While many people in their 90s face a daily struggle to even get around, Betty Jean McHugh shows that doesn’t have to be the case.
The 90-year-old resident of North Vancouver has been running competitively for almost four decades, breaking records across the world.
She’s always had an athletic side, but the former pediatric nurse didn’t begin seriously running until an age when most people are just starting to take advantage of their seniors discount.
What started as a mere hobby and way to keep fit soon turned into something bigger, and McHugh began to notice she was quite skilled at it.
Into her 60s, she began extending the length of her runs, and at the age of 75, she began to prepare for her first marathon.
“One of the girls says to me ‘I’m going to run a marathon,’ so we started training,” McHugh says.
While she admits she thought the idea of a senior running a marathon was outlandish at first, she’s never looked back.
“I thought ‘This is kind of crazy, this would never happen,” she says. “But with the proper training, I got my whole family involved.
But before she was known as the “Flying Granny,” McHugh was a young woman who grew up in small-town Ontario.
She was raised on a farm, which meant she ate locally grown food every day.
“I was eating organic food long before anybody knew about organic food,” she says.
McHugh recalls attending a ‘county school’ where one teacher taught all the grades.
During her youth, she played sports such as hockey, baseball, and tennis, but was never much of a runner.
After her graduation from high school, McHugh headed to Toronto, where she trained to become a pediatric nurse at the Hospital for Sick Children, now known as SickKids.
As to why she specifically wanted to work with children, McHugh noted she was “amazed at how rapidly they recovered.”
However, her tenure in Toronto didn’t last very long, as she explains she “wanted to see the world.”
While she loves the geography of the city, she also met the man she would marry there.
She was working at a Vancouver hospital and came across a man named Bob McHugh, who was recovering from having his appendix removed.
McHugh notes at that time, all patients would receive a daily back rub during their stay, and “that’s how you learned about your patients.”
However, it was clear this patient was just as interested in learning about his nurse.
During their conversation, McHugh shared with him her love for skiing.
“As he was leaving the hospital, he asked me if I’d like to go skiing,” she says.
With a laugh, she recalls she was “not too kind” to Bob but did agree to go skiing with him.
“We didn’t immediately connect,” she says.
McHugh says she wasn’t necessarily looking to settle down, as she “had a plan to maybe go down to California.”
She had already tried her hand in a serious relationship as well.
“I dated this young man – he was an absolutely lovely young man, but he wasn’t right for me,” she recalls. “Everything I wanted him to do, he’d do it for me, and I was always right.”
While such an obliging partner may sound attractive, it wasn’t what she was looking for, and she called things off.
“It was pretty sad, he was pretty upset.”
To her, Bob was the “real man” for her, but marriage to him meant the end of her career as a nurse.
“He didn’t want me to work. We started a family,” she says.
Not wanting to call herself a “stay-at-home” mother, McHugh instead refers to herself as a “beach mom.”
“I had this Oldsmobile station wagon I’d drive all the kids around in it. It was the beach mobile,” she says.
Despite this, her daughter Jennifer became a successful swimmer, representing Canada in the 1972 Olympics.
As her children entered into adulthood and began their own families, McHugh became more involved in running.
It became an outlet for her to clear her mind as Bob battled against dementia.
McHugh notes her husband was very supportive of her running, and never “resented” her time away from home.
She believes she was a “bit ahead of the times,” because she bucked the trend of many senior women who “just do what their husbands do.”
“It’s important to do the things you want to do while you can, and not just be dependant on your husband at the time,” she says.
As McHugh began to run more extensively, she started to spread her wings internationally, receiving an invite to Rome by a race co-ordinator.
Since then she’s travelled to London, New York, and other worldwide destinations, breaking records for runners over the age of 80 along the way.
McHugh admits while she loves running, the locations it has taken here are just as impressive.
“The running is sort of second… most of my marathons have been destinations ones,” she says.
In late 2018, she set another record for the fastest marathon time by a runner over 90 years old in Hawaii.
These accomplishments have led to her gain media notoriety and even a Facebook fan page.
McHugh says she almost takes the renown of her situation for granted.
“I wasn’t expressive about it. But a lot of people say they saw me in a magazine or on television because it’s my way of life,” she says.
While she has been able to stay in amazing shape for someone her age, McHugh faced a setback last year.
“I had a little stroke that put me back enough that I wasn’t able to run anymore for a while,” she says, adding she also suffered a broken hip.
McHugh noted before the stroke happened, she had experienced some symptoms but “was in denial.”
“I was having dinner, and I noticed my left arm and right arm weren’t working,” she recalls.
Eventually, she began to recover, although she didn’t run at first, only walking each day.
Despite this, she doesn’t anticipate to slow down anytime soon.
“Age is just another number. If your body feels like you can do it, do it,” she says. “People just sit in a chair- they think they are old. Pretty soon, you just become a vegetable.”
While she encourages other seniors to be active, she doesn’t recommend anyone to try to just begin at her level.
“If you just jump into it, you might feel pretty bad, and you are prone to injury,” she explains.
She says anyone trying to be active in their later years “has to know their body.”
“I’ve been out for about an hour-and-a-half [today],” she says. “I could tell the last two miles I was beginning to tire, so I slowed down and began to walk for a while.”
All in all, her message is for no one to ever let age define them.
“Treat every day as if it was the last. Set reasonable goals – that’s one important thing – if you have a goal, you are going to get out and try.”