A new start after 60: I ran a 100km ultramarathon at 70 – despite my arthritis

Ken Campbell says he never liked sport, but then one day he kept his wife company on a trail run and discovered the joy of being out in the wild

When Ken Campbell’s wife, Susan, injured her foot, she needed support to rejoin her running group, so Campbell went along to keep her company and share in the recovery. “We were just walking at the beginning,” he says. “And I was heavy. I weighed over 200lb [14st 4lb or 90kg].” But as the weeks and months passed, the weight fell away, Susan recovered – and Campbell’s abilities grew. At the age of 63, he ran 50km, and at 70, he ran through the night to complete a 100km ultramarathon.

Before Susan’s injury, Campbell, who is now 71, had last attempted athletics at high school. Even then, he mostly did triple jump. When he was a copy editor at the Sacramento Bee for 20 years, fitness entailed simply cycling to work and using the gym. “I don’t like sports,” he insists. But this seems incredible, given his achievements. “I wouldn’t say this is a sport,” he says. “I’d call it ‘an activity’.” Campbell is also a jazz guitarist with swing bands.

So how does someone with no sporting precedent become an ultradistance runner in his 60s and 70s? Susan had run marathons before her injury. But for Campbell, the turning point came when Susan’s Fleet Feet running group took to the trails in the Sierra Nevada foothills near their home in Citrus Heights, California.

Campbell and his wife, Susan, at the finish of the Mendocino Coast 50km race in California, 2016.
Campbell and his wife, Susan, at the finish of the Mendocino Coast 50km race in California, 2016. Photograph: Courtesy of Ken Campbell

Campbell went out to visit Susan’s group, and “the trails were a terrible mess. It had been raining. And I was running in my road shoes. Slipping and sliding and falling. And I was struggling. I thought, well, I like this a lot but I could do better.”

What he liked above all was the feeling of “being enveloped by the trail, being embraced by the closeness of the vegetation and the nearness of the river. I was walking where Native people had walked for thousands of years and where miners had walked on their way to gold.”

On the trail, he has seen a bobcat, rattlesnakes, coyotes, osprey and bald eagles. Susan once met a bear. Unlike road running, “within three miles you’re by yourself”, Campbell says. “Everybody has their own pace.”

And there is “the feeling of continuity: earth to feet, air to lungs, sky to vision, heart’s blood fuelling an effort that has no purpose beyond the next step across root or stone”.

Campbell loves to watch a good runner on a steep descent – the way “their feet just seem to know where the rocks are … It’s very balletic.”

In contrast, he is “kind of a plodder”, though occasionally he reaches a more transcendent flow. In one trail race, two runners were “breathing and thumping behind me. Crash, crash, crash through the woods.” But Campbell made “a last dash across a flat space and I was just flying. Totally regardless of where my feet were going,” he says. He finished ahead of the two runners, though they were in their 30s.

Campbell competing in the Mendocino Coast 50km race.
Campbell competing in the Mendocino Coast 50km race. Photograph: Courtesy of Ken Campbell

Running the 100km ultramarathon took Campbell 16 hours. Susan, and Campbell’s daughter Grace (the youngest of three children from his first marriage) both ran their own marathons that night, Grace as Campbell’s pacemaker and his “lifeline”: she kept him on track when his legs and brain did not always feel in step.

When Campbell crossed the finish line at 3am, Susan handed him a 100km sticker to display on the back of his truck. He already had a 50k one on there. “It is a public proclamation that you are part of this community,” he says. “Wherever we park, I see a line of vehicles with their various stickers and I feel that we are a tribe.”

Running has become Campbell and Susan’s “main social event”, and brought their lives closer. Beyond the pageantry of the races, there is a sense of community and post-run chitchat, “the breakdown of what happened to whom”. Campbell still runs 30 to 40km a week. But doesn’t he fear injury?

“I fall all the time,” he says. Campbell had arthritis before he started running, and is “a candidate for knee replacement”. But for now, he is holding off on surgery. It could put paid to the running – but the “sense of wellbeing and accomplishment will carry me on for ever”, he says. “If I can’t run, I will walk.”


Paula Cocozza

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Second act sensations! Meet the people who reached peak fitness – after turning 50
Rich started working out, Mags started running and Shashi started walking three times a day. It is possible to reach new goals as you get older and it is not only your physical health that benefits

Emma Beddington

02, Nov, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
After drugs and booze, an ultramarathon taught me how to love the mile I’m in
Breaking the cycle of my addictions was tough, but then I found inner strength by pushing myself to complete a 50-mile race

Georgie Okell

08, Jul, 2019 @9:00 AM

Article image
A new start after 60: ‘Exercise is my lifeblood – so I decided to run my first marathon at 74’
Rajinder Singh, AKA the Skipping Sikh, is preparing for his first 26.2-mile race – with community support and the memory of his father powering him along

Paula Cocozza

03, Sep, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
A new start after 60: backpacking in the Himalayas, I found the courage to change my life
After two decades of work, work and more work, Ann Halloran decided it was time to leave her comfort zone. And it all began with a broken walking stick

Paula Cocozza

29, May, 2023 @6:00 AM

Article image
A new start after 60: I survived cancer – and learned to respect my amazing body
For decades Sylvie Boulay agonised about her weight, happy when it fell, miserable when it rose. After two brushes with death, she has finally found peace

Paula Cocozza

30, Jan, 2023 @7:00 AM

Article image
A new start after 60: ‘I became a psychotherapist at 69 and found my calling’
Having worked as an architect and photographer, run a bookshop and brought up four children, Bryony Harris has always sought new challenges. But becoming a therapist, she says, felt like coming home

Paula Cocozza

07, Mar, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
A new start after 60: ‘I won MasterChef – and finally learned to believe in myself’
Life as a retired banker bored Irini Tzortzoglou, so she decided to enter MasterChef. She trained hard, won the competition and now works as a chef, writer and public speaker

Emine Saner

18, Apr, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
A new start after 60: ‘I didn’t want to be an invisible old lady – so I became a yoga teacher’
After decades in hairdressing, 65-year-old Sharon McAllister was ready for a change rather than a rest. And her yoga classes are just the beginning

Paula Cocozza

25, Jul, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
A new start after 60: ‘I risked my house to launch a chain of 24-hour gyms’
Bob Cheek was in his 60s and worrying about his future. Then he hit on a scheme that would make him millions

Emine Saner

11, Jul, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
A new start after 60: ‘I had the most dishonest dark hair imaginable. So at 65 I shaved it all off’
When her daughter’s hair began to turn grey, Marsha Coupé decided she had to say goodbye to her own dyed locks. It was like being reborn

Paula Cocozza

08, Oct, 2021 @5:00 AM