Louisiana native Julia Hawkins became a competitive cyclist at age 81. Last year at age 100, seeking a new challenge, she decided to pick up competitive running for the first time. She registered for the 50-meter dash at the Louisiana Senior Olympic Games, completing the race with a PR of 19.07 seconds.
Now at 101 years old, Hawkins is adding another distance to her belt, training for both the 50- and 100-meter dash as well as the 5K bike race at the National Senior Games to be held in Birmingham, Alabama, this coming June.
“I’ve always liked competition,” says Hawkins, a great grandmother, retired teacher, and four-time participant and two-time cycling gold medalist in the games, also known as the Senior Olympics. She enjoys biking around her Baton Rouge neighborhood nearly every day, but has found a different type of freedom in running. “With running, it’s just me and my body. I can just go out and do the best I can and not depend on anything else to help me.”
Though she’s only started competing recently, Hawkins had no anxiety about whether she’d be good. “I knew I could run because I’m always in the yard working, and when the phone rings, I go running inside to answer it,” she says. Hawkins is an avid gardener and tends bonsai trees in the backyard of the house that she and her late husband built in 1949. Her success in the 50-meter dash inspired her to set her sights on an even loftier target for the upcoming 2017 Senior Olympics: the 100-meter dash. “I thought it’d be fun to run 100 meters since I’m more than 100 years old,” she laughs.
Since the competition is still three months away, Hawkins has yet to ramp up her training. Right now, she runs “every now and again” when she gets “the energy spurts.” One of her sons measured out the 50- and 100-meter distances in front of her yard with a ribboned marker, so when the mood strikes, she practices running back and forth between each.
Hawkins is the first to admit that her training is informal. “I’ve never trained before and I don’t have a trainer,” she explains. “Nearer to the time of the race, I will run every day and get myself in better shape, and I may ask some of my friends who also run for advice.” One thing she’ll definitely add to her routine: stretching. “Right now, I don’t have a good place to put my foot up high and bend like you are supposed to,” she explains. “I am going to get something to help me do that because I know it’s good for you.”
Come May, she’ll also start timing her runs. “My friends are mostly too old to even watch me, but I’ll get a younger friend who can come out and time me every day.”
As for her racing goals, she wants to best her 50-meter PR. She also wants to make her cheering section—which will likely include her four children plus a few friends from the Birmingham area—proud. “It would hurt my self-esteem terribly if I let them down,” she says. “I am going to try as hard as I can. I will give it my best shot.”
Hawkins says she loves watching the professional Olympic track races on TV, but she’s seen “people fall at the end of their races because they go so fast trying to do their best and they spend [their energy] all up.” When thinking towards her own Olympic race in June, “I want to spend it all but have a little bit left to stand alert at the end and still wave to my friends and family.”
In describing her running form, Hawkins says, “my arms go a mile a minute on each side pushing me along and I’ve got those feet going as fast as I can get them.” She’s yet to experience a runner’s high, but remains optimistic. “I’ve heard about an endorphin and I hope I can get one some day,” she says.
As for fuel, she tries to eat “lots of fruits, like bananas” plus veggies, and “doesn’t eat much meat.” She’s never been a smoker or a drinker.
Her other secrets for longevity: “Keep in good shape, try not to be overweight, get good sleep, and keep exercising and training.” This comes with one caveat: “There is a fine line of pushing yourself and wearing yourself out,” she says. “You don’t want to overdo it. You just want to do the best you can do.”
But perhaps Hawkins’ most important (and inspiring) quality is her youthful, determined state of mind. “I don’t feel 101,” she reflects. “I feel about 60 or 70. You are not going to be perfect at 101, but nothing stops me.”
[Originally reported in Runner’s World.]