Defying Age & COVID-19

Senior marathon runner undeterred after virus setback

Keith Ashton
80-year-old marathon runner Keith Ashton. Photo: Matt Cecill

The tears of joy and emotion were for all to see at the finish line of the 40th Annual GoodLife Fitness Victoria Marathon in October 2019. He had done it. Keith Ashton at 80 years was not only the oldest runner in the marathon last year but he had completed his first marathon in 5:08:09.

Friends gathered around to congratulate Ashton, who took it in stride and was very modest, attributing this achievement to his ‘Happy Feet’ running group, his wife Andrea, and his mentor and run leader, Connie Robertson. He started planning his future races, setting his sights on the BMO Vancouver Marathon in May 2020, but in March, the pandemic hit, causing race cancellations, and his world crumbled when after a trip to the UK, he collapsed and was diagnosed with COVID-19.

“We got back on a Tuesday and then decided to go for a run on the Friday, but I just couldn’t make it,” he vividly recalls. “I just thought it was a bit of jet lag.” On the Sunday, he passed out, and for the next three days was ‘out of it.’ Although he wasn’t in intensive care, he was on oxygen overnight. “By the fourth day, I was recovering, but they kept me in isolation as my levels were coming up slowly. My red blood cell count before was 143, and it had dropped to 93.” Happily, his levels are nearly back to normal, which is attributed to his fitness. “Two of my doctors are runners, and they said the results weren’t commensurate with an 80-year-old. When I told them I was a long distance runner, one of them said to get back to running as soon as I can.”

Three weeks after being discharged he was back taking tentative steps, running a block, walking a block and seeing his running family. He set himself a goal of running a half marathon by the end of the year, a feat he achieved easily by the end of September!

Ashton discovered running quite late in life. Although a cross-country runner at school in Manchester, England, it wasn’t until he emigrated to Canada in 1967 with his newlywed wife, that he took up running. Living in Medicine Hat, Alberta meant many miles on the treadmill but on moving to Victoria in 2006, he joined the Frontrunners First Steps / Next Steps Clinic. There he met Robertson who saw his potential. “He claimed the name ‘Rabbit’ as he was always fast out of the gate and then ran out of steam.” So it was Robertson’s job to keep him in check making sure he was on pace and he had his hydration and nutrition. After completing an 8 k and 10 k he started to train for a half marathon under Robertson’s guidance and the group Happy Feet was born.

In June 2019, Happy Feet – all 15 of them – decided to train for the GoodLife Fitness Victoria Marathon but Ashton would only train on condition that Robertson would run it with him. She did and they came over the finish line hand-in-hand together. (That finish also ranked him number 1 in Canada for his age group in the Abbott World Marathon Majors).

Ashton is determined to run another marathon, and on May 1, 2021 he will be running 42.2 kilometres to help raise money for critical care as part of a $7 million campaign for a new High Acuity Unit at Victoria’s Royal Jubilee Hospital. Calling his run ‘Run with the Rabbit’, it’s his way of giving back to the health-care workers who cared for him.

When asked what he likes so much about running, Ashton says, “It’s the social part of it. Even though I don’t talk a lot, I like people around me, and it doesn’t feel right if I don’t have that. Everyone says I am an inspiration but those around me are my inspiration.”

Clothing and footwear courtesy Frontrunners/New Balance

Lead image by Matt Cecill

IMPACT Magazine November Issue Digital CoverIMPACT Magazine’s November Edition

RBC Olympic hopefuls Hayley Daniels, Sam Effah and Kate Wright as our inspiring cover athlete stories!⁠ Get prepared for winter running, making movement part of your workday, and exploring great hikes near Calgary and Vancouver.

Read this story in our November 2020 Digital Edition.