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by Michelle Carnegie
28 February 2019

He is close to 79 years old and his wife has just turned 80, but don’t expect this Gauteng couple to laze around come afternoons and weekends. Nope. Find them out on the roads, either doing some hill training or competing in one of the several road races on offer over weekends.
Eric Whitford and his wife of 53 years, Berniece, both believe it is exercise that has given them a new lease on life. In fact, it is their secret to longevity, says Eric. 
The 78-year-old retired engineer recently made some waves in the walking and running community when he had a bad fall after stepping in a pothole at the 10km event of the Johnson Crane road race in Benoni. And though it left him with a bloodied face, a cut to his nose and a very sore body, Eric was determined to finish the race that he set out to do. Against his will, but also realizing it was the best decision, Eric was taken to the finish by ambulance, where he waited for his wife to complete her 10km race.
“Since the incident was published on social media, it went viral. The other day I was walking in the mall and I overheard one woman saying to the other that I am looking much better than what I did after the fall! I don’t even know them. So many people we know, even from overseas, have contacted us wanting to know how I am doing after the fall,” chuckles Eric. 
The exercise bug
Eric was quite active in his younger years, being a soccer referee and having played a lot of golf. But it was only in their late 60’s that the walking bug bit whilst vising their daughter in 2003 in New Zealand. “One of my sons, Glen, came with us and we went on a walk. He walked away from me and I thought; ‘you bugger’. I tried to keep up but couldn’t. After all, he is bloody younger than me! So, when we returned to South Africa, I said to my son I wanted to join the running club he belonged to.”
Glen, who was a walker back in those days, have since completed 8 Comrades Marathons, and have been instrumental in his parents training since the bug bit.

First race
Shortly after Eric and Berniece joined the club they decided to tackle their first road race. “Berniece was going to do the 5km event and myself, Glen and another lady the 10km. It was a chilly morning and I decided to keep my tracksuit on,” says Eric.
That was rooky mistake number one! “Halfway through we were cooking. As I looked at the other lady and asked her if she is also cooking, she turned and said; ‘You shouldn’t complain. I even put leg warmers on his morning!’” It is lighter moments like these that Eric cherish. “Over the years we have made friends from all over.” Berniece, who still works part time as a nursing sister, is fondly known as ‘mom’ on the road, says Eric.   
The couple trains later afternoons with other members of their club, and don’t think they just mess around. They follow a structured program which include hill repeats and fartlek sessions.
Though he has done a couple of half marathons he sticks to the shorter 10km races these days, says Eric.
His favorite race by far is the Skukuza Half Marathon. He is planning to tackle it again next year. “We make a holiday out of it and always stay after the race. Our second holiday for the year is when we second Glen at Comrades. He has contracted us for another two years of seconding to get him to his 10thComrades,” says Eric, a retired engineer, who now owns his own small business specializing in renovations and repairs.
Running community
For both Eric and Berniece participating in races over weekends and training with a big group have become their social life. “At races I try to chase the women in front in front of me who have younger age tags than mine on their vests,” jokes Eric, who admits that the speed of his mouth most probably slows the speed of his feet.
“The people I have met and trained with over the years have become my friends. It’s not about winning your age group, it’s about the camaraderie.  Sport has given us a new lease on life, a renewed passion and something to do,” says Eric.
Ed’s Note: Eric and Berniece say they can only participate in races that are on offer free of charge for walkers and runners of their age. 
Maybe it is time race organizers across the board offer free entries to runners and walkers of this age? Think of it, a minority of people in their 70’s and 80’s still participate in road races. What better way of showing them the respect they so richly deserve by allowing them a free entry?

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