Running success doesn’t just favour the young. Priscilla Welch, an eighties marathon star, didn’t even start running until her mid-thirties but it wasn’t long before she became one of the greatest ever female marathon runners
It seems like a matter of chance that Priscilla Welch even discovered running. Priscilla had been a Petty Officer for the communications branch of the British navy and a self-proclaimed partier. It wasn’t until she met her husband David when she was stationed in Norway that the metamorphisis into an elite athlete began.
She remembers noticing David running, whilst she on one of her long walks, which she did to relieve stress. She thought it odd that anyone could be so passionate about the sport. Then they met, suitably in a bar, and he invited her to join a Norweigen running club. “I was feeling miserable, and Dave said, ‘How about taking up running?’ The more running I did, the better I got,” she recalls.
With David as her trainer, mentor and partner, Priscilla’s running blossomed. Her first marathon was in Stockholm in 1979 where she notched up an impressive first time of 3:29. A move to the Shetland Islands where the couple were then stationed further intensified her training. Priscilla describes the Shetlands posting as providing two years of aerobic conditioning and the results spoke for themselves when she dipped below three hours in the 1980 marathon. a woman of substance
Now running is becoming more popular with women than men but back in the early 1980s women’s marathon running was in its infancy. Priscilla became one of the poster girls for the movement with her age, evident enthusiasm and plummeting marathon times motivating women everywhere. Just five weeks after winning the Enschede marathon in Holland, Priscilla took on the New York City marathon to place third overall with a time of 2:32. Not only had she proved her status as an elite athlete, she had qualified for the Olympic marathon trials for Great Britain.
So, a year later, Priscilla lined up at the Los Angeles 1984 summer Olympics and was flying the flag for Great Britain. This was the first year the Olympic committee had allowed a marathon event for women and the atmosphere was electric. Although she was nearly 40, Priscilla came sixth with her time of 2:28. Caught up in the excitement of the day, she started to run across the infield to cheer on her teammates before being grabbed by a track official. “It seems I had crossed a live javelin competition twice,” she explains.
life begins at 40
And while they claim life life begins at 40, Priscilla’s running career seems to hammer home the point. Far from hanging up her trainers, Priscilla only improved with age. This was aided by a move to Boulder in Colorado where she and David set up an altitude training base and continued to live for 17 years. She toppled masters records in numerous road distances but for her the marathon was always sacrosanct. Her punishing training schedule brought her to the pinacle of her running career in 1987 when she not only won the New York marathon, but also came second in the London marathon with a new British record and a world masters record – all at the tender age of 42. A year later she set the masters record in the Boston marathon which she kept for 14 years.
Fighter and fundraiser
However, a few years later Priscilla discovered a lump in her breast and the subsequent diagnosis of breast cancer and chemotherapy put a temporary halt to her running career. She started racing again in 5ks and 10ks but admitted she no longer wanted to continue with marathon training. “I was a bit scared about the cancer coming back,” she explains. Instead, her enthusiasm was transferred into work across America trying to raise funds for breast cancer research using running, as part the Komen Foundation Race for a Cure 5k series – similar to our Race for Life.
Sadly, in 2006, David, died suddenly whilst on a bike tour in Switzerland. Priscilla, now 65, carried on living life to the full. She’s a certified fitness trainer and massage therapist, and she continues to inspire runners and other athletes with her refreshing, infectious personality. Priscilla describes the process of discovering running initially as being “like a bird let out of a cage”. And as clichéd as it sounds, without her unflinching dedication, thousands of women across the world would never have dared to fly.
Photo by George Herringshaw at www.sporting-heroes.net