Like many of us, BJ McHugh had a good time on New Year's Eve. She got together with friends. She had a few drinks. And she overindulged in one of her favourite treats – Breyers ice cream.
She was late getting home and even later getting to bed. When the alarm went off at 7 a.m. the next morning, she was in no mood to put on her running outfit and head out into the dark, dreary North Shore morning to start pounding the pavement. So she did what many of us would do: She got up, thought about it for a few minutes, and then went back to bed. After 15 minutes or so, she got up again – and talked herself back to bed once more. This happened a third time before she had a stern talk with herself.
"Finally, I just said: 'BJ, get your act together and go for that run.'"
And so she did.
At the age of 87.
The reason I'm writing about Betty Jean – she prefers BJ – McHugh is because it's January and January is when you make resolutions. So this is mine: to be more like BJ. I know it won't happen but one can dream.
You see, I am the person who sets his alarm to go for an early-morning run, shuts it off when it sounds, and goes back to sleep. Period. I'll say to myself I'll do it later in the day and then, of course, as the day draws shorter so does my resolve to hit the pavement. If I'm honest, I'm most often compelled to exercise when I can no longer stand the sight of myself in the mirror. BJ McHugh runs because she finds a certain peace when she does. And then there is also the fact she is a genetic freak who is wired completely differently than us mere mortals.
I first heard about BJ a few years ago through a friend. She had just finished another marathon, one of more than 20 she has done, and had smashed another record for her age category, one of dozens or so world standards she holds or has owned at various times. Recently, she was in the news again.
She ran the Honolulu marathon and finished in a time of 5:36:49, obliterating the 20-year-old mark for her 85-89 age group by nearly 90 minutes.
She ran with her 60-year-old son Brent. And her 23-year-old granddaughter Ava.
In person, Ms. McHugh is an adorable sprite. She stands 5-feet tall and weighs 110 pounds, a weight she has maintained throughout adulthood. She looks nothing like the image most of us conjure up when we hear someone is 87. She could easily pass herself off as someone 10 or 15 years younger.
She didn't start running until her 50s. (Take heart, people!). She didn't do her first marathon until she was 55, when she still smoked. She hated the 26-mile journey and swore she would never do another. "It's like having a baby," she told me over lunch this week. "But you wouldn't know about that."
She did do another marathon, however. And another. Her times were so good she was invited to run the Rome marathon. (The title of her memoir is My Road to Rome). She hasn't stopped running since.
I wanted to know what a typical week looks like for her. Here it is: Monday, go for an hour run or hit the gym; Tuesday, go for an early-morning run with a group of younger female runners, then hit yoga at night; Wednesday, go to the gym or for a long bike ride; Thursday, early-morning run with her gal pals and then yoga; Friday, spin class. Saturday, two-hour run. Sunday, get drunk. Okay, I'm kidding about Sunday. Sometimes she'll take Sunday off. But more often than not she'll go for a hike or bike ride or do something active. She never listens to music to keep her motivated while running. "I have my own music," she says.
She also piles up what she calls junk miles. What are they? Say she has an appointment in downtown Vancouver. She'll run to it from her home in North Vancouver instead of taking the car. I'm not kidding. She runs to the grocery store. She runs to a friend's house for dinner. As I listened to this woman describe her life, I thought how wonderful it must be to have that much energy.
I also couldn't help wondering whether she was running from the clutches of the Grim Reaper.
"Yes, I think about that more now," she admitted. "I didn't in the beginning. But now I'll see some older person sitting in a rocking chair and think if I ever get like that just shoot me."
Somehow, one doesn't imagine it ever coming to that.