Fitness After 50: Athlete spotlight – celebrating the 60s

By Vicki Morgan, CPT

Our summertime Athlete Spotlight series started with local athletes in their sensational 70s.

As promised, we’re moving right along into the 60s. We have some amazing, accomplished, senior athletes here in the Springs, but in this series, we’re not highlighting superstars. Instead, we’re featuring underdogs who persevered and triumphed over tragedy and trial … finally achieving a respectable level of fitness. So grab an apple and get ready for this month’s inspiration.

Mary Jo Campbell – Age 61
Fitness status: Master athlete
Diet: Clean … mostly homegrown and home cooked meals with fresh ingredients and veggies from her garden. She makes her own energy bars and puts fruits, veggies, & nutrition boosting items in her smoothies and baked goods.

Training regimen: 3-5 days a week

Mary Jo is a lot like me … born small. Back in the day, small girls were not encouraged into sports. We were the last to be picked for teams. We dreaded Dodgeball. We were humiliated in P.E. on a daily basis.

Consequently, Mary Jo didn’t play sports as a child, but that didn’t stop her from her love of moving. She enjoyed dancing, running and being flexible.  You might say she was a pleasure runner, competing in her first 5k and 10k while in college. She wasn’t fast, and not particularly talented, but she was always up for a challenge.

After moving to Colorado Springs in 1983, she became involved with Pikes Peak Roadrunners and started doing the Fall and Winter Series races, plus the Triple Crown of Running Series. In 1987, she finally woke up to the fact that she did indeed enjoy fitness. She became a certified Jazzercise instructor and still takes classes to this day.

“I haven’t found a better fitness program. It works my balance, upper body & core strength, and keeps my brain busy figuring out the steps and patterns. This was especially helpful when I was recovering from a traumatic brain injury in 1996 & had issues with memory and headaches.”

Four years into recovery from a traumatic brain injury, Mary Jo bounced back and trained to do her first marathon – the Boulder Backroads. Running a marathon is challenging enough, but try running one on a blizzard!  It just so happened that there was a fluke blizzard that day, and the roads were so bad that several runners dropped out.
That’s Mary Jo … unwilling to accept defeat, and always up for the next challenge.
Well … she got one. Some would call it the ultimate challenge. She was diagnosed with cancer. Severe radiation burns in the pelvic area threatened her love of running, and she wondered if she would ever be able to compete. She recalls:
“It was brutal to basically feel healthy and then get poison (chemo) dripped into me to keep the tumor from growing. I continued to do the Incline while going through treatment until even walking was too painful from the radiation burns.”

One thing she learned from disciplining herself into fitness … she learned how to put up a fight. Mary Jo had already overcome brain trauma. On the day she learned of her cancer diagnosis, she decided to put up a fight. She recalls:

“One thing that kept me going was the long term plans we’d made with friends to climb Long’s Peak, and I still wanted very much to at least attempt it. My husband & I had already bagged over 25 Fourteeners, but Long’s took special planning to be successful. Exactly 8 weeks after my last radiation treatment, I summited Long’s Peak – bald, burned, and slower than usual due to lack of training. It was a phenomenal experience.” (Read more at yourpeakenergy.com)

It was a long, slow, painful process, but Mary Jo finally gained the confidence to run again and eventually race. She completed several half marathons including the Colorado Relay in 2011, just a few days after 9/11. In 2009, she completed the Triple Crown and placed third in her age group, despite her worst Garden time and her slowest Ascent time. In 2016, she attempted her first Spartan race and qualified to attend the Obstacle Racing World Championship in Toronto, Canada. Although her knowledge of obstacle races was limited, couldn’t climb a rope, swing rigs or monkey bars, she placed 20th out of 31 women over 50!  In 2017, she was better prepared for the Spartan Breckenridge Beast.  She took 1st in her age group. This past April, at age 61, she did a 10k trail at Cheyenne Mountain State Park and place first in her age group … because she was the only woman in that age group!  Her next goal is to do the Imogene Pass run in September – 17 miles between Ouray & Telluride, over a 13,114 foot pass.

Wisdom from Mary Jo:
“As a mature athlete with more than a few sprained ankles and torn muscles in my history, I have learned the value of knowing my body and playing an active part in my healing. When I visit a chiropractor or physical therapist for things I can’t fix on my own, I ask questions, do the stretches, drills, or exercises, and work toward strengthening or balancing the injured area. I also travel with a small foam roller to get the knots out of my neck & back & keep my leg muscles pliable.”

“Whether you’re a cancer survivor or not, I strongly believe that staying active and sharing your life with people is a key part of physical and mental health. It’s pretty easy to focus on what you’ve lost and get depressed – or live in fear of a reoccurrence. Instead, I try focus on gratitude – for the health I have now, the friendships, new opportunities, for the beauty that surrounds me in Colorado, for my family and my faith. When you move your body, your mood improves. When you have a variety of friends, there’s always someone to call.  Whether you need to chat over coffee, explore a new trail, or have a stronger, faster runner push you through the long training runs, a good friend or two will push you through.” 

Next month … more senior athlete spotlights! If you know anyone who fits the bill, please let me know! See you at the gym!

 Vicki Morgan A.C.E. is a Senior Strength & Fitness Trainer at Flex Gym and Fitness. You can reach her at seniorstrength.pro. Always consult your physician before beginning any exercise program. If you experience pain or difficulty, stop and consult your healthcare provider. This article is not meant to take the place of any treatment or activity your physician has deemed necessary.

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