Women of what we might euphemistically call ‘a certain age’ may not provide the obvious image of a sportswoman. But, as Laura Winter says, why shouldn’t they be? And she has a shining example close at hand to back her argument: her mum Peta. Here, mother and daughter discuss the hows and whys the sports bug took over a fifty-something
Anna Kessel’s book Eat Sweat Play is a thoroughly engaging and powerfully-written book, a memoir-come-call-to-arms designed to encourage women and girls to harness the power of sport. It will ignite a fire in your soul that will refuse to burn out. Whoever and wherever you are, whatever age you are, sport and exercise are an essential part of life. Some women over a certain age might feel this sporting life has passed them by. But my mum Peta refused to be one of them, and after completing the one hundred-kilometre London Nightrider last weekend, maybe her experience can inspire others.
After raising four children, doing the school runs and running around madly to get me to swimming training every day, mum had little time left for herself. So when we could more or less look after ourselves, she started riding a bike. She was 55. It was just a 10-mile loop to start with, before I persuaded her to come out on a ladies’ ride with our local cycling club in Cheltenham.
She loved it. Before long she had a road bike and all the gear. The seed was planted. A flame was lit. Mum started to ride regularly with the club and got seriously speedy. We’re talking beating fit, lean men up hills, leading the group on 50-mile rides, and leaving me for dust, whether that was on the slopes of Mont Ventoux in Provence or on Cotswolds roads.
“After the Olympics I was inspired to do more,” she said. “I love the feeling that I am exercising, raising my heart-rate, pushing myself beyond my comfort zone and am amazed that I am quite good at it. I could climb comparatively easily – who knew?! I love being outside in the fresh air and doing something for me. The camaraderie of the cycling community has also been great. I did initially worry I was a bit ‘old’, but I looked around and saw men of my age and they were out there – so why shouldn’t I?”
As any bike rider knows, falling off and breaking a bone is always a risk. And so I got the dreaded phone call one Saturday morning last September. It was an innocuous fall, a tumble while climbing a hill after dropping her chain. But mum couldn’t put weight on her right leg and her knee was badly swollen. After several hours in A&E, we had a diagnosis: a broken tibia, which needed surgery, and damaged knee ligaments.
It was devastating for my mum who was the fittest and happiest she had ever been. She was non-weight-bearing and on crutches for three months. For a fiercely independent cyclist this was pure torture. But Mum refused to let it beat her. She went back to work three weeks after her operation, took her first steps at Christmas and began weight-bearing rehab in the New Year, completing her exercises and painful stretches religiously.
But what about cycling? Never mind the physical barriers of bending her knee, what about the mental apprehension of getting back on a bike? “I felt I couldn’t and definitely shouldn’t get back on the bike,” she recalled. “But I knew I had to give it a try as I had enjoyed it so much. When I first went back out I realised what I had been missing.
“When I was off the bike, I had lost the person I had become. I want to get back to the same levels of fitness, although I am probably less driven in some respects as I need to be careful. I am just very grateful to be back on the bike. Cycling now represents freedom and a rediscovery of the person I became.”
An invitation to take part in the London Nightrider for a local charity, the James Hopkins Trust, was also an incentive for Mum to get back on the bike. The 100-kilometre route around the city would be challenging for any cyclist with some tough climbs maxing out at 13 per cent, as well as the effects of sleep deprivation. Why would a 60-year-old put herself through it?
“I want to push myself and have always admired people doing half-marathons or the London Marathon for charity,” she explained. “It was a perfect challenge for me. I was on crutches and not even weight bearing when I agreed to do it. It set me a goal to aim for. It was both a mental and physical challenge, given the previous six months.
“I was very nervous. I have a heightened fear of hills and was worried about three climbs which I knew were part of the route. I had not cycled that far since before my accident. But on the night I was amazed how I just got on with it. I didn’t feel tired or sleepy, I think I got round on sheer determination and adrenalin. I felt I was on a bit of a high all night and when I saw the hills, although I had a bit of a panic, I dug in and just kept pedalling, knowing that I could and should be able to get up them.”
Just to remind you: this is not an athlete coming back from an injury. It is not a twenty-something friend or sibling. These are the words of a woman who is entering her seventh decade and has had four children and a broken leg. Quite frankly she could have thrown in the towel after her accident. Who would have blamed her?
It is a humbling and sobering experience to see your mother in so much physical and mental pain, and yet not only get back on the bike but also complete a tough long-distance ride through the night alongside me. It is nothing short of inspiring. We crossed the line together and were back out on the bikes the very next day.
“The most important thing women need to do as they get into their fifties is to keep moving and keep active,” she said. “It is crucial that we exercise to fight muscle loss associated with ageing and try to boost our fitness levels to maintain cardiovascular and mental health, too.
“It is a great antidote to the menopause and exercise always boosts my mood. There are so many different activities you can do, there is no excuse. It is hard to walk into an exercise class full of young, pretty things. But they won’t worry about you, and hopefully no one is judging you. It’s very sad that older women should feel like that. I can understand why they do, but if you brazen it out, you soon forget about everyone else.”
A lesson for us all, old or young. Nothing is off-limits.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Winter is a sports journalist, presenter and event host. She worked in sports communications for the International Rowing Federation for two years, before working and training as a journalist in Gloucestershire, covering a variety of sports including rugby, boxing, football, and triathlon. She then turned freelance at the end of 2014 and is part of the team who founded Voxwomen, a women’s cycling show that seeks to give the female elite peloton the coverage they deserve. Laura’s latest articles.