Running toward life

By Marilyn McCrimmon, May 2012

For 84-year-old Connie Shaw, slowing down means skipping the race and just doing it for fun.

"I wonder if I can do that,” says Connie Shaw when she encounters a new opportunity. The answer is usually “yes.” Yes, she could start running marathons in her 40s. Yes, she could start doing triathlons in her late 50s, and continue competing in them well into her late 70s.

Connie—who describes herself as active, not athletic—swims twice a week, rides her bike a few times a week (weather depending), and runs and walks at every opportunity. She owns a car, but prefers to walk whenever she can, whether it is to go grocery shopping, visit family members, spend time with friends or volunteer with the elderly (!) at Abbeyfield. Her diminished hearing is a nuisance to her, but with her short stylish white hair, her animated blue eyes, sporty tights and top complementing her petite fit figure, she is the picture of good health. Connie moves with the purposeful energy of someone used to being in motion. Not bad for 84.

Born in County Durham, England in 1928, Connie and her husband immigrated to Canada in 1955. Both teachers, they hoped to make enough money to buy a house and raise a family, something they knew they could not afford to do in England. However, after a year in Windsor, Ontario, her husband Bryan was not happy with his job. They had heard that the West was a good place to live, so Bryan built a trailer, hitched it up to their 1951 Ford and the two of them loaded their possessions and drove cross-country, mostly travelling on US roads as there was no Trans-Canada Highway yet. To cross the strait to Victoria, Connie says they had to take the railway ferry because of their trailer, and they found they had to load by backing the car and trailer onto the ferry. Disembarking at Nanaimo, they drove down the country road that was the Malahat in 1956, along Government Street, and pulled up and parked in front of the Legislative Buildings. They were here to stay. 

Bryan worked in construction before getting employed by the department of education. Connie recalls her interview with a Mr McLennan in the Victoria school district. “You British people,” he said, “come over here and expect us to give you a job, and you don’t want a job up north, you want a job here.” Connie states flatly, “So there was no job there.” Fortunately, she was hired at St Margaret’s private school where she taught until it was time to start their family. Connie says she was so pleased with the first baby that she quickly got pregnant and had another, 14 months later. Daughter Chris was born in 1959 and Jill was born in 1960.

Once her girls were in school, she enjoyed walking them to and from school each day. When the new Y opened up, Connie joined, signing up for an exercise program with Shirley Main. She describes having the opportunity to take a special training program at the Banff School of Arts, the proviso being that if you took the course, you had to volunteer and teach when you came back. That suited Connie.

But in the middle of that wonderful life Connie had with her kids and going to the Y, she got pregnant with a third child. This pregnancy would not only end in a miscarriage, but Connie would subsequently be diagnosed with cancer, have surgery, and then six months later have to undergo chemo to fight a recurrence of the cancer. She thought, “Wow, I’ve had a warning sign here, I’d better take care of myself.”

Connie became even more active, starting with skipping at the top of her driveway in Cordova Bay. Connie had also just read about an American army major who had started his men running for fitness. She thought, “I wonder if I can do that?” She went for a jog and thought, “Well that was nice. I could probably do that.” It was 1969, before the big running boom. Her neighbour decided to join her and soon the two women were jogging two miles every morning, Monday to Friday.

A change in her husband’s job resulted in a move to Oak Bay. Now her jogging route took her along the waterfront, where she met another woman runner. They stopped to talk, and the woman told her that her sister had run a marathon. Connie laughs as she remembers, “I thought, oh boy, I wonder if I can do that?” She joined the marathon clinic at the Y. She was 44. Soon she was competing in marathons, road relays, as well as the Island Road Race Series. 

“In 1982, at the high point of my running, my marriage failed.” It was a forgettable three years that followed. One day out grocery shopping, Connie ran into Y member and triathlete David Robertson. After asking how she was, he said, “You should join the triathlon clinic.” Connie said, “What’s that?” He explained about the three sports: swimming, cycling and running. Connie says when she told Dave she could not swim—other than a head-up breaststroke—he said, “We’ll teach you.” Connie said, “I can’t ride a bike.” He said, “We’ll teach you that too.” So, she joined the Y triathlon clinic in 1985, at the age of 57. She would not only participate enthusiastically in the clinic and compete in triathlons for the next 20 years, but she would even take a turn leading the clinic for a year herself.

Connie says, “I loved the triathlons. They are such a lot of fun and so much support out there. All the people standing on the shore and you feel so good. You’ve got this wetsuit on and you are 70 something and you are doing this.” She finally stopped competing when she started feeling a little demoralized about getting slower. “I always got an award, but that was because of my category. There was nobody else!”

Connie leads a physically active and involved life by choice. She says, “Something I enjoy in life is helping people. Volunteering has always been something I have enjoyed.” It is also a key to her continued good health. She may not even be aware of just how many people she has helped over the years, either indirectly through her own example of living a physically active life, or directly through her willingness to help others do the same.

Pauline Stynes is one of Connie’s age 50-something friends. Nearly 30 years ago, when Pauline decided to start running, she joined a Y running clinic, where Connie was a run leader. Pauline describes how Connie would not only run at the back of the group to encourage all the beginners along, no matter how slow they were, but she would also even arrange extra times, beyond clinic hours, for beginning runners who wanted more support. Pauline is one of many who got into the sport of running and also into triathlons through Connie’s support and mentorship. Still close friends, when Pauline asked Connie what she would like to do for her birthday, true to character, Connie said she wanted to run around Elk/Beaver Lake Park.

Connie’s active and involved approach to life should ensure she has a good number of birthdays still to celebrate. 

Writer Marilyn McCrimmon is a retired teacher who keeps physically active herself.