Senior Games
Credit: Rose Hoban

By Rose Hoban

When Nancy Lund was a little girl, her mother told that if she ran, it would scuff up her shoes.

“She told me, ‘Little girls do not run,’” Lund said.

But Lund, now 75, is making up for lost time – she started running when she was 40. And last week, the former elementary school principal was running in the track and field events at the N.C. Senior Games being held at the Cary Academy in Wake County.

Competitors check the results board at the track and field events of the Senior Games last week in Cary.
Competitors check the results board at the track and field events of the Senior Games last week in Cary.

Lund, who lives in Asheville, has been competing in the senior games for five years.

“I ran because my brother, Dale Cox, ran,” Lund said. Her brother died this past year, and Lund dedicated this year’s competition to him. “He was my inspiration and my coach.”

Lund ran the 800 meter race this year, but her favorite is the 400 meter, which she finished in less than two minutes. “This is the race I love,” she said.

And Lund ran complete with makeup and a recent hair-do.

“When I went to the Nationals a few years ago, they said, “You have the best hair,” she laughed.

Country’s largest

Lund was one of more than 3,200 older athletes from all over North Carolina competing in this year’s games, which stretch over several weeks. Last week’s events ranged from bowling to shuffleboard to track and field events and bicycle racing. Earlier this month, the organization held a softball tournament that drew about 800 competitors, and a golf tournament happens next month.

“This is a culmination of the year-round program,” said Brad Allen, an event coordinator. “There are 53 local senior games that serve all 100 counties – that’s the largest number of competitors of any other state in the country.”

100 year old Bill Finch (left) and Bill Jackson run in the 1500 m race.
100 year old Bill Finch (l) and Bill Jackson run in the 1500 m race at the Senior Games, last week in Cary.

In the past two decades, a flurry of research has shown that exercise has tremendous benefits for seniors, even for frail people living in nursing homes, who have been able to throw away their walkers after engaging in weight training exercises.

Other studies have shown that regular exercise can hold off disability, improve blood pressure, prevent falls and hospitalizations and reduce health care costs.

Allen said that’s why North Carolina offers almost 60 different ways to compete, from sports to what Allen called Silver Arts – a competitive display of painting, drawing, quilting, writing and other crafts. Last week also featured a talent show that was held on Friday evening at NC State’s McKimmon Center in Raleigh.

“We try to have a holistic approach,” Allen said. “We even have cheerleaders. At the showcase on Thursday night, there were 90 different cheerleaders, from 55 [years old] to 85. There were handstands, splits, cartwheels – women and men – and they did a great pyramid.”

Starting early, starting late

Hillsborough resident Ray Shackelford said he ran in high school but stopped once he married, had a family and started a career with IBM. Then he got back to running 5K races when he was 40, and started competing at the senior games when he was 70. Now he’s 77 and runs races from the 100 meter through to the 1500 meter.

“I have a better time now than I did when I was in high school,” Shackelford said.

Shackelford said he knew something was wrong during the 2010 games when he only took second in the 100 meter race. It turns out his right lung was full of cancer and fluid. He had surgery and started chemotherapy, running as much as possible through his treatments last year.

“The treatments nearly killed me,” he said.

Nancy Lund finishes the 400 m race at Friday's track and field events of the NC Senior Games
Nancy Lund finishes the 400 m race at Friday’s track and field events of the NC Senior Games
Nancy Lund finishes the 400 m race at Friday’s track and field events of the NC Senior Games

Shackelford credits his cancer survival to being active, along with his faith and a new vegan diet. During this year’s games, he took second in the 400 meter race and fourth in the 100 meters and 200 meters.

“I’m feeling good,” he said.

Many of the competitors said the senior games are just an outgrowth of lifelong habits started in junior high or high school.

“I’ve been competing for 40 years,” said Rocky Point resident Carol Steim, 55, after winning the women’s 400 meter race in her age group. “The lord blessed me with good legs. My orthopedist told me some people got Volkswagens for legs, but I got Cadillacs.”

“I like it. It keeps my blood pressure down, cholesterol down, I feel healthy,” said 84-year-old Gary Gaskiln from the Outer Banks, who still competes in triathlons. He won the gold in his age group at the Nationals in 2009, swimming 750 meters, biking 15 miles and running 5 kilometers.

Gaskiln said he ran as a boy at Manteo High School, even though the school didn’t have a track and field program. “I was in the Boy Scouts and they required us to be able to run a mile in 12 minutes. I was able to do it in seven.”

But many said they picked up exercise later in life to improve their health.

Wilson resident Elbert Forbes, 58, ran in high school, but said he then let himself go.

“Ten years ago, I was 250 pounds, my blood pressure was up and my doctor said if I didn’t do something about it, it would nail me. A few months later, my brother had a massive stroke,” Forbes said. “I’ve been running ever since. Now I’m 210 pounds.”

Like many others, Forbes brought along family members to watch him compete. He had is 10-year-old grandson with him to watch him run the 800 meter and 1500 meter races and throw the discus.

“I got permission to take him out of school today to come with me,” he said, as he was coaching the boy in running sprints. “You have to take care of your body, which houses your brain, which houses your soul.”

This story has been updated to clarify the fact that Elbert Forbes still takes blood pressure medication. He attributes his decrease in blood pressure to his daily exercise and weight loss.

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Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...