Saturday 22 November 2014

I was 69 when I first ran a mini-marathon

Four years after receiving her bus pass, Maureen Armstrong ran the 10km race and has done so 20
 times since then.

Leslie Ann Horgan

Published 05/08/2014 | 02:30

Maureen Armstrong after running the Flora Women’s Mini Marathon earlier this year
Maureen Armstrong after running the Flora Women’s Mini Marathon earlier this year
Maureen Armstrong

"One of my grandchildren asked me whether I had a Facebook," says Maureen Amstrong with a deep chuckle. "I told her no, I only have a prayer book."

Maureen may not have a Facebook page of her own, but the 89-year-old is well represented on social media. There, her 21 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren proudly boast of her many achievements.

These include her recent visit to Áras an Uachtaráin to meet the President, and an invitation to TV3, where she appeared on Ireland AM, and of course, all the media attention that followed her completion of the Flora Women's Mini Marathon in June - her 20th time to do so.

Even more astonishing than the ease at which Maureen, the oldest race participant, finished the 10km course is that fact that she did her first ever mini marathon at 69 - an age at which many of her contemporaries had resigned themselves to their armchairs.

It's fitting, then, that this super granny was chosen to launch this year's Hidden Hearing Heroes Awards, which include an 'age is no barrier' category.

From Drumbane, near Thurles in County Tipperary, Maureen says that exercising was not something that she was conscious about in her youth.

"I never played sports or did exercise as a girl. It wasn't there in my time," she says. "But I grew up on a farm and it was all heavy work. Before milking machines came in, we were up at dawn to milk the cows. I used to get water from the well. I'd carry two buckets a mile down the field and back up again, full.

"There was no such thing as a cooker, so we made our food over an open fire that you'd stoke with a bellows. We did a lot of that kind of work - it's better than any modern gym workout."

Maureen Armstrong after running the Flora Women’s Mini Marathon earlier this year
Maureen Armstrong after running the Flora Women’s Mini Marathon earlier this year

Maureen worked the farm alongside her husband Jimmy, who passed away almost 30 years ago. She also had her hands full raising their two daughters and five sons.

Today, Maureen lives on her own in a house with a lovingly-tended garden. Every morning at 10am, she pulls on her runners and sets out for a brisk walk.

"I walk a set route of about two miles every day," she says. "It's up and down hills - it's serious walking. I go whatever the weather is like. I don't mind the rain at all, sure you can just bring an umbrella.

"I also do hill walking with a crowd that goes together in Upperchurch. There's 40 to 50 of us and it's about a three-mile route. We did a night walk there a couple of months ago that was great. I love all of those things.

"I love going dancing, too. There's set dancing on locally every fortnight. I do The Ballyconnell Set, The Siege Of Ennis and The Quickstep. The mini marathon is an easy walk compared to all of that!"

Even for a woman as active as Maureen, the mini marathon does present quite a challenge. The event takes participants from Dublin city centre out into the suburbs and back - a 10km route that proves tough for many amateur runners and walkers.

Nevertheless, Maureen first decided to enter the race four years after receiving her bus pass.

"I had in my head all the time that I would walk Croagh Patrick and I did that. It was lovely altogether. I was way up the mountain and my daughter was way behind me," she laughs.

"I didn't collect money for that but I wanted to do something for charity, too. I lost two brothers to cancer and I know a lot of people who have been affected by it. That's how the idea to do the mini marathon came about.

"My daughter Martina has done it with me every year since 1994. Over the years, we've raised a lot of money for the Irish Cancer Society.

"I've never had to go looking for sponsorship; people always come out to the house to donate. I have copies of all my cheques up on the wall at home, and all my medals too. This year's one is special because it's the 20th."

Maureen Armstrong
Maureen Armstrong

Maureen baulks when asked if she ever considered retiring from the race. Not even after a nasty fall off a bicycle during training one year left her face badly bruised?

"Not at all! When I got into the habit of it, I just kept going. Now I look forward to it every year," she insists. "The race organisers know me by now. For the past three years we have been brought into the VIP area so that we don't have to queue up at the beginning of the race.

"They let us off after the runners so we have a small head start on the walkers. I just need a T-shirt and runners - no special gear."

Today, Maureen looks slim and elegant. Her clear and remarkably unwrinkled complexion is bright against her blue cardigan. She attributes her youthfulness in part to the health-boosting drink she takes every morning, supplied by daughter Martina Heffernan's business, Tipperary Aloe Vera.

"Thank God, I have no pains or aches and I don't take any tablets. When I finished the mini marathon this year, I wasn't tired at all. I didn't need a lie down or a hot bath. My niece was there and she'd a bad pain in her back, but I could have gone out and done it a second time."

She says that while she doesn't follow a strict diet, she's careful what she eats, with porridge and soup making up two of her three light daily meals.

She doesn't drink alcohol. In fact she has never touched a drop since taking her Pioneer Association pledge at age 12. A devout Catholic, Maureen believes that the power of prayer has helped to keep her in good health.

"I think that prayer stands to you," she says emphatically. "I pray every day when I'm out doing my walk. I didn't think that anyone but the bushes would hear me as I go along the road but the priest told me that they do!"

Last month (July 8), Maureen teamed up with RTE star Brenda Donohue to launch the 2014 Hidden Hearing Hero Awards. The annual awards honour previously unsung heroes from the community in seven categories, including 'triumph over adversity', 'deaf or hard of hearing' and 'age is no barrier'.

Maureen says that the latter award is a great way to draw attention to the fact that not all OAPs are bedridden.

"There's an awful difference in elderly people," she concedes. "I think that it's all about attitude. I'm always telling people that they should do things like the mini marathon - if I can do it, they can - but a lot of them don't listen.

"It can be very hard to get people my age out. They think that they are too old for doing things, but these days, 60 is young.

"I'd encourage people to get up and get out. One step at a time will get you there. I see people my own age at mass who find it hard to get up out of the pew for communion, but there are other ways of staying active."

For Maureen, one of those ways is knitting, which she has rediscovered a love for in recent years.

On being invited to meet President Higgins at the Áras earlier this year, she set about knitting a scarf which she proudly presented to his wife Sabina Coyle. A photograph of the three of them now takes pride of place alongside Maureen's wall of medals - and, of course, on her grandchildren's Facebook pages too.

  • To nominate someone for a Hidden Hearing Hero Award, fill out an entry form in any of their 65 branches nationwide or visit www.hiddenhearing.ie

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