Your 70s is the best decade of your life – meet the women who prove it

Advice

Your 70s is the best decade of your life. Those fortunate enough to remain in good health usually own their own home, have no dependents, but do have lots and lots of time for travel. The downside is that they may no longer have their life partner to share their journeys, and travelling alone is not always a welcome concept. But if there is a secret to travelling adventurously into your eighth decade it is this: don’t do it despite your age but because of your age. 

Take a lead from the late, great Dervla Murphy. In her foreword to Bradt’s To Oldly Go anthology she states succinctly: “Wanderlust, unlike other lusts, does not diminish with age.” She goes on to describe the many advantages of being an obvious granny when travelling alone: “In Siberia being a babushka was a huge bonus. My contemporaries laughed, hugged me and feigned disbelief on being told my age.” 

Despite physical handicaps that would have kept others at home, she found another advantage: “During my several journeys [aged 77] through Palestine/Israel… being grey, wrinkled, bent and sometimes lame provided immunity in a few situations, which might have been awkward for a younger traveller.” And that’s the thing. 

Travel is actually easier for the mature woman, and it’s an extra bonus to have white hair and be identifiably old. I know this because I hitch-hiked during my 70s with my white-haired friend. People look askance when I mention this, but hitch-hiking is much easier now than when I was in my 20s, when I had to be cautious about accepting a lift from too-eager men. Now I push my friend to the front and everyone stops. Of course they do. How can they pass a little old lady obviously in need of help?



travel in your 70s


Best foot forward: Hilary says the trick is ‘not to stop’

We’ve hitchhiked in the UK and in France (carrying a polite sign in the relevant language stating our destination). We’ve met a great selection of warm-hearted, generous and interesting people. And got where we needed to go. 

Looking at the extraordinary achievements of the women featured in this story, our generation’s access to good healthcare and ways of maintaining our bodies plays a big part in what we can physically achieve in later life. I’m lucky to have legs that still work, and am one of the “three old crones” in our late 70s and 80s who do parkrun and the occasional 10k race wearing our Crone T-shirts stating “we do because we can”. 

We know that if we stop, that’s it. The same is true for adventure travel. Whether your body is able to achieve feats normally associated with much younger people or, like Dervla Murphy, you are wrinkled, bent and lame, the world with all its extraordinary beauty, variety and challenges is still there for you to explore.

Hilary Bradt is the founder of Bradt Travel Guides 

The 71-year-old climber who broke records in Yosemite

I grew up in a house of grey smoke; both my parents smoked. My father always had a cigar in his fingers. I used to be out of breath just getting out of my chair, then I found running and at 55 I ran my first marathon. It wasn’t until years later that I tried climbing.  

Around 12 years ago, I had been reading an article about my son Alex Honnold. He was still living at home and would get these articles in magazines mailed to him. I was dealing with deaths in the family and working full time, I didn’t have any time to sit and ponder what he was actually up to. I didn’t know anything about climbing.

He was home one day, and he couldn’t climb, due to an arm injury, but he could belay [secure the safety rope for a climber]. So I asked him to take me to the climbing gym, so I could get familiar with some of the climbing jargon in the articles I was reading. I’ve taught foreign languages all my life but this was a language that I didn’t understand a word of.

I got on the wall and I loved it. I was attached to this rope with the strongest belayer in the world on the other end. I climbed something like 12 walls that day. I had an amazing time. 

I had been a climber as a little girl. I’d always loved it. But I wasn’t supposed to do it back then. I was supposed to wear dresses and behave myself. Girls lived at home until they got married. End of story. Boys were king, and girls were chore people – you know all that nonsense about little girls back then.

After my first climb, Alex left and went on another adventure. But I wanted to go back to the wall. It took me more than a month to pluck up the courage to return to the climbing gym, not knowing anything or anybody.



diedre climbing son california


Dierdre climbing with her son Alex above Tenaya Lake in Tuolumne, California

I went back one day after work, and I just kind of ambled about watching the other people. I was totally out of place, like a fish out of water. It was extremely intimidating, but I desperately wanted to try it again. I found a group with an odd number of people. One person was standing on the ground waiting, so I walked up to him and said: “Would you like a belay?” and I started making friends at the gym.

Age wasn’t really part of the equation at the beginning at all, I just knew that I wanted to try it. I didn’t announce how old I was to anybody. No matter what it is that you want to try, age is absolutely meaningless. As long as your body co-operates, age is just a number. There are old people in their 40s and there are young people in their 90s. It’s all mental.

After the gym, I studied up online, it was just a question of commitment. I wanted to do it. I was gonna go do it. I climbed for years, then on my 70th birthday I climbed El Capitan’s 7,573ft vertical rock face – it was one of the proudest moments of my life.

One thing I really love about outdoor climbing is that you get to go to these unimaginably gorgeous places around the world and the only way to see the mind-boggling views on offer is to climb. It’s life changing.

Over the years, I think Alex and I have both inspired each other. I was a climber when I was a little girl in New York. We would climb from the tree outside our home onto the garage roof, up the streetlights and buildings, so I think he got that genetic tendency from me, but he took it to a completely different level – a superhuman level.

I learned that you can’t second guess yourself. I’ve learned that you can do anything if you break it down into teeny-tiny little baby steps. All you need to do is find out the baby steps required for anything that you want to accomplish. Armed with this knowledge, you can do anything. I’ve proven that over and over again.  

As told to Jade Bremner

Read more about Dierdre Wolownick’s story in her book ‘The Sharp End of Life: A Mother’s Story’. A film about her life is due to be released next year

The 72-year-old marathon runner

My running journey started as a child. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, in the “back beyond” as we say in Ireland. Nobody had a car so our only transport was on foot. I had many siblings and we would run to school, taking a short cut over the fields and jumping over the stiles. So I suppose my love for running started then, but it lay dormant for many decades.

Fast forward to the early 1990s. I was in my early 40s and I was quite ill, when my husband asked me to join him on a run. So I went out, and I hated every second of it. I found running hard, not least because I was unfit and I had been ill. But he persisted and we went out most days, and it got to the stage where I actually started enjoying it. Before long I started running ahead of him and he said: “You’re on your own now.” 

Within two years I had finished the Dublin City Marathon, at a time when only 10 per cent of the runners were female. I remember standing at the finishing line thinking this was definitely for me. But I also had another epiphany: that this wasn’t a finishing line at all. I was only at the starting line.

I have now completed 811 marathons, and doing so has taken me all around the world. Some years ago I completed a 50km race in Transylvania in Romania, near the village of Bran which is the home of Dracula’s Castle. I went with a group of Irish runners, and while going up the mountains I quickly realised I was out of my depth. We had poles, because it was quite steep, and I had been told there are bears in the mountains. Soon I was on my own, because once you get going runners break off. I was terrified.

But I have so many positive memories of exploring the world on two feet. The Walt Disney Marathon is a fun one  – Mickey Mouse was there cheering us on. I also did around 10 marathons in Barbados, a fascinating place but hard in the heat. You start at 5am, and even then it’s getting hot. But it was great to run at that time, because it meant that by 10am I was relaxing in the sea.



marathon running travel


Ain’t no stopping her now: Collette is determined to run 1,000 marathons by the age of 75

Some of my favourite marathon memories are from the majors (New York City, Boston, Chicago, London, Berlin and Tokyo). It’s a wonderful way of sightseeing. In London you get to see Tower Bridge, Cutty Sark and Docklands, and you’re witnessing them on foot rather than on an open-top tour bus. In New York City you go through the five boroughs of the city, which I would never have done were it not for the marathon. And the atmosphere is everything. In Dublin I remember in the early 1990s women would make cups of tea on the side of the road, ready for you to drink. Last time I was in Belfast there were kids coming out with their little sweets and jellies; it makes them feel good if you come along and take them.

Not all are like that, though. In Tokyo there were tightly regimented cut-off points: if you were a couple of seconds late, you were gone. In Beijing the roads were manned by Chinese soldiers instead of cheering crowds. When I run I like to have a craic with people and a smile, but it’s not like that there. They want you to get around the course, to get on with it and then get off the road. That’s not really my style.

What next? My target is to reach 1,000 marathons before I hit 75. There will be times when I run marathons on consecutive days: I’ve just run 10 marathons in 10 days in the Great Barrow Challenge in Bury St Edmunds. People say, “How can you do a marathon day after day?” but the body adapts. The key is to keep going. Even when I had Covid I regularly ran a mile, to keep my running streak going.

I feel so privileged to have seen so many places around the world, and I can’t describe how thankful I am that I can run. I want other people my age to see that they can run, too. If you have the desire, I would say forget about your age and start slowly, building up gradually. Start with a short run, then a 5km run, then progress to a 10km. If you’re in your 60s, give yourself a couple of years to build up to a marathon. Even if you’re in your 80s you can still start running –you’re never too old.

The secret to marathon running is all in the head: believe it, and you will achieve it. There will be moments when it’s really rubbish weather and you’re freezing cold, and these are the times when you must distract yourself. Do another mile. Cross that bridge, get over it, and keep going. Because you will finish. If you’re strong mentally, it’ll get you through an awful lot.

As told to Greg Dickinson

The 79-year-old who circumnavigated the world

After my first solo, non-stop circumnavigation around the world in 2013, I was sitting there at the dock and one guy came up and said he was about to sell his boat as he thought he was getting too old. But after seeing what I’d just done at almost 71 years old, he changed his mind. I thought that was great.

My husband and I both learnt to sail at the same time. I first stepped into a dinghy when I was 48 and onto a yacht when I was 52. I just loved it. I’d initially thought yachting was going to be boring. But then I was given the chance to take a Competent Crew course; I did it just to make up the numbers, so the course could run. They wanted five minimum and there were only three signed up for it. 

I thought it was going to be totally dull but I was very wrong – it was absolutely fantastic. My husband and I went on to take sailing courses as often as we could after that.

Being very curious by nature has made me adventurous, I’m always wanting to try new things. I took part in everything at school, I loved sports and swimming, and taught myself to dive at the local pool by getting a book out of the library.

I was pretty much born fatherless, because he was killed in the war when I was five weeks old. I never had a father until I was nine, when my mother married my fantastic stepfather. Before then, my mother needed help. Her mother had died when she was 16 and her two sisters had both married and moved away, so I spent five years in an orphanage, but at that point in time I was used to being by myself. 



sailing holiday travel


‘Sailing keeps me young’: Jeanne had not set foot on a yacht until she was 52


Credit: Adrian Lam

My first circumnavigation attempt happened after my husband had passed away from cancer. I felt like he had been cheated and by keeping on sailing I was sort of doing it for him as well. We had crossed the Atlantic to the Caribbean in late 1999, so I was effectively already into a circumnavigation. I thought, “OK, where next?” After three years exploring the west coast of North America, I sailed west, intent on a quick trip around the world. For many casual cruisers, that often happens by default over several years.

Sailing allows you to get to know the culture of where you’re going. I’ve cruised through the tropics, through magical worlds, Bora Bora, Fiji and Tonga. I’ve been to little islands I didn’t know existed when crossing the Indian Ocean from Australia to South Africa. I’ve been up and down both the east and west coasts of North America, so I know them well. I’ve made countless friends in the places I’ve stopped off in. I got stuck in Australia during the pandemic so I did a land circumnavigation of the country. Amazing. I’ve sailed the Southern Ocean several times – it’s a very special place. I was thousands of miles from anywhere within this awe-inspiring natural environment. It’s just the most wonderful feeling – just you and the ocean. 

The first time I was in the middle of nowhere, it did get a bit critical. I was suddenly hit by a cold front; in the Southern Ocean that can happen quite violently. The wind suddenly changed from one direction to another and gusted way up. I had quite a problem on deck to deal with. 

You have to learn to stay calm and get on with things when out in the elements, you can’t afford to let your feelings get the better of you. You have to squash them and just get on with what you have to do in order to survive.  

I have a daughter and a son. Neither of them is a sailor, they just think I’m off doing my thing and probably think I’m a bit crazy. But I don’t think they worry any more. They know I’ve learned how to stay safe. You shouldn’t ever go into any situation that you’re not prepared for. Take baby steps and you’ll gradually gain confidence. Once you have confidence you can go off and take the next step. And you’ll find you can actually cope.

The secret to being an older adventure traveller is never to think your body can’t keep up. I’ve never thought about the numbers. I’ve never thought about how old I was. Sailing keeps me young. There’s a lot of research that says the more you keep active, the more you can keep active. I chose what I wanted and I did it. 

My next adventure is about to begin. I’m currently in British Columbia repairing my boat before sailing down to San Francisco to see friends and then heading to Mexico for the winter. I’ll sail to French Polynesia next April and then head across the Pacific to New Zealand and Australia – where there’s great cruising.  

As told to Jade Bremner

Jeanne Socrates welcomes donations for her RNLI fundraising. ‘Going Solo’, a book about her adventure travels, is due out next year; svnereida.com


What do you think is the best decade of your life? Tell us about your adventures in the comments below

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