Running for his life

When Neil Serres looks to the future, he sees a long and gruelling road ahead stretching for miles. Yet nothing will please the 66-year-old Kingston man more than if he can run down this road for the rest of his life.

Serres, you see, is a passionate – some might say obsessed – long-distance runner. Since he began five years ago, he’s become a confirmed addict who considers a day wasted unless he gets in a brisk five-kilometre run.

So how did this once inactive businessman who hadn’t laced on running shoes since his school days get this way?

“I was looking for a New Year’s resolution for 2000,” recalls Serres. “My daughter Glenda [an accomplished triathlete] was running in the Trans Canada Trail Relay, and I made it my resolution to get in shape so I could join her.” He had recently met Glenda’s running mates and was impressed with their attitude toward life: “They were happy and healthy — really upbeat. I enjoyed being around them.”

Being around upbeat people, however, was not the sole reason Serres wanted to train. Like many 60-somethings, he wasn’t in great shape. When the walk up to his second-floor office left him huffing and puffing, hknew a change was in order. “I’m over 60,” he thought at the time. “I better do something about my health.”

Serres also saw running as preventative medicine. “At 60, my father was dead. He died of a stroke while bowling,” he points out. “My grandfather died of a stroke as well.” Getting in shape, thought Serres, might break the cycle of this unhappy family tradition.

Thus motivated, he set himself the arduous task of getting his body into running shape. “The first day, I ran the distance between two telephone poles. I thought I would die,” he says. “The next day, I ran the distance between two poles and walked one. I increased this every day to the point where I was ready for the relay.”

A week before the race, Serres turned his ankle. His doctor told him not to run. But he’d caught the bug, and a sore ankle or doctor’s orders couldn’t stop him.

That race kicked off his running career, and, five years later, he is still going strong. Twenty pounds lighter, he has transformed himself into a lean, mean running machine. He runs marathons, half-marathons and 10-kilometre races — and turns in impressive times.

“My doctor, who is 20 years younger than I am, says he’d like to have my heart,” Serres says. Perhaps it’s his youthful heart that has attracted youthful running mates. At a running clinic, he met two women in their mid-20s who are post-doctoral students at Queen’s University. The three are now running buddies, helping each other train for competitions all over Ontario, which they also attend together.

At first, Serres was amazed that these two women — almost 40 years his junior — would want to run with him. But among the running set, age doesn’t matter. “They say I motivate them to get up for the early morning runs,” he laughs. “It’s great for my self-esteem.”

Though Serres’ sedentary friends perceive him as a “freak,” 50-plus runners are anything but rare in North America. One need only look at the 2005 Boston Marathon, where more than 3,000 of the 20,000 runners were between 50 and 59. Even more impressive were the 40 to 49 contingent — comprising more than 7,000. Put them together, and more than half the competitors in one of North America’s most prestigious long-distance running events was 40 or older.

Running Room, a Canadian specialty sporting goods store that offers running and walking clinics, which include teaching training techniques for distance, has seen significant growth in interest from people over 50. Owen Archambault, who oversees Running Room’s web-based running and walking clinics, says older Canadians who may have gone lawn bowling or played tennis now look toward competitive walking or running.

“They all have the same goal — to achieve and maintain a high level of physical well-being,” says Archambault. “Most are rank beginners when they first come to the clinics. They’re interested in improving their health and activity levels.”

Running Room’s emphasis is on giving people a sense of personal achievement, not on preparing runners for high-level competitions. “We had a woman who finished walking a half-marathon in a time that was her personal best. Judging by her reaction, you’d have thought she had just won an Olympic gold,” Archambault says.

Along with building confidence, running and walking groups cement friendships. There’s no room for cliques among runners. “That’s because we all have the same goal: to successfully complete a five- or 10-K, half- or full marathon upright and smiling,” says Archambault. Everyone wins: participants get fit and have fun, and Running Room sells a few more shoes.

Neil Serres learned to run at a Running Room clinic and is now an instructor. His infatuation with the sport has even rubbed off on his wife, Sylvia, 68, who recently signed up for a walking clinic and is now competing in walking half-marathons.

Many believe that 50- or 60-year-old bodies can’t handle the stress of competitive running or walking. That’s not true but it is essential to see your doctor for a checkup and ask for a stress test. Serres wears a heart rate monitor while running and advises older runners to do likewise. If you’ve been a smoker or have a chronic condition such as diabetes, heart disease or arthritis, your doctor’s clearance is more crucial. If he or she rules out running, then walking could be a good alternative. Although walking may not offer the same buzz as running, it can provide a beneficial workout.

Learn the basics at a learn-to-run program at your local Y, community centre or Running Room store ( A trained instructor will demonstrate running technique, warm-up and cool-down, and explain how to choose equipment — including the all-important shoes and proper seasonal wear. You’ll also learn about injury prevention, cross-training, running on hills and how to run in different types of weather.

Serres admits it’s hard work at the start but “once you get beyond the point where you’re puffing, running feels really good.”

Both Serres and his wife enjoy better than average health, which is their highest priority in life. “I’d like to see more people our age get active and make that a priority rather than getting a big bank account,” says Serres. “If you don’t have your health, all that money in the bank isn’t going to do you any good.”

Serres hopes to keep running down the road for many years yet. Last spring, his schedule didn’t leave time for much else: a 30-K in March, a half-marathon in May, a 10-K in July and September, and another half-marathon in October.

“I think it’s physically possible for me to run into my 80s,” he claims. “There’s a 90-year-old who recently completed the Toronto marathon.”

Then, he laughingly adds, “Maybe Sylvia’s right. Maybe I have become obsessed by this.”

Next page: Train properly and wear the right gear

Train properly and wear the right gear
The following injuries are common with runners, especially those taking up the sport for the first time. Many of these are caused by overdoing it, though secondary reasons include poor training techniques and improper footwear. Attending a running clinic at your local community centre, YM/WCA or Running Room can help you learn how to avoid and treat these common injuries.

Runner’s Toe. Occurs when blood pools beneath the toenail, causing it to turn black. It’s brought about by pressure on the toenail, often because of poorly fitting running shoes, wet shoes or running down hill.

Plantar Fasciitis/Heel or Arch Pain. When your plantar fascia (band of tissue that runs from your heel to toes) is inflamed, it causes pain anywhere between the heel and arch. It’s common in runners with high arches, rigid feet and tight Achilles tendons. It can also be caused by inflexible running shoes.

Shin Splints. This very common injury occurs when lower leg muscles tear away from the shin bone. Shin splints are caused by tired or inflexible calf muscles, weak shins, poor stride and running on hard surfaces.

Runner’s Knee. Known also as chondromalacia, it’s when the cartilage under the kneecap cracks or softens, preventing the kneecap from riding smoothly over the knee. It’s often caused by weak quadriceps muscles, which are unable to absorb the impact of running, meaning your knee does.

Achilles Tendonitis. This is a painful inflammation of the Achilles tendon, the large tendon that attaches the strong leg muscles to the foot. It’s caused by tight calf muscles or by poorly fitting shoes.

Stress fractures. These are very small breaks in the foot bones, common among runners. They are caused by over-training, running on hard surfaces and shoes without the proper cushioning.

Hamstring tear. These can occur over time, as the act of running inflicts tiny tears on the hamstring muscle fibre. It’s common in runners who lack flexibility and is often caused by those who neglect their stretching regimen.