Still racking up the miles at 82

Frances Sackerman born June, 1929

Frances and her husband of over 50 years, Ralph Sackerman, like to go on bike rides.

Although they are in their 80’s, don’t imagine gentle, afternoon excursions pedaling to the park on a Sunday to feed ducks. No. Imagine adventure touring with much younger cyclists, biking upwards of 70 miles a day with challenging elevation changes thrown in. Imagine exploring the countryside all over the world from Alaska to New Zealand to the Canadian Rockies to Italy and Ireland and England to the hill country of Texas and Glacier National Park.

Francis has been active her entire life. Avid skiers when she met Ralph,  they both exercised to improve their skiing ability and keep their weight down. Later, when Frances began running at age 42, she kicked into a higher gear and became a competitive athlete. As she approaches her 83rd birthday, she still runs and shares a passion for bicycling with her husband.

Her road to running competitively began in the early 70’s. Frances was working in a UCSF medical center laboratory with Dr. Joan Ullyot, a women’s running pioneer. This was the very early days of women running. By the standards of the time, as a woman over forty, she was considered old to be starting.

On her first attempt she was able to run one mile, barely, and only by pure determination. In the book, Running Free by Dr. Ullyot, Frances recounts, “Forty-two years old, can you imagine? I probably got my heart rate up to the highest it’s ever been, maximal effort. No warm-up, no stretching, or anything. I’ll bet I was on the verge of a heart attack.” But Francis continued to run. Soon a group of women formed, and encouraging each other, they would leave the lab at lunchtime to run in the beautiful Golden Gate Park, eventually reaching 7 or more miles a day, every day.

After three years of week-day running, she became more serious and began to race competitively, hitting her best times and breaking records in her 50’s. Frances was running upwards of 60 miles a week at the height of training. To date, she has finished 30 marathons including Boston and Big Sur International 10 times, the last one at age 75. Ralph was not only supportive, but was inspired by his wife and also began endurance running, he has 8 marathons under his belt.

Chatting with Frances over the phone two things become very clear. First, her voice is strong and fiery: this is a woman with a tremendous amount of energy. Second, she is not happy with the lack of encouragement and support in society for seniors to become physically fit.

Frances acknowledges that it is difficult for seniors to get motivated and get moving, “Open malls for people to walk in. There should be a program to get seniors there so they can safely walk. Old people sitting all day, eating, schlepping around; they need places to go! Kids have rec centers, but it’s the old people that need them. We need a national push, get them out and moving!”

Today, at age 82, she runs 5 miles four times a week, plays tennis twice a week and goes on a long, hilly bike ride with Ralph every Sunday morning. When I ask about her health, she quickly responds, “My knees have been fine, even downhill running. I rarely get colds, (my) immune system is strong. Weight is always the same.” On nutrition, she shares “I am not on an extreme diet, you can eat everything in moderation. But eat a lot of vegetables! Get out and exercise, you eat well and sleep well!”

When I ask about advice she would give to older women, she practically yells, “Just do it! You have to take the first step. Don’t wait for others. You have to overcome inertia, the dividends are fantastic!”

The Sackermans are testament to how fulfilling life can be when you first take care of your health. Her plans for the upcoming year? “Run 1,000 miles, bike 1,000 miles, walk the dog 1,000 miles and drive my car 1,000 miles – but just to tennis!”

The Sackerman's 50th wedding anniversary: Bicycling in New Zealand

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FITNESS DIARIES Fit after 50: Live Healthy. Live Happy. Live Long.
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