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 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.
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.”