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In Newfoundland, champion runners look up to 85-year-old woman still ‘killing it’

Florence Barron Florence Barron - The Canadian Press

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — As she lined up to start Newfoundland's annual 20-kilometre Cape to Cabot race Sunday, 85-year-old Florence Barron might have been underestimated by some of her competitors. But after an agonizing run up and down the tallest, steepest hills in St. John’s, N.L., Barron had left nearly a third of the field in her dust.

Barron completed her 10th edition of the race in two hours and 10 minutes, shaving a full minute off her time from last year. She was the 267th runner to cross the finish line after a 150-metre climb to the top of Signal Hill overlooking St. John's harbour, and was the only competitor in her 80-plus age category.

"I enjoy it so much, and I feel good about it," Barron said about her 26 years of running. "So long as I feel good, I think I'll keep going."

The race takes runners from the top of a hill at Cape Spear, the country's most easterly point of land, to the top of Signal Hill. The course is a relentless battery of long climbs, and knee-jamming descents. The steep ascent up Signal Hill marks the race's final kilometre, and it often begins with someone dressed as the grim reaper at the bottom of the hill, reminding runners of the gruelling battle ahead.

St. John's runner Kate Bazeley, who led Team Canada in this year's world athletics cross-country championships in Australia, described the race as "pounding" and "damaging."

"For Florence to be able to do it at her age, with a smile on her face and in the time she does it in, she's a super woman," Bazeley said. "She inspires me ... She's just so happy and light, but then she's also killing it."

Anne Johnston, who won this year's Cape to Cabot, described Barron as an "icon."

"She is an amazing person and role model to so many of us," Johnston said in a Facebook message.

Barron grew up in Quirpon, a fishing community on Newfoundland's northernmost tip, and she was always outside running around. She ultimately moved to St. John's, got married, had four children and then moved to Labrador where she had a fifth child.

She was 59 and back in St. John's when her husband developed Alzheimer's disease. Barron said in an interview Monday that she started running that year, and it became her "therapy." When her husband died 15 years later, she saw no reason to stop.

Barron holds two records in France. One is for being the fastest woman in her 70s to complete an annual 25-kilometre race on the French island of Miquelon, off Newfoundland's southern coast. The other is for being the only woman in her 80s to run it.

She travels around Atlantic Canada for races, and is a crowd favourite at the annual 10-mile Tely 10 race in St. John's. This year, she ran it in about one hour and 45 minutes, finishing first in her age group and 1,045th of 2,285 competitors.

"I think she's really enjoying that she's able to do that," said Colin Fewer, a 13-time Tely 10 champion. "And I think all of us should be inspired, and aspire to do that with our lives."

Though Barron clocks impressive times for her age, she said her focus is not on speed, but on feeling good. In races, she breaks up her running with walking breaks, running as long as it feels comfortable, she said. Going uphill, she'll run a few steps and then walk a few steps.

She said she's never been waylaid by a running injury.

During Sunday's race with a field of 388 runners, Barron paced herself so well, she didn't feel sore at all the next day, she said. She's careful to make sure she can keep going.

"I keep saying I'd be rotted if I didn't get out there and do something," she said. "I guess I'm just addicted and I enjoy the feeing after a run ... You always feel so much better, like you can take on anything."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 16, 2023.