Inside a 96-year-old’s 5K world record attempt

OTTAWA — She ran her first race on a whim last year, in canvas sneakers, without giving much thought to time or pace, but now Rejeanne Fairhead, 96, leans forward at the starting line as the crowd counts down to the Ottawa Race Weekend 5K. This year, she won’t be stopping for high-fives. She’s going for a world record.

If she succeeds, she’ll become the world’s fastest woman over 95.

“We want you to start slow,” Richelle Weeks, her trainer, said before the race, concerned about the 28 C heat.

“Good luck holding me back,” Fairhead said.

Slow is not her thing. At four-foot-eleven, with a slight figure and a feathery cap of white hair, Fairhead is tiny, but strong. In her late 80s, she bought herself a chainsaw to cut branches from the trees in her backyard. She shovelled snow from her walkway until she moved three years ago.

The first time Weeks walked with Fairhead, “Oh my god, she was like a cannon shot down the highway.”

At a time in life when many slow down, Fairhead has sped up: Her 90s have been her most adventurous decade yet. Since earning the title of fastest Canadian 95 and up at the 5K last year, she has heard from hundreds of people who say she has shifted their perspective on aging, giving them hope about the possibility of finding joy and purpose late in life.

She lives by the advice she gives others: “Don’t let what you can’t do stop you from doing what you can do.”

She can’t run the race, but she can walk — fast — and that’s what she’s about to do.

“6, 5, 4 …” the crowd chanted.

To take the world record for fastest person 95 and up, Rejeanne Fairhead had to beat her best race time by 3 minutes.

Fairhead is at the front of the pack, alongside a wall of fit and eager runners — mainly young men, all muscle and legs. This makes her companions nervous. Fairhead is protected from jostling by a human shield: her two daughters, a son, a daughter-in-law and Weeks.

“Nobody trample the old lady,” Linda Saghbini, one of her daughters, warned the runners.

“3, 2, 1 …”

Fairhead leans into her walk, charging forward with quick steps, her arms slicing the air by her sides. Runners dart around her, breaching the human shield. The first kilometre is tense. A fall could mean an end to the race, or worse, broken bones.

Fairhead marches on. She has upped her game this year with real running shoes, size 6. She wears a cooling towel around her neck and a running shirt that reads “Team Perley,” for the long-term-care home and seniors residence where she volunteered for 27 years and been a resident for three.

A friend from the Perley first proposed the 5K last year, and Fairhead thought: Why not? She had never run a race, but had been on the move her whole life. “We call her the Energizer Bunny,” says her son, Denis Fairhead.

Born in 1926, the same year as Queen Elizabeth II, Fairhead grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan, where she milked cows, churned butter by hand and skipped school during harvest to help haul wheat sheaves to the thrashing machine. She raised six children in Ottawa while her husband, a member of the Canadian Armed Forces, was deployed for months at a time.

Fairhead completed the 2022 race in 58 minutes and 52 seconds, taking the Canadian record just for having finished.

Then she learned about the world record. Months earlier, Betty Lindberg, 97, had become the world’s fastest 95+ woman after finishing the Atlanta Peachtree Marathon Weekend 5K in 55 minutes and 48 seconds. Lindberg was 30 minutes faster than the previous holder — another Betty, 96, from Florida.

Fairhead had missed the record by 3 minutes. Had she known what was at stake, she wouldn’t have stopped to chat with spectators. She could have picked up the pace.

This year, she won't be stopping for high-fives. She's going for a world record.

“I could’ve beaten her,” she said afterward.

Her children had seen this competitive streak before, in horseshoe and euchre tournaments, which Fairhead often won, and at a family bowling party for her 85th birthday. Fairhead enjoyed the celebration, but her poor performance sours the memory. “Oh yes,” she says, with a grimace, when asked about the party. “I did rotten.”

Taking the world record this year felt achievable. Three minutes faster? I can do that, Fairhead thought.

But could she? Three minutes is a lot of time.

She grew nervous before the event. “I hope I don’t disappoint people.”

Throughout the race, she hears whoops and cheers that suggest the opposite.

“Bravo Madame!”

“You’ve got this!”

“You’re crushing it!”

A burly man in an Ironman shirt shouts, “I wanna be like you when I grow up!”

She ran her first race on a whim last year, in canvas sneakers, without giving much thought to time or pace

Her pace is good, but there are many hazards. Potholes and pavement cracks. A steep decline near Parliament Hill. Hundreds of paper cups tossed to the ground near water stations.

A stretch of unshaded track near the halfway mark leaves Fairhead parched. She wipes her mouth with a towel. Someone hands her water.

At the four-kilometre mark she veers off course to walk through a cooling mist station. It feels great, but now her glasses are wet and the ground is slippery. “She can’t see where she’s going!” Someone cleans the glasses and Fairhead continues on.

As they enter the final stretch, Weeks has good news: Fairhead’s average pace is 10 minutes and 5 seconds per kilometre, much faster than the 11:10 pace needed to beat the record.

“You’ve got it,” the trainer says. “You just have to finish.”

“Not yet,” Fairhead says. But she’s smiling.

The crowd roars as she approaches the end. Strangers shout her name. She crosses the finish line grinning, arms in the air.

Her final time: 51 minutes and 10 seconds. She beat the record by 4 minutes and 38 seconds.

Fairhead rests on the first surface she finds, which, incongruously, happens to be a wheelchair.

She lets out a deep breath, shakes her fists in the air, and says quietly, almost to herself, “I did it.”


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