Tuesday 17 July 2018

Inspiring grandmother (78) who is a world champion athlete: 'Running allowed me to see the world'

Approaching her 79th birthday, Ann Woodlock shows no signs of slowing down. Here, the dedicated runner talks to Kathy Donaghy and reveals what keeps her on track...

Ann Woodlock from Inchicore at the Donore Harriers running ground. Photo: Tony Gavin
Ann Woodlock from Inchicore at the Donore Harriers running ground. Photo: Tony Gavin
Ann Woodlock

If you're lucky enough to catch Ann Woodlock, it will probably be running out the gate of her home in her shorts and T-shirt to go for a run.

A dedicated athlete, she trains several times a week and has competed at the highest levels in running. Now even as she approaches her 79th birthday, she shows no signs of slowing down - in fact, she'd still give most 30-somethings a run for their money on the race track.

For Ann, running has provided a goal and a focus. It's given her a sense of community and allowed her to travel the world. And now after nearly 40 years of running, she's on a one woman mission to convert more older people to running.

Ann was herself in her 40s when she found running. With five small children under the age of seven at the time, finding the time to run was hard won. And she did it at a time when a woman running was not like it is today. While we take it for granted when we see women out for a run, when Ann left her home in Drimnagh bound for the Phoenix Park, it raised more than a few eyebrows.

Her mantra is "you either live or you exist" and her hobby has given Ann a springboard on which to inspire other runners throughout her life. She believes now is also her time to encourage older people to put on their trainers and try the sport.

It's true that we are living longer than ever before. If you were born a hundred years ago, you could reasonably expect to live into your 50s. Today, life expectancy for men is almost 79 years while it's 81 years for women. Our population aged 65 and over is growing by around 20,000 each year and will have increased by 111,200 by 2022. Similarly the number of people aged 85 and over is growing by 4pc each year.

Ann Woodlock
Ann Woodlock

And yet when it comes to ageing, the connotations can often be negative. Studies tend to focus on the economic burden, the pension deficits and the health needs rather than stating the obvious: that population ageing is a success story.

According to the UN and the World Health Organisation, population ageing is one of humanity's greatest triumphs and one of its greatest challenges. The Government's positive ageing strategy published in 2013 stated that planning should focus on keeping people healthy for as long as possible.

It stands to reason that if we are living longer, then we should do it well. So how is it in an age of wellness and well-being that ageing - something we are all doing from the minute we are born - is not discussed and if it is, it's usually in terms of how to turn back the clock?

Last month, Allure, the well-known US beauty magazine, announced it was to stop using the expression anti-ageing. "Whether we know it or not, we're subtly reinforcing the message that ageing is a condition we need to battle," explained Michelle Lee in her editor's letter. "Changing the way we think about ageing starts with changing the way we talk about it."

And as we live longer it's the quality of our lives that becomes important, not the numbers. You get a sense of this when you talk to Ann Woodlock, an ambassador for Bank of Ireland's Positive Ageing campaign and a woman on a mission to get more people keeping active into their 70s, 80s and beyond.

She's still doing things at the age of 78 that would make much younger women want to sit down. Today she'll still do a 5k run in a very respectable 28 minutes. But then, she's always been ahead of her time.

Looking back she says that society was wary of women running. Women running on their own was something you just didn't see in an Ireland nearly 40 years ago, even if you lived in the capital. As well as this Ann's husband John - who she married at the age of 23 in 1962 - was totally unsupportive of her running. She says her husband - who passed away in 2003 - was of an age where he felt that a woman's place was in the home, not running around the Phoenix Park.

But Ann - a mother of five children ranging in age from 46 to 54 - was determined to carve out a freedom for herself and she found this through sport. While she says it wasn't always easy, she was determined to run. In 1983 she answered a call in the then Evening Herald newspaper looking for women to take part in a race. In time it would become the women's mini marathon - the biggest event of its kind anywhere in the world.

Despite the daily obstacles she faced at home, running became a way of life and an important part of her identity forged away from home and family. It was something entirely for herself.

In 1990 she joined the celebrated Dublin running club Donore Harriers in Chapelizod and began doing cross country races. In 1991, in her first World Road Championships, she came first in the over-50s category. The victories came thick and fast after that.

She competed in Masters events - events for athletes over the age of 40 - in championships all over the world from Russia to Finland, Durban in south African to Bordeaux in France.

"Running allowed me to see the world and to make friends. I made the most wonderful friends. There's no nastiness - all the people I met were incredible," says Ann.

While she remembers running through the gates of the Phoenix Park with her friend Eileen Birminghan, a mother-of-10 who turns 90 in November, Ann's future is also full of running.

Currently she trains several days a week with Donore Harriers and shows no sign of slowing up. "Last Saturday we were up at the polo grounds and we did 12 sets of 400 metres - that's three miles. On Tuesday evening I train with the club and on Thursday and Sunday I do my own thing," she says.

Last March she went to a Master's championship event in Madrid. Despite her family's reservations about her age, she won the 3,000 metres race in her age category. The following month she won gold in the 1,500 metres race at European Masters Athletics Championships in the women's over-75 section, easily seeing off competition from Britain, Norway and Italy. She was the oldest runner in the field.

Ann knows she can't train like she did 20 years ago but she feels she's still well up for a challenge and as long as she's enjoying running, she says she will continue.

Over the years she says she's met more women who have come up to her and told her how she's inspired them. Many of them had never run but through her club heard of her and were inspired to put on a pair of runners and give the sport a go. Ann says this is one of the things that gives her the most satisfaction in life, that and spending time with her six grandchildren.

"I've said to women 'you don't have to run'. Running is just an extension of walking - an old man said that to me in the Phoenix Park years ago and I never forgot it. Just get out and go for a walk and build it up from there," says Ann.

She knows from years of experience that obstacles can be put in your way to getting out and trying new things and that as years go by it can become harder to break habits. "People have said to me 'not everybody is like you'," says Ann. "They say 'I couldn't be bothered' but I say it's never too late to start something.

"For me, running under trees on green grass solves every problem. You don't have to concentrate on anything when you're running - you're just letting your mind wander. It costs you nothing other than the cost of a pair of runners. Anybody can do it."

Now with more medals in her cabinet than she cares to mention, Ann is passionate that older people should not let their age define them.

And she says life is meant to be lived to the full - including setting yourself physical challenges.

● This is the first in a series of profiles of people who are redefining later life. If you know someone who may fit the bill, email yhogan@independent.ie

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