Age is just a number, Betty Jean McHugh insists, but it’s a bit like saying a marathon is just a jog.
Especially if, as “a mere child of 81,” you were busy setting the gold standard in the over-50 age bracket in the 42-kilometre foot race — a feat rarely attempted by most people a third her age. [Note: I count myself among them.]
Now 84, the North Vancouver marathoner has set down the memoirs of her running life in a new book called My Road to Rome: The Running Times of BJ McHugh, inspired by her 2009 trip to a marathon in the Italian capital.
One might assume the story of the “running times” of an elite octogenarian athlete would be a lengthy and prescriptive tale of a half-century of diets, drills and discipline. It is not.
McHugh only began running in her 50s, racing in her first marathon at 55. It was the 1982 Vancouver Marathon, and that night she danced, drank and smoked in celebration of the achievement.
It’s an anecdote that not only reveals the carefree lifestyle McHugh would keep up for years to come, but also illustrates two themes recurring over and again in McHugh’s book as in her life: To enjoy the moment and to take things as they come.
“I always have a glass of wine the night before a marathon,” McHugh tells The Outlook in an interview near her Delbrook home. “And sure I’ve had a few world records — which I didn’t know at the time — but I just ran because I felt like it.”
Co-authored with CBC Television’s Bob Nixon, My Road to Rome weaves a dual narrative between McHugh’s preparation for Rome and her wider life story. The two tales eventually merge in time precisely at the countdown of “Tre... due... uno...Via!” at the starting line in the ancient city.
Along the way, McHugh also charts a course through some interesting North Shore and Vancouver history, as well as through the evolution of the aerobic fitness craze that took hold of North America in the 1970s and has held on ever since.
Showing no signs of slowing down just yet, McHugh’s already got her sights set on a December marathon in Honolulu, just one of many “destination marathons” she’s run all over the world.
But this one will be important for another reason. Not only could it mark three decades of marathoning for McHugh, but it could see three generations of McHughs competing together as the North Van grandma hopes to be joined by her 57-year-old son and his 20-year-old daughter.
“I told her she’d have to give up her parties,” McHugh says of her pre-race advice to the young runner. Though, admittedly, grandma was three times her age when she finally took that to heart.
BJ McHugh will be signing copies of My Road to Rome at North Van’s Capilano Mall from 2:30-3 p.m. on June 2.