Want to Live Forever? Don’t Stop Running
North Vancouver's B.J. McHugh is an 89-year-old marathoner who's running laps around us all.
March 27, 2017
When Betty Jean McHugh answers the phone at 10 a.m., she’s already exercised more than most people will in a day. The 89-year-old walked from her home in North Vancouver to a 7 a.m. yoga class—in the dark and pouring rain. After yoga, she got her heart rate up on the rowing machine and lifted some weights. Then she walked home again for a breakfast of oatmeal, grapefruit and a boiled egg.
Most of us would need a good midday snooze after a morning like that. But for McHugh—who goes by B.J.—it’s all part of a routine that has led to her status as multiple world record holder and unofficial superhuman. At the 2015 Honolulu Marathon, McHugh set the world record for an 88-year-old, beating the previous time by an astounding 92 minutes. Her official time was 6:31:32. The year before, at the age of 87, she set the world record for her age in the half marathon (2:43:30) and, as is her annual tradition, set another record at the Honolulu Marathon.
McHugh had been hoping to run the Hawaii race again in December, but an injury earlier in the year forced her to sit it out. “I did a stupid thing,” she said. “I slipped getting off the podium after getting an award for athletic achievement.” She laughs at the irony, even though it was far from funny at the time.
“I told myself, ‘I’ve had a good run at running and racing—a good kick at the can,’” she says. “That’s how I consoled myself.”
McHugh’s running career has been nothing short of spectacular. Her stamina and health are equally remarkable. But when we inquired about the secrets to her longevity and energy, we turned up little more than old-fashioned common sense, unwavering perseverance and maybe some really good genes.
Like nearly all the other incredible seniors featured in stories about age-defying fitness or freakish longevity, McHugh grew up on a farm. (It must be something about the fresh air and having to lift all those hay bales.) She was one of eight kids, and when her brothers went off to fight in World War II, she and her sisters were left to help keep the Ontario farm running. It was a battle to graduate from high school because her parents pulled her out of classes each spring to work in the fields, but McHugh knew she wanted to become a nurse, which meant she needed her diploma.
“Running gets the heart rate up. You get that runner’s high; nothing takes the place of running.”
She married, raised four kids and worked as a nurse. She skied and played tennis. And, as was the norm in that Mad Men-esque era, she was a casual smoker, lighting up at parties and at work. “After a day at the hospital, we would sit around sharing a pack of cigarettes. Can you imagine?” she says. In fact, she still smoked from time to time when she took up running in her fifties. And she still hadn’t given it up completely when she ran her first marathon at the age of 55.
But that was more than 30 years ago. Since then, she hasn’t given up any other pleasures. She has a glass of shiraz every evening—even before big races, when her friends are guzzling water and sports drinks. She loves ice cream. And while she eats less meat than she once did, she still has a steak every Saturday night, just as she did for decades with her late husband.
Among the things McHugh credits for keeping her body strong and her mind sharp are her friends—nearly all of whom are younger—and her family. Her son, who lives upstairs, pokes his head into her suite while she’s on the phone. “He’s just checking in to make sure I’m alive,” she says. And if she doesn’t show up at the gym for a couple of days: “Everyone says, ‘Where’s B.J.?’”
After her fall from the podium, McHugh got rid of her bike and her car, deciding that if she couldn’t run, she would walk everywhere. And she does, regularly turning down rides from friends who would be happy to chauffeur her home or to the grocery store. But as much as she likes walking, she doesn’t plan to walk a marathon any time soon. “I think I would find it terribly boring,” she says. “Running gets the heart rate up. You get that runner’s high; nothing takes the place of running.”
While many athletes—particularly world-record-holding ones—might mope after an injury that keeps them from their beloved sport, McHugh doesn’t seem to let it get her down. There is no time for feeling sorry for herself. She soldiers on with enthusiasm, humour and gratitude—finding pleasure in walking a neighbour’s dog, hosting her bridge club and being surrounded by family and friends.
“I am so lucky. So lucky.”
Check back for more from VanMag’s 25 Ways to Live Forever package (our March 2017 cover story!) to learn about the myriad ways—blood transfusions, juice cleanses, IV drips—Vancouverites chase the dream of eternal youth.