Marathon veteran fights to stay on track
Behind every marathon is a story that goes beyond the slow tick of kilometres. 77-year-old Shirley Young first put on running shoes 30 years ago. Since then she’s run more than 70 marathons, breaking dozens of records along the way. For the past six years, she’s maintained her love of distance running while living with Alzheimer’s. Hers is a story not just about running, but the marriage and friendships that keep her going.
KERRY O’BRIEN: And we have another story about a runner tonight, this one from Melbourne who’s quite up-front about the fact that she’s on drugs. Shirley Young is a marathoner. She’s also 77-years-old and suffering from Alzheimer’s. Hence the medication. So if ever there was a woman competing in the right spirit, she’s it. She’s contested the Melbourne marathon every year for 30 years, once again completing the feat yesterday. For the past six years she’s maintained her love of distance running while struggling with memory loss. Her’s is a story not just about running, but the marriage and friendships that keep her going.
Mary Gearin reports.
MARY GEARIN: Behind every marathon is a story that goes beyond the slow tick of kilometres. Meet Ron Young, he’s here to support his wife Shirley, although at the 15 kilometre mark of 42, she didn’t seem all that appreciative.
RON YOUNG (to wife, Shirley) You need anything else?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Yeah, drop dead!
MARY GEARIN: Few people would begrudge Shirley Young a bit of grumpiness. She’s 77, taking on her 30th Melbourne marathon just weeks after cracking her ribs in a bad fall, and all this while living with Alzheimer’s disease.
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Well, it doesn’t seem like 30 years to me, you know. I can’t remember a lot of things, so – I just love it and it’s keeping me going, keeping me active.
MARY GEARIN: And you feeling a bit sore at the moment, is that right?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: (To husband) I don’t know, am I?
RON YOUNG: There are times when Alzheimer’s does have its advantages, you don’t remember the bad things.
MARY GEARIN: Shirley Young was 47 before she pulled on her first running shoes, talked into it by her daughter Lorraine Jachno, a Commonwealth Games walker. Before a year was out, Shirley Young decided to take on an event just starting up in town, the first Melbourne marathon. It was a time when women were more likely to be decorative props than competitors. But running was no political statement for Shirley Young, it was her way out of the grip of a brutal childhood.
SHIRLEY YOUNG: I was a person who couldn’t talk much, because we had a shocking father and I just lived within myself and once I took up the running, it just changed my life completely.
RON YOUNG: It seemed as though it gave her a way to express herself and put her on a level with other people.
MARY GEARIN: So Shirley Young kept running, outlasting her husband’s running days and clocking up a total of 71 marathons and more than 50 ultra marathons, breaking dozens of age records along the way. All was going well, until about six years ago when she started to forget things, and Alzheimer’s was the diagnosis.
RON YOUNG: Still being able to run has probably given her the one thing left in her life that enables her to live some sort of a normal lifestyle.
MARY GEARIN: Her times have suffered and her concentration isn’t what it used to be, but Shirley Young can run a short familiar route around her house. And while marathons are not recommended for non-runners with Alzheimer’s, the feeling is that the training has helped slow the progress of the disease in this case. That’s certainly the view of the man who’s been beside Shirley Young all the way.
RON YOUNG: You’ve been together for 68 years, and we married for nearly 56 and out there, look, she looked after me for most of that time. So what else is there?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Why? What was wrong with you? (Laughs)
RON YOUNG: You’ve told me many times.
SHIRLEY YOUNG: It’s not a marriage otherwise, is it?
MARY GEARIN: The Youngs have never had to face Alzheimer’s alone. Because of running, they could rely on a tight-knit group of friends who’ve run together week in, week out, for three decades, often finishing their sessions with a cup of tea and an old fashioned ribbing.
ANNE CALLAGHAN: When Shirley started running, she was terrified of talking to any of us because she hadn’t been out of the house much. And then she got on the iron tablets and she was so far in front of us it didn’t matter anymore.
FRIEND: She should be drug tested if she’s got all that.
ROBERT DE CASTELLA, FORMER MARATHON WORLD CHAMPION: She’s just got a wonderful spirit about her, you know, the sparkle in her eye, and she’s always got a smile and she’s always happy and, you know, to me she’s an inspiration. She’s one of the real characters of running that we have here in Australia.
MARY GEARIN: The dozen other 29-timers gathered yesterday and reflected on how they’ve got to their tally.
VETERAN MARATHON RUNNER: An equal mixture of luck and stupidity.
SECOND VETERAN MARATHON RUNNER: A lot of determination, that it helps a lot to be a little bit brain dead also.
THIRD VETERAN MARATHON RUNNER: This is my little Everest, it’s as close as I’m going to get to it.
MARY GEARIN: Six hours and 42 minutes after she started, Shirley Young crossed the line at the MCG, flanked by fellow runners, including a 30-timer who’d sacrificed his own race time to stay with her the whole way.
PETER BATTRICK: You could say a third of the runners, even the quick guys up in tenth and third, you know, tenth and top places, were applauding Shirley as they were coming back.
MARY GEARIN: Can you sum up what you think of your wife?
RON YOUNG: Ah… no words to express it.
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Is it my 30th one, is it?
MARY GEARIN: It’s your 30th one, yes.
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Oh yes. I love me running but that’s me last marathon.
FRIEND: Maybe you can just do the half next year.
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Yeah, I’ll probably do the half.
MARY GEARIN: Ron Young says no one should second guess his wife. Once she recovers, Shirley Young might just change her mind.
KERRY O’BRIEN: Mary Gearin reporting.