Some people get into running when they’re at school. Some don’t get the bug until they’re in their 30s or 40s. For Virginia Pawlyn, it was a little later than that – she started running when she was 66 and is now in her late 70s! Here is her amazing story.
“I was fit, but I couldn’t run!’
“We lived a quarter of a mile from the post office, and I couldn’t run to the post office. A lot of my friends were doing the 5K Race for Life though and I thought, ‘I’m fit, I should be able to do that!’” With advice from a fitness instructor on how to begin running, Virginia built up her mileage slowly and trained for the local Race for Life.
“You can tell how naïve I was back then; I didn’t even realise I had to enter!” she laughs. “I turned up on the day and realised everyone else had entered. But one lady’s daughter had dropped out so I took her number and did the Race for Life. And that was that for a while. But then, I used to go to circuits once a week, and a lady I knew in circuits told me they were starting a running club – Evesham Vale Running Club – and why didn’t I join? And I thought, ‘Me? Run? In winter, on cold, dark nights?! You’re joking! That’s definitely not me!”
In the spring, however, Virginia’s curiosity got the better of her and she went along to a club night. “I thought I’d be slow and a real embarrassment,” she says, “But on my first club run, they had to ask me to slow down because people couldn’t keep up with me! And I was hooked”.
Discovering a love of running
Virginia had a varied career before she retired, as a secretary and then an air stewardess, which enabled her to travel and see the world at a time when travel was much more expensive. She had two sons and went on to set up the first-ever Citizen’s Advice Bureau in Evesham. Though her love of running came as a surprise, as she’d never done it before, she now feels that running is a truly special pursuit.
“You’ve got to look at running as a whole package,” she explains. “It’s hard work, but I enjoy the social life, and it keeps me fit and healthy, which I think is very important. Exercising with people together, you develop a community. I moved to Cheltenham about 10 years ago, and people say that if you move and you have children or dogs, then you get to know people. But my two boys are grown up, so I didn’t have that. But then someone told me about Almost Athletes, a running club in Cheltenham. I got to know people there, and now I’ve got some really good friends through the club. A whole lot of them have just been to Torremolinos to do the Torremolinos Half, so they go off and do lots of fun things. And the support of the club has been so important to me in training for races.”
Virginia’s racing achievements are astonishing, particularly as she only took up the sport later in life. She ran her first marathon on Jersey in 2010, just a few years after she first took up running. “I decided to run a marathon because when I lived in Evesham there was a young woman in my club who ran a marathon in 6 hours. I had walked a marathon so I knew I could do the distance, so I thought I could run it and beat a time of 6 hours. And I thought, ‘I’m going to be 70, why not run a marathon to celebrate turning 70?’ I don’t have speed but I do have endurance.”
Virginia’s marathon PB currently stands at an amazing 4:14:30, from Chester Marathon in 2012. Since then, Virginia has finished all six Abbott World Marathon Majors, clocking some really impressive times.
“I came first in my age group in Berlin, Chicago and New York!” she says. “I was also 5 minutes faster than the first woman in the age group below mine in New York. I was thrilled at that!” Racing the Majors also put Virginia in the Boston Marathon in 2013, the year it was bombed. “I was on the course when the bombs went off – less than half a mile from the finish,”
Virginia remembers. “We were all held on a residential street, and our phones went down. I was supposed to be meeting my sons at the finish and couldn’t contact them. We were held for about two hours and then I tried to get my luggage but the police shouted at all the runners, ‘Clear the city!’ I didn’t know where to go, but my boys got a call through to me and we arranged to meet at a coffee shop we had been to a couple of days before. Gosh, I was pleased to see them!
“We found out the street where the luggage had gone and went to pick it up, and it was all laid out in numerical order. The organisation in such a time of chaos was absolutely stupendous! I wasn’t at all frightened though. It was as if there was a war going on in Piccadilly Circus and you’re in Wimbledon. For 48 hours afterwards there was not a single advert on television, just news about the bombing on every channel, which was very strange for America. But no, there was no reason to be scared.”
Inspirational role model
Virginia has been an inspiration to many since she took up running, and says that the reaction she receives from other people when they see her run is really positive.
“I never get disapproving looks – quite the opposite!” she says. “People are more surprised, and I think there are a lot of people in my first running club whose parents or grandparents were the same age as me. Their parents were sitting at home in front of the television and they thought that when you got old, that’s what you do. But then along I come and run a marathon!
“Hopefully I’m providing a bit of inspiration, and showing that life doesn’t end when you retire. For me in a way it was helpful to start late, because I hadn’t had 30 or 40 years of pounding my joints.”
For the time being, however, Virginia is still an unusual figure on the running scene. “I don’t know many people my age who took up running later in life,” she says, “But I have a friend through the running club who is a couple of years younger than me and is a triathlete. She used to run marathons. I think the club are quite amazed because the two of us are out there running, and she’s swimming and cycling! We are really happy to stay active, and not just sit in front of the television all day.”
Virginia is keen for other older people to take up running and find the same joy from the sport that she does. She recently gave advice to a lady she met on how she could take up running. “I said she should go to parkrun,” she explains. “Because with parkrun, whether you walk slowly or you’re Mo Farah, everybody’s in. Nobody is excluded. I tell a lot of people about parkrun because I think it is so good. It has a really great atmosphere.”
She also thinks that running clubs are really positive for all runners. “An advantage that clubs have for elderly runners is that you can meet somebody half your age, and you have running as a common denominator.
You have something to talk about, and the age difference just melts away. You talk over races, times, injuries… and the age gap doesn’t matter at all.”
Older people everywhere could take a leaf out of Virginia’s book, and ditch the TV in favour of a pair of running shoes and the support of a club. As Virginia has found, it’s pretty unbeatable!