April 15, 2012
By the Rev. Dr. Ed Hird
While working out at a local weight room, I had the privilege of getting to know Betty Jean McHugh, the world’s fastest 83-year old long-distance runner. Interviewed on TV and newspaper, she has been called the flying granny. Jack Taunton, Chief Medical Officer for the Vancouver Winter Olympics, called her one of the most remarkable senior runners we have seen. Betty Jean is so positive and energetic that she inspires the rest of us to not give up on our health goals. Recently I met her at the Parkgate Village right next to the Bean Around the World coffee shop. She told me of her tri-generational plans to run in the December 2012 Hawaiian Marathon, along with her son Brent and her grandchild.
After reading her new book My Road to Rome, I knew that I needed to celebrate BJ’s achievements as a Mother’s Day marathoner. One of her great lifetime highlights which she talked about extensively throughout her book was an all-expense-paid trip to run in the Rome 2009 Marathon. There are now five million North American women running, compared to less than one million in the 1980s. Women, many of whom are mothers, now outnumber men at running events. BJ has run in 14 marathons and over 300 road races. Running four times a week at 5:45am, BJ has broken a dozen Canadian and world records. She started running at age 55, a time when many others were hanging up their running shoes. While BJ has been injured many times over the years, she never gave up, saying that she ‘was not going to accept the ravages of time without a fight.’ Running has become for her as much part of her life as ‘brushing her teeth’.
BJ’s determination is an inspiration to watch. She not only runs and works out at the gym, but also has been an avid North Shore skier since the early 1950s. BJ even climbs the Grouse Grind with her grandchild. Such athletic involvement helped condition her to become a leading octogenarian runner. She acknowledges that there are thousands of times when she felt like not bothering. “Excuses are easy; commitment is hard”, says BJ. But she just keeps putting one foot in front of the other and goes for it regardless. Every marathon, says BJ, is a journey into the unknown. You train and train and train again, and think that you are ready. But you never really know how your body is going to fare over 42 kilometres of running.
One thing that keeps her going are her running partners to whom she is committed. “How can I sleep through an early-morning downpour”, says BJ, “when I know that my friends will be waiting for me at our meeting place in ten minutes?” Running, says BJ, has given her friendships that are powerful and lasting. Through her running with her partners, they experience ‘the elation of reaching the top of a hill, the pain when (they) increase the distance on a training run, the slogging through rain and dancing through a sunlit forest.’
In BJ’s book, she talks about being raised in the poverty of the Great Depression in Stanwood Ontario. The local church was the centre of the community. BJ comments that ‘as a child she liked everything about church but the Sunday service…The minister droned on about subjects I never understood, and I had to sit in the pew with my hands folded politely.’
Once while running in a Vancouver marathon, she became more and more concerned about finishing well: ‘I feared hitting the dreaded ‘wall’, that point at which the body has used up all its reserves.’ Finishing well is a challenge for all of us, whether in a marathon, in our business, or in our family. It is about ultimately facing the question: will my life have made a difference? BJ is an example of someone who is finishing well, whose life is making a difference. She has chosen to give her best into what she believes in and is passionate about. BJ is leaving a legacy that other younger people will be able to tap into.
One of my mentors, Paul, said that he fought the good fight, he finished the race, he kept the faith (2 Timothy 4:7). Even though Paul was tragically killed, he finished well. Paul also recognized that physical exercise was of real value, but he pointed us to the even greater significance of spiritual exercise (1 Timothy 4:8). Part of finishing well is a commitment to being healthy in body, mind and spirit. If we neglect any of those three, we are the poorer for it. Life is a marathon. Life is about discipline. Life is about finishing well. My Mother’s Day prayer for those reading this article is that BJ McHugh’s example will inspire all of us to discipline ourselves in body, mind and spirit so that we may truly finish well.