Over 75 but fitter than half their age – Meet the Irish quartet dreaming of becoming rulers of the world
Catch ’em at the start line – skin crinkles, limbs creak, arms and legs are the jittery, jagged product of longtime athleticism, none of them as fast as they once were , but all defy the ravages of time.
They’re north of 75 now, but their lean physique could easily be the envy of men who are half their age. They are John MacDermott, Hugh McSweeney, Gerry O’Reilly and Michael Kiely, and they are set to represent Ireland at the World Masters Championships.
The event started in Tampere, Finland, last Wednesday, and this Sunday, the four Irish team up for the M75 4x400m relay.
But before we get to who they are, where they come from, let’s start with a question that many ask when it comes to master athletics: Why?
Why put yourself through stomach-churning track sessions as you approach your 80th birthday? Why reject the pipe-and-slippers lifestyle to travel across Europe, pushing your physical limits against the best in the world?
“I can’t think of a reason to give up,” says MacDermott, 78, from Boyle who has lived in Sligo for most of his life.
“Some go above and beyond what they should be doing, but I put health before fitness – at any age.”
O’Reilly, 76, has lived in Laos for 12 years, and since the Dubliner started athletics in his 50s he has spent a lot of time studying the effect exercise has on aging bodies.
“You can add six years, on average, to your healthy longevity by doing aerobic exercise,” he says.
“Those who do athletics will live longer, on average, than the Irish population. Go to a masters championship and no one is obese – they all look healthy.
Kiely, from Blarney, started athletics aged 36, winning world masters titles in the 800m and 1,500m before stepping away from it for 16 years. He came back again, but after hip replacement surgery he decided to avoid racing on the road and just focus on the track.
With so many people his age falling victim to severe physical illness or decline – some due to genetics, others due to lifestyle choices – Kiely increasingly recognizes the importance of staying as hard and fast as his body allows.
“People might say you would have problems with your knees (training so much) but those are just mechanical (problems), they can be fixed,” he says.
“My wife was still worried it was an imminent heart attack, but the doctor told me, ‘You’re more likely to have a heart attack if you stop running.’ If you keep going and stay in shape, you’re more likely to be well.
The four are part of a 94-person Irish squad competing in Tampere over 14 days, with events to suit all age groups from over 35s to over 100s – from hurdles to hammer throwing, from cross-country to steeplechase and half-marathon. Among them are amazing performers like Anne Gilshinan, the middle-distance runner from Wexford who set six masters world records between 800m and the mile, the 58-year-old still able to run a mile in just over five minutes.
Then there’s Tommy Hughes, the 1992 Olympian who holds the world record for the over-60 marathon with a breathtaking time of 2:30:02; and Joe Gough, who set the world indoor record for the over-65s in the 800m in 2:16.65.
Every Master Athlete has their story, the common thread among them that doing this, however difficult it may be at times, is so much better than the alternative.
Some have been knee-deep in athletics all their lives. Others only came there in their old age.
The most common, however, are those who tried the sport at some point in their youth, moved away from it as life got in the way, then found their way back when more free time or a new incentive came into their lives.
MacDermott played minor football for Roscommon at the time and juggled Gaelic games with athletics until his twenties before stepping away from sport while “working and raising a family”.
But once those two steps were completed, he returned to athletics at the age of 65, winning a world M75 400m title in recent years.
He trains four days a week, making sure to give his body a day of rest between workouts, with 300m reps his favorite session.
“It’s speed that decreases (with age), not endurance,” he says.
“Cardiovascularly, I’m probably as fit as ever. I just don’t have the power.
Kiely, a European silver medalist in the 800m, trains six days a week and has “no idea” if he’s doing the right workouts.
“I don’t have a running track,” he says. “My wife cuts a track in the field with a lawn mower and that’s my training ground.
“They’re talking about putting a trail in Mallow, but I might grow some flowers before that happens.”
The Corkman hopes to ‘get a medal of any color’ in Finland, competing in the 400m, 800m and 1,500m, but admits there is ‘a big difference’ between the World Championships and the Championships from Europe.
O’Reilly has always had an interest in athletics but never participated in it until he was 50 when he started running the GOAL Mile every Christmas.
When he moved to Laos, he began to focus on interval training and he currently trains three times a week, with his races preceded by strength work. (It can still produce 80 pushups.)
It’s far from the fastest in its class, but for the vast majority, that’s not what masters athletics is all about. He is an athlete ready to stay the course as long as his health allows.
O’Reilly cites the example of a Thai man who will monopolize the gold medals in the over-100 category at the World Championships – simply because he is the only one left.
“If I could stay in shape, eventually I could get good enough to be a medalist,” he laughs.
“Maybe in the 90-year-old group I will get a medal at the world level. And the group of 100 years, it’s my time!