“Older people tend to sit down for two or three hours and don’t realise they’re sitting for that long – I don’t know how you get through to those people,” laughs 92-year-old John Starbrook from Staines in Surrey, who explains he will be off to the gym after this interview so he can get a work-out in before he settles down to watch the England game at the World Cup.
Sitting down doesn’t come naturally to Starbrook, who claims he’d “get bored” if he spent as much time sitting as the rest of the older crowd at his gym.
Though he’d never been a runner before, at 53 Starbrook decided on a whim to enter the London Marathon in its third year, 1983. “My missus said I’d never do it, so that was the challenge, I got in that year and carried on from there,” he explains.
And carry on he did. Over the past 39 years, Starbrook has competed in 52 marathons in London, Snowdonia, New York, Chicago, Barbados, Los Angeles, Berlin, Holland, and Denmark. He has raised over £50,000 for various charities, the lion’s share for Age UK. “I just try to raise the funds,” he shrugs. “I’m not good on the phone so I do what I can do instead.”
The oldest competitor at the London Marathon in 2016 and 2018 (which he competed in at 85 and 87 respectively), it’s hard to think of a better ambassador for Age UK than Starbrook, who has spent his middle and elder years proving that older people shouldn’t be counted out when it comes to keeping fit and pushing their boundaries.
“A lot of people seem to think that when they hit 50, they’re ‘old’,” he says. “I hear that and I don’t know what they’re talking about. I’d never run before but I did my first marathon at 53. A lot of it is in the mind. I’ve had people say they couldn’t possibly do this or that because they’re too old, but they’re younger than my son. When I tell people about what I’ve done they’ve gone on to take up jogging and even do marathons afterwards. That is success. Getting somebody else to do something when they think they’re past it is huge to me.”
The trick for older exercisers wishing to overcome the mental block is to simply take it slow. ”Start easy and don’t overdo it - just enjoy it,” Starbrook says. “You don’t have to force yourself - you can take advantage of the fact you’re older and have a bit more time on your hands. Go to the gym in the morning, and you don’t have to go out running at night or in the rain - you’ll just get fed up. If you want to go out jogging, just do a mile or two and walk when you want to. It’s more important to do something every single day than to batter yourself - if I am too busy to get down to the gym, I’ll just go for a long walk. You have the time so stop pretending it’s beyond you.”
Starbrook also highlights Age UK’s services in helping older people get active. “If they need extra help there’s a helpline they can phone up - a lot of the time it’s as simple as helping with the forms for signing up at the gym apparently,” he laughs. Age UK also offers its own fitness classes, team sports matches and at-home work-outs, all specifically designed and built for older exercisers.
“I think you do get a bit addicted,” Starbrook laughs when he reflects on his marathon-running career. “I’m not a mad fitness guy though, I just do things up to my limits. If it’s too hard I’ll stop but I just enjoy doing the runs and it’s nice to meet people - you chat to other runners en route and you get to know quite a lot of people.”
Though Starbrook claims he hung up his marathon-running trainers during the pandemic, he still visits his local Virgin Active in Staines six days a week and goes to a swimming club on the seventh. He also hints he might well make a comeback to the marathon scene. “They call me ‘The Legend’,” he laughs. “At the gym they give me a lot of respect, sometimes the instructors say to me ‘are you John Starbrook? The Legend?’ and that makes me want to work at my fitness even more. So who knows what the future holds?”
Age UK is one of four charities supported by this year’s Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal. The others are Action for Children, Macmillan Cancer Support and RBLI. To donate, please visit telegraph.co.uk/2022appeal or call 0151 284 1927