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88-Year-Old Marathoner Keeps on Running

Another record is within reach this weekend at the Honolulu Marathon.

(c) 2015 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

HONOLULU — Like the crashing waves along Waikiki Beach or the breathtaking Diamond Head crater that towers above the Pacific, Vancouver’s Betty Jean McHugh is an ageless wonder here at the Honolulu Marathon. At 88 years old, McHugh is one of the oldest entrants in what is America’s fifth largest marathon, and clearly the most capable of running a single-age world record alongside the Hawaiian coastline.

However, neither time nor the shiny new finisher’s medal will be on McHugh’s mind as she toes the line alongside Ala Moana Beach Park. Rather, her family will be at the forefront of her concerns: Betty Jean (who prefers B.J.) leads a three-generation contingent of McHughs that will once again race here, joined by son Brent, granddaughter Ava, and grandson David.

“It is very special, very, very special,” McHugh told Race Results Weekly, speaking by phone from her home in Canada on the eve of traveling here. “Having two of my four grandkids and my son racing, it is going to be a great experience.”

McHugh’s rise to the upper echelon of age-group running is a unique and captivating journey that will surely add another noteworthy chapter on Sunday. For as long as she can remember, she was an active woman: she played tennis and skied for many years, keeping pace with her children and late husband Bob. McHugh began running matter-of-factly at the age of 50 while waiting for her daughter to finish competitive swimming lessons; it was at the same time that the running boom was taking off among women.

Little did McHugh know that the sport of running would take her around the world, making her into a masters running icon and record setter. More importantly, it brought her family even closer together.

While McHugh has raced events across the world—racking up age-group honors at marathons in Boston, London, New York, Big Sur, Vancouver, and Victoria—she says that the Honolulu Marathon has always held a special place in her heart. She first ran the Honolulu Marathon to celebrate her 75th birthday, and never looked back.

“The first one I just remember one of the girls I run with asking what I was planning for my 75th, and I said maybe I’ll have breakfast in bed. She goes ‘no, you’re going to run a marathon!’ And that’s when it started in Honolulu,” she recalled with a laugh.

“Every year I say ‘This is going to be my last marathon.’ And then something happens and I do another one. So maybe this will be my last, I never know! As long as my body holds up I’ll keep doing one!” she said, noting this year’s motivation was her grandchildren.

McHugh doesn’t take running lightly. She has continually set single age world records at various distances, and currently holds four marathon single-age world records according to the Association of Road Racing Statisticians database (a fifth marathon world record would be hers as well pending its ratification, as she ran a net time of 5:36:49 here last year at the age of 87).

While the world record for 88-year-old women is well within her reach at 8 hours, 3 minutes and 24 seconds, McHugh isn’t too worried about the clock. She’s savoring this year’s race as it is the first time she’s run alongside four relatives.

McHugh, son Brent, and granddaughter Ava have completed the Honolulu Marathon in the same year twice before, including 2014. The first year the three did it, in 2012, is McHugh’s favorite memory to date. But it will surely be surpassed by Sunday’s race, when grandson David joins the trio in making his marathon debut.

Reflecting on passing the sport of running on to her family, McHugh paused for a moment. The upbeat and energetic athlete searched for the right words, not wanting to settle in describing just how proud she is of her loved ones.

“[Honolulu] is a nice destination, and I enjoy the destination marathons,” she said. “With a group, we have so much fun. It’s not just the marathon—it’s the fun we have before and after. I think it’s extra special here though because we have three generations. I know they probably wouldn’t run if they didn’t know that I run.”

She continued: “In particularly my grandson. He’s always been very much the student, and he was involved in sports but said he never really enjoyed them that much but thought that he should be doing something. When he started training for this marathon he just realized he loved running.”

While other marathons are nice, the Honolulu Marathon now represents a family reunion and celebration for the McHughs, said Brent. It’s time together doing something they all have come to enjoy.

“I think this is really special. Number one, it’s not often you can get family to do something, and having three generations get together and accomplish something like a marathon,” Brent began. “We’ve done it twice now but every time we do it another year’s gone by and it’s like ‘Can we really do this again?’ It really does mean something to me… They [the grand-kids] get a really big charge out of running with their grandmother. It’s a fun time of year.

“We’ve done a number of [marathons] but we’ve found the Honolulu Marathon is the easiest one to combine some fun with the fact that you’re doing a marathon,” said Brent, who finished in 3:36:30 last year. “We have a little fun before, do the race, and have fun afterwards, and always look forward to getting together.”

Admittedly, McHugh says that she’s wondered when her last marathon will be. She doesn’t want to think about the day she has to hang up her racing flats forgood.

Last Friday, while completing her final long training run before marathon race-day, McHugh tripped on a bump in the road and fell hard to the ground. Suffering a bruised hand, cuts on both knees, and a little scrape above the eye, she quipped about the result of her tumble.

“I landed on my right hand. It could have been a lot worse. I’m lucky it was my right hand as I’m left handed, and that meant I could still tie my shoes [and get out running]!” she said with a laugh. Indeed, even a fall couldn’t get in the way of McHugh running with her family on Sunday.

It is her family, friendships, and the positive health benefits of running that keep her going out the door day after day, meeting with friends to run in even the most inclement weather. Her keys to longevity in the sport are to surround yourself with good people, and most importantly enjoy the camaraderie of the sport.

“I think it’s just associating with people who are doing what I am doing,” she said. “It’s very motivating… That’s another reason why I feel I should take advantage of my good health.”