Ageing with attitude: Meet the Waterford man who's not letting retirement get in the way of running

European Masters Middle Distance Athlete of the Year 2018 Joe Gough pictured at the announcement of Irish Life Health as an official partner to Athletics Ireland. Picture: Ramsey Card

Margaret Jennings talks to Waterford runner Joe Gough about exercise and what can happen when we push ourselves beyond what we think we can achieve

IF proof were needed that retirement doesn’t have to bring a downward curve when you reach age 65, then take a look at Waterford-based former youth worker Joe Gough.

The past 12 months since the competitive runner retired from the job after 37 years have been spectacular, culminating in him being crowned European Middle Distance Athlete of the Year — the first Irish person to receive the accolade.

With his birthday falling in January, Joe’s retirement started 2018 in a definitive way, but after that, the multi-award winning 66-year-old West Waterford AC member says he had “the best year yet” in his masters athletics career, which now spans three decades.

“I won the two European golds in the indoor 800m and 1500m in Madrid in March and then two World golds in the 800 and 1500 outdoors in Malaga and I broke the world record in March in the new indoor athletic stadium in Blanchardstown,” he says.

It’s no surprise he feels the year flew by and that he doesn’t miss the job. But as research on ageing shows, having a passion is one of the secrets to staying on track, so to speak. When that passion is a sporting activity, the benefits are not just physical.

Having run as a youngster, Joe returned to athletics at masters level at age 35. Did he ever think then that he would often be standing on the winning podium in his mid-60s?

If I said to myself at the age of 35 that ‘my God, I will be doing more training at the age of 65’, I would not have believed it. But I can tell you that I am probably training twice as hard now as I did at 35 — twice as intensive, twice as focussed in terms of having a plan and being committed.

Because he is a middle-distance runner his training schedule must encompass both speed and stamina, involving sessions six days a week including hill sprints, circuit training and weights.

He knows a lot of people his age wouldn’t want to do that, but he emphasises that when we do push ourselves beyond what we expect of ourselves, we might be surprised at the outcome – and “there is the feeling of a heightened awareness of the possibilities you can achieve”.

That spills out into our mindset too; how we talk to ourselves, he has found, “where you see the possibilities, rather than the negative aspects, and you begin to get more confidence in yourself to achieve things you may have been tentative about”.

Joe is currently training hard for the World Indoor Championships held next month in Poland, but he has no special diet, takes no extra protein shakes or powders, nor supplements (except glucosamine for his joints) and is a great believer in “eating plainly and simply”, quite often from his own vegetable patch at his home in Piltown.

At 5ft 10ins and a lean 10st 9lbs he doesn’t “shy away from eating”, he laughs, but believes nutrition has become an industry with many “gimmicks”, offering too many choices that complicate matters.

He’s been “blessed with normal good health”. As a beekeeper for 35 years, however, he does take honey from his own hives daily — a hobby which his wife Eilis and daughter Sarah have now built into a family business, with two ranges, called Mileeven, and Sarah’s Wonderful Honey.

Keeping bees has helped boost his athletic career also:

It’s kind of calm — you’re not nervous around bees, so it helps you to be steady. And then when I’m competing, I am not stressed. When others are at the start line and some are all nervous and jiggy and feeling the tension, well if you have to work 70 hives in the summer and there are thousands of bees around you, you can’t be jiggy or nervous, because they will sense that from you. So you have to be slightly laid back and that also helps me when I’m running out.

Excitement was running high however last month, for Joe and Eilis, not just because of his athletics award, but also because their other daughter Siobhan gave birth to their first grandchild, Rose Alice.

“She was born a minute to 12 on January 1st and she’s beautiful — it has been a very full month. When I retired from work I didn’t know that these shiny moments would be happening a year later.”

He hopes that his life of the unexpected could encourage others of his age and older to “go out and take the first step and who knows what happens out of that”.

“Ireland is in this golden age now, especially for the older person — there are so many activities and initiatives out there that are really no excuses,” he says.

Joe was recently invited to speak at the announcement of Irish Life Health as an official partner to Athletics Ireland, backing a sport that delivers on health, wellness and lifelong activity.

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