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BJ McHugh smashes marathon world record for 90-year-olds

North Vancouver super senior shakes off scary injuries on her way to another age-group record

Ninety-year-old marathoner Betty Jean (BJ) McHugh continues to defy the odds.

The longtime Delbrook resident just returned from Hawaii with another world record to add to her collection. 

Over the past decade, the Honolulu Marathon has been an annual Christmas warmup for McHugh and her family – a tradition the McHugh matriarch looks forward to the most.

Except this year BJ wasn’t feeling the aloha spirit. 

Her state of mind stemmed from a “stupid accident” McHugh had a couple years ago.

The senior, who has shattered more than 30 age-group records at various distances since she began running at the age of 50, fell off a podium accepting a lifetime achievement award.

McHugh’s knee had been giving her trouble and that day it just “collapsed.” She tore a quadriceps tendon and lost the ability to bend and straighten her knee.

Surgery was the professional advice from her doctor, surgeon and physiotherapist – if McHugh was ever to run another marathon.

“I just thought at that age, I’m not having surgery,” she says.

McHugh, then 88 years old, prescribed some time in the gym for herself as a healing mechanism.

Cycling on the stationary bike was painful. The rowing machine was the ticket for McHugh’s strength training. She rowed every day for an hour to build that muscle back to health.

“Yeah so I just proved them wrong,” says McHugh of defying the doctors’ advice.

Honolulu was set to be her first marathon since the freak injury. It wasn’t her choice. McHugh’s running group, her entourage as she calls them, plans all her races for her.

“Because they’re all quite a bit younger,” she says with a laugh.

Ahead of Hawaii, McHugh says she needed to dig deep for motivation.

“I felt pretty insecure, actually,” she recalls.

McHugh still got on the plane.

The night before the big race on Dec. 10, while she ate her plate of pasta, McHugh resolved she would just do her best and not worry about the clock. But there would be another obstacle the next morning. 

As McHugh made her way to the start line for the race, which begins before first light in Waikiki, she encountered a two-foot-high cement wall. The spry senior miscalculated the jump. One leg was over but the other got trapped behind and scraped along the wall.

“And it was like peeling an orange. It just shredded all the skin back,” describes McHugh of her wound.

At first it sort of stung, she says, but then McHugh looked down and there was blood everywhere.

The former nurse patched it up and said the show must go on. She had 42.2 kilometres ahead of her.

Breathtaking Hawaiian scenery was a wonderful distraction from McHugh’s pain while she chased the sunrise. With each laboured breath she focused on rainbows arching over the calming clear blue water.

“It’s just a beautiful course. When you are tired you can look at the water,” says McHugh.

The marathon course winds along the downtown Honolulu waterfront, through Waikiki and out to the coastline before ascending the famous Diamond Head crater. The relatively hilly course combined with Hawaii’s humidity makes this marathon moderately difficult. 

Three generations of McHughs tackled the race together. BJ, her son, Brent McHugh, and a couple grandchildren – Ava and David McHugh.

The younger McHughs ran ahead but always made sure to catch up with their beloved BJ from the opposite side of the course, which doubles back at one point.

“Brent broke stride and came over and said: ‘How ya doin’, mom?’” recalls McHugh of that tender mother-and-son moment.

McHugh walked for the first 10 kilometres of the marathon. At that marker, she turned to her walking partner and friend, Heather Parker, and said: “I think I’m just going to test my legs.”

They felt OK. McHugh carried on in a walk-run rhythm and counted those rainbows.

Her son passed the finish line first, followed by the grandkids an hour later. Grandma would be only another hour away.

At the sight of BJ coming around the bend, the family raced towards her.

“They all met me and ran me in and it was very moving moment. Everyone was saying that tears were in their eyes when they saw us,” recalls McHugh.

BJ McHugh gets an escort from her running partner and members of her family at the end of the Honolulu Marathon. photo supplied

She looked at the marathon clock, which read 6:48. McHugh had just smashed the 90+ age group world record by two hours. It felt good.

Now back home in North Vancouver, McHugh has another running medal to add to the overflowing box under her bed, near the glass case filled with trophies.

There are six major marathons each year. McHugh has conquered four: New York, Chicago, Boston and London. Berlin and Tokyo still elude her. 

Every year she tells herself she’s hanging up her sneakers, but then her entourage tells her that’s not happening. They have already signed her up for Vancouver’s “First Half” Half-Marathon in February.

The newly minted nonagenarian is showing no signs of slowing down.

McHugh believes exercise keeps her brain sharp. And while she subscribes to healthy eating, McHugh also doesn’t deprive herself. Everything in moderation is her motto. That’s the secret to her longevity.

Also a juicy steak once a week, a glass of wine every night and ice cream whenever she wants.

McHugh underwent a longitudinal study through McGill University to determine if genetic disposition plays a role in her prolonged energy levels. Researchers put her body through a series of stress tests and hooked McHugh up to monitors, while doctors kept close watch.

“It was gruelling what I had to go through,” she says. 

While she never got the results, McHugh has her own theory on what keeps this 90-year-old engine going strong.

“Attitude has lot to do with it,” she says. “You have to be positive.”