling Janet down to the Queen/King bridge where the stairs led up to the street, more accessible for the ambulance than the Riverdale bridge. Having another brain along in an emergency can be as important as a strong pair of Amazon legs.

We got Janet into the sleeping bag and onto the sled, and we took turns pulling as we ran her down to the bridge where paramedics met us. Janet was unbelievably gutsy through the whole ordeal, smiling and even laughing through pain as she hopped up a good part of those stairs because, let’s just say those paramedics who were supposed to be carrying her could use a dose of Coach E’s training.

But within the hour, Janet was in the hospital with X-rays being taken of her ankle – a bad break and several fractures that will require surgery to set. Even after hearing that, Janet was still cracking jokes. Two of them: She has an Around the Bay bib to give away; and she took this bullet for our Tuesday morning run group, knowing it could have been any of us hitting that pothole lurking under the slush.

After Janet was safe, I was still shaky. I could not stop replaying the morning drama in my mind. Yes, our running pulled off the rescue mission – but our running decisions got us into the trouble that necessitated the rescue.

Lessons? I will now make my cell phone part of my running gear, and safety will be the first decision I make on any run.

Janet – we wish you speedy healing. And please, no more tough lessons from you.