HEADING into last month's Honolulu Marathon, North Vancouver record-setting senior runner Betty Jean (BJ) McHugh worried that she might finally be getting a little old for the 26-mile slogs.
Her previous two marathons - Rome in 2009 and Chicago in 2011 - didn't go as well as she'd hoped, leaving doubt in her mind about whether she'd have success in the Hawaii race, an event she's participated in a number of times before.
"I was sort of concerned, I thought maybe I'm over the hill here," McHugh said.
Her concerns were understandable. By many people's definitions she is, in fact, double over the hill. She's 85.
Her worries, however, were unfounded. All McHugh did was blast the course in a time of 5: 12: 03, setting a new world record in the 85-89 age category while erasing all of her doubts.
"I was totally shocked," she said. "I felt great. I've done that marathon seven times and I think this was the first time I'd actually run it non-stop. Going out we go up over Diamond Head, which is fine because you're fresh, but coming back you go up the other side and it's uphill and it's longer. Not as steep but longer. Usually I cheat a bit there and walk but this time I felt really good."
It's not a shock that McHugh set a world record - she's toppled more than 30 age group records at various distances and ages since she began running at the age of 50 - but what was surprising for the octogenarian was where her inspiration came from for this race. Her 21-year-old granddaughter Ava, who had never before attempted a marathon, suggested last summer that three generations of McHughs - Grandma BJ, son Brent and granddaughter Ava - should all run the Hawaii race together.
BJ was a little skeptical when she first heard the idea. "I said, 'Yeah, but Ava, you don't run,'" she recalled with a laugh. BJ agreed to the plan, however, and all three McHughs put in excellent performances with 58-year-old Brent clocking a time of 3: 38 to finish 17th in his age group and Ava racing to the finish line to beat Grandma, clocking a time of 4: 53.
"I was expecting to see Ava lying in a ditch crying because she didn't like it," said BJ, laughing again. "(But) she just loved it."
BJ credits the presence of her family - along with some of her normal running buddies and a few cheerleaders in the crowd - with pushing her to a strong finish.
"All of those things help," she said. "You don't want to look bad in front of your friends."
Her success, however, is no fluke. When the North Shore News caught up with her this week she was a little disappointed because icy roads had kept her from her usual 6 a.m. run with her friends. No worries though - she went to yoga instead and planned on going for a run in the afternoon.
BJ said that before Hawaii she had an inkling that it would be her last marathon but her success has her re-evaluating that stance. There are five major marathons in the world, she said - London, New York, Boston, Chicago and Berlin - and she's done them all except for Berlin. A trip to Germany might provide a fitting end to her marathon career. Whether or not that happens, she still plans to do "lots" more half marathons, including The First Half coming up in Vancouver in February. McHugh said she still has doubts sometimes about her late-life racing career but she is living proof of the old cliché that age is only a number.
"As you get older you start to just wonder if this is totally good for you," she said, laughing again. "I certainly know my body well enough, I know what my pace should be and I don't stretch it."
To hear more from BJ McHugh check out her 2011 memoir, My Road to Rome.