I have never had a plan for my life's work, and I've discovered that sometimes things seem to choose you, rather than the other way around.
When I was a young wife and mother, and later, when I was an activist trying to reform prisons, and later still, when I was an investigative reporter, becoming a racing granny was never a goal. I could see myself playing tennis or riding around on a horse, things I have done all my life, but it never occurred to me that I would end up at an advanced age running in international competitions or trying to break world records on a track.
My racing career did not begin auspiciously. In grade school, I was always one of the slowest kids and the last to be chosen for teams. One helpful friend used to take me by the hand and run fast across the playground, hoping that by force of will she could pull me into speed. It didn't work. Even if I had wanted to run in high school or college, neither Garrison Forest School nor Bryn Mawr fielded track or cross-country teams in the 1950s when I was a student. Women did not take part in road racing, and the 1970s running boom was 20 years off.
And there wasn't much by way of appealing athletic role models. I saw gritty black-and-white newsreels of the premier woman athlete of her time, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, sprinting to Olympic gold when I was young, but I certainly didn't want to look sinewy and tough like her-Elizabeth Taylor of the violet eyes and hour-glass figure seemed more like the way to go if one wanted to be popular with boys, which I did. Even though I chose a college that had been founded by feminists, I never intended to be one. But something about Bryn Mawr attracted me, perhaps foreshadowing a bit of what was to come. Other Seven Sisters schools seemed to me to be too girly, and filled with rules about how late one could stay out or how many classes one could cut. Bryn Mawr rejected a Phi Beta Kappa chapter on the theory that any of its students would be "Phi Bete" wherever they went. I liked the attitude. Moreover, the college was very small, it treated female students like adults, and it was reputed to be one of the hardest places to get into. Clearly, I was competitive even then.
With the 1960s and 1970s came the second wave of feminism and the running boom, opening up the range of choices and role models for women. Billie Jean King demolished Bobby Riggs in that high-stakes tennis match. Ms. magazine and other publications paid homage to athletic women. The much-married Elizabeth Taylor, victimized by addiction problems, lost her standing as a role model.
But still, it was a man who got me running-actually, it was a man and a boy. The boy was my son Peter McLaughlin, an outstanding high school cross-country racer, and the man was my husband at the time. He decided in the late 1970s that our family should become fit, so I went along with him and my three sons on jogs around the neighborhood. The sport did not come easily to me: At first, I got headaches when I ran as little as half a mile. But, not wanting to be left out of a family activity, I kept at it and the headaches went away. Soon I was running happily along the trails of Mt. Tamalpais, near my northern California home. Ever the faithful follower, I entered races with my husband and sons. It came as a surprise to discover that I had a bit of speed after all. I won prizes in the over-40 divisions, and then I was hooked. After the husband left, I found women friends to run with and joined a running club. In the 20 years since then, I've run thousands of miles and competed in hundreds of races. I run for a woman's racing team in San Francisco, the Impalas, one of very few all-female teams in the country. I chose the Impalas because the group is one of the few that provides serious coaching for women of all ages and because of the great camaraderie and mutual support the members give each other.
In 1994, I became a grandmother. Remembering my own sedate grandmothers, I began to wonder whether I was odd, at an age where one is supposed to be wise, unselfish and serene, to mightily enjoy running my legs off against other old women-and young ones, and men as well. But I decided, in the best Bryn Mawr tradition, that it is perfectly all right to become an eccentric old woman and to pursue what one loves no matter how silly it may look.
After turning 60 in 1997, I had my best year ever. I won the over-60 age group at the Boston Marathon, finishing in 3:25, a personal best, and went on to win two gold medals in international competition in South Africa. After that, I broke the age-group world record for 10,000 meters on the track and at the end of the year was ranked #1 woman U.S. road racer in the 60-64 age group.
Then, intoxicated with success and eager for more, I failed to rest up enough and had to sit out the whole 1998 racing year sidelined by injury. I went from a hero to a zero in one quick skid along a slick, muddy path. Since that moment, I've spent hours in a gym doing boring exercises to heal and strengthen my body and walking the mountain trails I love to run. Now I'm in training again and hoping for some more good years.
But something else happened along the way, again not exactly by my own choice. A friend who runs a small magazine asked me to write a short piece about running and old age. I did, and it was published. I turned that into an article for Runner's World, after which I was invited to write a monthly column on senior athletics for Pacific News Service. So I have managed to combine two of my passions to create a niche as an elderly sportswriter, and I am off on another careeróas usual, more by good luck than good management.
Some fortunate people are born knowing just what they want to do: They make hard choices, keep their goals in mind, work very hard, and succeed. Maybe one has to do that to succeed in important waysólike becoming Secretary of State, running a Fortune 500 company or winning gold medals in Olympic competition. But for those of us content with smaller triumphs, sometimes adventures come unbidden and unexpected. The only choices we must make are whether to let an opportunity go by, or to take it up and follow where it leads.
I never set out to be an investigative reporter, either, but that's another story.
Return to Summer 2000 highlights