‘You are always hunting down people on the track’: How to win gold for Ireland in your 70s

It’s never too late to compete, as Irish participants in the World Masters Athletics prove with their haul of medals

“When I run at this age, it feels the same as ever,” says 78-year-old John MacDermott, a hurdler for Ireland in his 20s and now a world champion in masters athletics. “If people didn’t time you and take pictures of you, you would have the illusion you’re going just as fast but of course you’re not.”

The Co Sligo grandfather is testament to the saying “you’re as old as you feel”. He won gold medals in both the 300m hurdles and the 4x100m relay for over-75s at this summer’s World Masters Athletics in Tampere, Finland, where he was the oldest of the 87 Irish athletes competing, bringing home 20 gold, 15 silver and 17 bronze medals between them. Master athletes must be over 35 years old and they compete in categories that span the 35-100 age range in five-year increments, ie John was racing against men aged 75-79.

The hurdles continue to be MacDermott’s favourite event, although he has to go abroad to be allowed to compete. In Ireland it seems to be considered unsafe for people of his vintage to be leaping and running at the same time. Here, masters 400m hurdles goes up to just age 55 but elsewhere those older can compete over 66cm (27-inch) obstacles, albeit it with 100m taken off the distance in deference to their age.

“I suspect it’s insurance or something,” says MacDermott, who won gold in Finland with a time of 55.68 seconds. “I hold Irish [masters] records but they have all been done abroad.”


Originally from Boyle, Co Roscommon, he played on the county’s GAA football minor team, competed in athletics for UCD and represented Ireland in the 400m hurdles at senior level. He has always kept fit since, while raising six children and working as an education officer with the youth organisation Foróige, but it wasn’t until he was aged about 64 that somebody suggested he should try masters running.

“So I did and gradually I began to improve. I didn’t know whether I could still do hurdles but I found I could.” In his first attempt at the world championships, in 2011, he finished 11th. In 2014 he won European golds in both the 300m hurdles and the 400m and later went on to become indoor world champion in the 400m.

A member of Sligo Athletics Club, MacDermott believes in quality and fast work for training, some of which he does on the beach and dunes in his home town of Strandhill. “Running 300 metre intervals would be generally my go to.” He has made his own set of wooden hurdles and used these to do a lot of 200 metre or 250 metre intervals before the world championships.

“In training for 400 metres, generally I wouldn’t run 400 metres. Psychologically it is better to just leave the last bit for the race.” So to prepare for the 300 metre hurdles, “I did 200s over five hurdles and gradually added another hurdle.”

Among his Irish team-mates in Finland were the only mother and daughter pair, it’s believed, to be competing at the event. Eileen Kenny (72) from Athlone, Co Westmeath, won silver in the 6km cross-country and Michelle Kenny (43), who lives in Cork city, won both individual and team gold medals in the 8km cross-country race. Eileen used to ferry Michelle and her five siblings to juvenile cross-country running events, “to keep them out of trouble”, but she herself didn’t take up running until her 40th year. It was at one of the children’s events that two women asked her would she like to join a cross-country team.

“Living in Cork at the time, she joined St Finbarr’s AC and discovered she enjoyed competing. Her offspring all gave up competitive running after leaving school but their mother raced on until she developed cancer in 2006 and stopped running for almost 10 years. She took up hillwalking with a Co Cork group to keep fit instead “and I loved it”.

After Eileen moved back to Athlone, Co Westmeath to be nearer siblings, she joined another hillwalking group. It was during one of those walks, in 2016, that a woman asked her if she ever did the Athlone parkrun – a community 5km run that takes place simultaneously every Saturday morning in thousands of locations in more than 20 countries around the world.

“I never heard of it, so the following Saturday I did the parkrun and I never went back hillwalking since,” laughs Eileen, who now has more than 100 parkruns to her credit. “I am the oldest there, I love it. If I do the parkrun, I do a few miles before, do the parkrun, and then a few miles afterwards. I count it as my long run.”

In February 2020, soon after she had turned 70, she had just won gold in the national masters cross-country when Covid hit and she had to cocoon, as per government guidance, for three months. “That didn’t suit me. I’m living on my own and had somebody delivering my messages on the Saturdays. The minute the three months was up and I could get out to the 5km, I haven’t stayed in a day since.”

She runs five days a week and on her days “off”, she cycles or does aqua aerobics. In training for the world masters, and also the European masters in May when she won gold, “I never went out for under an hour. It all depends on how you feel.” But she reckons she was covering 80-96km a week. “I did most of the training on my own as at my age I didn’t want pressure. When I went to races then, I used people who I knew to improve. If there is somebody in front of you, you aim for that person and she’ll aim for you the next time.”

Eileen tries to train on grass and takes to the road only for races – clocking 22 minutes 20 seconds in a recent 5km event. “I have never been to a physio in my life and I don’t want to go. Even when I did a marathon when I was 45, in three hours 11 minutes, I never had an injury.”

A member of the AIT athletics club in Athlone “for company”, she finds her daily exercise is very beneficial for mental health too. “You’re away with the birds and forget all your problems. It is great; it’s keeping me healthy.”

This has been a particularly good year for her, winning both individual and team gold in her age category for cross-country at the European masters in Braga, Portugal, as did Michelle. “That was the highlight because you heard the national anthem four times for the Kennys. Then another highlight was hearing the national anthem again for Michelle’s gold at the worlds after all the effort she put in.”

It was this proud mother who had inspired Michelle to take up running again at the age of 30, after she had given it up at the end of secondary school. “My mum was running with St Finbarr’s in Cork and she was doing road races and stuff. I would always tag along and I would be the one holding the coat. Then I was thinking, I could actually run one of these races,” Michelle explains.

She recalls her mother warning her to take it easy at her first 5km race, not to go out too fast, but when Michelle finished it in 21 minutes, with zero training, Eileen realised her daughter was well able for it. A few more road races “and I had the bug”, says Michelle, who first joined Midleton AC and then moved to Leevale AC as it was more convenient for training.

“If I was running out every day by myself, I wouldn’t be improving,” she says. Whereas in a club, “you have the opportunity to continuously improve because you’re training in groups – with younger people, older people, faster people”. After she turned 35, one of the Leevale coaches suggested she compete in trials to represent Ireland in masters cross-country and she has qualified every year since.

“There’s always a drive in you to push yourself more. And by pushing yourself more and challenging your body, it does respond. The body will do what the mind says for the majority of people. That’s what happened in my case.” Her 5km time in the past two years has been consistently around 17:20-17:27. While she knows she won’t keep running faster, she hopes she still has a bit to go yet. “I still have targets – to get down to 17.15 within the next year or so.”

Fellow club members range from elite runners who make the Olympics team to recreational runners who don’t want to compete. Within her training group, “when we go to the starting line we’re enemies and then we’re best friends again at the finish line. You’re always trying to beat the people in your group – and we’re all like that,” she laughs. “You are always hunting down people on the track.” A typical week’s training for Michelle includes two main speed sessions with Leevale: Tuesdays on the Mardyke track, doing 400m, 800m and 1km repetitions and then on Saturday mornings they meet for fartlek sessions – five minutes hard running, rest and repeat – on grass. On Sundays she does a 10-mile (16km) run with a group of lads.

“The other days are just easy running and I try to stay on grass or trails.” A primary schoolteacher, she never misses training: “It’s a priority in life.” Ten years ago Michelle could not have envisaged running in an Irish vest but she has had low times too, when sidelined with injuries, making this year’s successes all the sweeter. “I love to run and I love training now and competing. Initially when I started back I thought it was going to be for health reasons, for cardiovascular, mental health.”

The Kennys, like all the Irish master athletes, have to pay their own way to attend championships. “Other federations might pay accommodation and transport costs but the Athletics Ireland budget doesn’t stretch to that,” says Michelle. With her and her mother paying €2,000 for nine nights in an apartment in Finland, they look on it as a holiday.

The older athletes are using their pensions to fund their participation, acknowledges the Irish team manager for the world championships, Anne Gormley, who also ran the 1500m in the 50-59 category. “We even bought our own kit.” There may be practically no sponsorship but there’s no shortage of high intensity training and passion.

People might think “it’s just the masters”, she says, “but you’d want to see the standard. It’s unbelievable. We have had ex-Olympians arriving thinking they’ll just step in and bring home a [gold] medal – and sometimes they don’t even medal. That’s how strong it is. They do enjoy it but by God they do train hard.”

Gormley, who is public relations officer of the Irish Master Athletics Association, recounts the mixed fortunes of Carlton Haddock from Cork as an example of these athletes’ passion and commitment. A “super athlete”, who she thought would win an individual gold, fell while competing in the 400m (age 45-49), breaking his arm in two places. “He got a soft cast put on because he wouldn’t have been able to fly home with it. He comes out two days later and competes in the 4x400m relay where they won the gold medal. The pain that he was in – that goes to show you the determination of masters athletes.”

Now they’re all focusing on the Irish Life Health National Masters Championships, which take place in Tullamore, Co Offaly on August 13th. MacDermott would normally run in the sprint events but this year he will do javelin, discus and the long jump, in preparation for competing in the UK masters decathlon championships in Liverpool the following week.

“I am always trying to be conscious of how lucky I am to just be able to do it at all,” he adds. “Medals and winning are the ego part of it. I enjoy running and I am very much into the idea of being fit and healthy, so I would run regardless of taking part in competitions – and I can play with the grandkids.”

Sheila Wayman

Sheila Wayman

Sheila Wayman, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, family and parenting