Heather Lee, a 93-year-old racewalker from Richmond, New South Wales, recently took home the National Seniors Healthy Ageing award at the Australian Masters Games — just the latest in a long line of awards and world records for the reigning NSW Senior Australian of the Year. There’s nothing left for her to prove, but as she explains to Grey Matters, she’s not about to stop moving.

“Nowis the time to show your mettle.” Those were my husband’s last words to me.

I’ve thought a lot about what he meant by that. Leonard knew he was going to die — he had lung cancer, although he never smoked — and I suppose he was worried about how I would live my life after he was gone. We had always been two halves of a whole.

I think that was the spur that led to my racewalking achievements. I’d always enjoyed walking — ever since we were about 30 years old, my husband and I had made a conscious effort to exercise and eat well, to ensure we would remain fit and healthy as we got older. But after Leonard’s passing, I felt a compulsion to walk.

The faster I walked, the better I felt. It was like grief therapy for me. I joined a walking group, and I had a lot of fun going all over Australia with them. Then I branched out into fun runs, and started beating much younger competitors. When I was 84, my physiotherapist suggested that I register for racewalking at the Australian Masters Games in Adelaide.

The faster I walked, the better I felt.

It wasn’t until I was on the starting line for my first race at the Masters that I realised I didn’t know the rules of racewalking. Luckily, the starter demonstrated the very precise way racewalkers have to move their legs, and I paid close attention. I took off and I kept saying to myself, ‘Straight leg, straight leg, straight leg,’ and I was quite pleased not to receive any penalties or infringements. That straight-legged style is close to my natural way of walking, anyway, so it was easy for me to adapt.

I competed in four walks at that first event — the 1500m, 3000m, 5000m and 10,000m — and I came home with four gold medals. Mind you, I didn’t have anybody in my age group to compete against, but that wasn’t the point. I was comparing my times to people who were much younger than me, and I was quite happy with how I went.

I was just a few weeks away from my 85th birthday at the time, so when I got back to Richmond I had a look at the records for the 85/90 age group and decided I was quite capable of challenging them. Within a year, I’d broken all the Australian records and two world records. I did quite well between the ages of 85 and 90 — I had a stress fracture at one point and a few muscle problems, but nothing serious, and I was able to keep taking time off my records.

As I entered the 90/99 age group, I have to admit that I wondered if there would even be any world records out there to challenge. As it turns out, there were two — the 5000m and the 10,000m. I’ve since broken those records multiple times, and set the world records for the 1500m and the 3000m.

I had a bit of trouble in 2017 — I had a fall and broke the tip off my right elbow, which had to be wired back on — but for the most part, it’s been a great run of records and awards. Walking has also enabled me to raise quite a bit of money for cancer research, which is a cause that’s obviously close to my heart. I’ve taken part in the Relay For Life since 2001, walking for the full 24 hours every year.

I feel pretty lucky. I just turned 93, and I’m still looking after myself. I live alone, I cook, I clean, I go out training three times a week. I don’t drive, so I walk everywhere I need to go and carry all my shopping home. I think I probably have good genes, but there’s more to it than that.

I just turned 93, and I’m still looking after myself.

As you grow older, you can’t allow yourself to stop and vegetate. You need to keep moving. It’s important to watch what you eat — everything in moderation, I say — and try to keep up with current affairs and technology. When you get stagnant, when you start to vegetate, that’s when you get the aches and pains. I firmly believe that people need to remain active, and that exercise is as good for the brain as it is for the body.

If Leonard could see me now, I think he’d be very happy. I listened to what he said and I’ve had a fantastic life. I hope I’ll have the chance to see him again one day and tell him all about it. But even though this all started with his inspiration, walking isn’t about grief therapy for me anymore.

If Leonard could see me now, I think he’d be very happy.

I’ve learned that I love challenging myself, and challenging the ageing process. It’s not about beating anybody else, of course, because at my age, there’s nobody out there for me to beat. What I’m competing against is the clock.

It’s always been about beating the clock.

Image credit: National Seniors Australia