WHEN MARATHONING BEGINS AT 70: Septuagenarian finds her calling over hill and dale

Virginia Pawlyn didn’t begin running until she was retired and pushing 70. A decade later, she can’t stop — and her peers can scarcely catch her.

Evesham 10K, 2016, along the banks of England’s River Avon

The 77-year-old Englishwoman won’t be the oldest participant or the fastest senior in Sunday’s New York City Marathon. But when it comes to making up for a late start in her sport, she is far ahead of the pack.

After simply hoping to avoid embarrassment her first time running with others 10 years ago, Virginia has kept going — from 5K to 10K to cross-country races and more. With marathons in London, Boston, Berlin, Chicago and Tokyo under her belt, she now needs only make it to the finish line in Central Park to have completed the Abbott World Marathon Majors — a holy grail for recreational distance runners.

After finishing the Tokyo Marathon, February 2017

There’s some kick in those septuagenarian legs, too. Her estimated New York finish time of four hours, 45 minutes, would have placed her second in her age group in 2016.

Medals aside, however — and she has plenty — the sport is about much more than that to Virginia. With apologies to Bruce Springsteen, she honestly feels she was born to run.

“Going back many years, decades really, I always felt that I was put on this earth to do something,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Cheltenham, England. “At the time, I thought it might have been to do with work. But I retired and had nothing extraordinary achieved.

“Now I know what it was — it was to run.”
Oblivion Mud Runner on July 1, 2012, in Herefordshire, England — a cross country adventure race with obstacles, mud and a lake to swim across.

A widow, Virginia joined a gym after retiring from her office manager’s job and took up walking to stay fit. Never into sports when she was younger, she decided to go along out of curiosity in 2007 when a fellow gym member asked her if she’d like to try out the new local running club. She may have been fit, but she was no road runner.

Or so she thought. After she had been running with the group for just a few minutes, a woman she knew called out, “Virginia, would you slow down? We can’t keep up with you.”

“I got a real runner’s high,” she recalls. “I’d never had anything like it. So I kept going back.”

She enjoyed the social aspect of running, such as going to the pub after group runs. The health benefits were a great bonus, too. The words of a doctor who spoke to her club stuck with her: Running, and pushing out of your comfort zone, helps you spend less time with doctors and surgeries.

But the real epiphany was discovering she could keep up with people half or even a third her age. “I think that’s what I like about running — it doesn’t limit you to being with your own age group.”
The Nightmare 10K in the town of Whittington in England’s Cotswold Hills, with 32 horse jumps, October 26, 2014. “The first part was through lovely woods, you then ran through a stream, and the rest of the race was getting over horse jumps — it was great fun!

After doing shorter races, she decided to take on a marathon to mark the year she turned 70, with guidance from a personal trainer. The result: second in her age group at the 2010 Jersey (Channel Islands) Marathon in four hours, 26 minutes.

Bitten by the marathon bug, she went on to do eight others, including running a personal best 4:14 at the Chester Marathon in 2012. Obstacle races, mud runs and other events have provided fun along the way.

No challenge sounded more intriguing, however, than the Abbott World Marathon Majors quest that she learned of before running Berlin in 2015. She had already run nearby London as well as Boston in 2013, the year of the explosions that killed three people and injured several hundred. She had just gone over the 40-kilometer (24.9 miles) mat when the bombs went off.

If she needed any extra encouragement to go for the six-majors challenge, she got it from her two biggest fans, who accompany her to all her marathons and share her love of travel.

First marathon at age 70 — Jersey Marathon (Channel Islands) in the rain, September 2010
“My sons said, “Oh, Mother, you could run Tokyo, and then we can all visit Tokyo!” she laughed.

Tokyo was accomplished last February, four months after Chicago. She saved New York for last, “because everybody says it is amazingly good.” Her training regimen this fall has consisted of weekly strength training and speed work, a long run of up to 20 miles on Tuesdays and a total of 30 to 50 miles a week.

Completing the majors won’t stop Virginia from pushing herself. She is eyeing a “fun” marathon next — France’s Medoc Marathon, which boasts 23 wine stops. And she’d like to do a marathon after turning 80 before going down to halfs.

Cheltenham Half Marathon

In the meantime, she says she gets pleasure from proving that being 77 doesn’t mean you have to be “an old-person couch potato doing very little.”

“Only when I started running very late in life was I able to demonstrate to much younger runners, who have grandparents of similar age, that old age doesn’t have to mean sitting at home watching TV or playing bingo,” Virginia said. “Life can be very active and you can achieve physical goals.”
The Wyvern Christmas Cracker 10K in Weston-super-Mare, England, December 5, 2010.

On Sunday, as her sons look on wearing their “Team Pawlyn” shirts, her latest physical goal will be recognized by having Abbott’s giant Six Star Finisher Medal draped around her neck. “Really exciting!” she said.

  • by Dave Carpenter
Virginia at the 2017 TCS NYC Marathon with her Six Star Finisher medal
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