Gina Little, 77, from London, England, likes to run about two marathons a month. She never has a time goal in mind but instead likes to “run as I feel”–although she tends to average about 9:00 to 10:00 minutes per mile, she says. Her marathon goals, instead, revolve around the number of marathons run—like running her 600Th, which she did in Berlin in October, in an impressively quick 4:34, or ticking off all six World Marathon Majors, which she did just two weeks later when she crossed the finish line of the Chicago Marathon. That’s where Little collected her six-star finisher medalbecoming the oldest person ever to achieve the feat.
What is it that drives Little to run such an extraordinary number of marathons every year? What does her weekly training and recovery program entail? And what can she teach us about maintaining our running fitness–and speed–as we get older? Runner’s World UK sat down with Little to find out her secrets.
Runner’s World: Congratulations on earning your six-star finisher medal! Has it always been on your bucket list to run all six Abbott World Marathon Majors?
Gina Little: It just wasn’t around when I first started running. I did New York in 1987, and when I originally applied for it [the six-star medal], they wouldn’t count that New York one because it was too far back—there weren’t any records in those days. Then, eventually, somebody told me that they’d had an old one put on, so I went back onto the Abbott website, and it jumped on! And I had all the rest of them—all but Chicago. So, I thought, ‘Well, I’ll book Chicago and I might as well and go finish this off.’ Abbott got in touch with me to say, ‘Are you going to do this one?’ and said I could collect my medal at the end, but then it came out that I was the oldest person ever to get it. It’s just gone around the world, I can’t believe it!
RW: When did you take up running and what inspired you to do so?
GL: The London Marathon goes past the top of my road because I live in Greenwich. And [in 1982] I saw the French guy carrying a tray with a bottle and a glass on it and I thought, ‘Wow, I’ll have a go at that!’ The next year, in 1983, you had to be the first in the post box to get your entry in. So, we camped outside the post office all night—you had to have your form in the post box by 6 a.m. All post offices were the same, people were queuing outside. That’s how we got in that first year.
I did enjoy the marathon, but we hadn’t trained. You didn’t know how to train in those days. It was only the second year of the London Marathon anyway [editor’s note: 1983 was the third London Marathon], so there weren’t any books around or anything that told you what to do—we just made it up as we went along. It took us over five hours, but my friend and I had such a good time because the London Marathon is a good time. Well, all my big marathons are!
RW: You obviously caught the running bug! How did your running progress from there—and how did you build up to running so many more marathons?
GL: I don’t understand how all this happened because I only started off doing one a year! Then I was doing two a year…
I met somebody who was doing this 80-miler on the South Downs Way, and it sounded really nice, and I thought, ‘I wouldn’t mind having a go at that.’ And I met another girl who wanted to have a go so we started training. We were sometimes doing two marathons a week: One on a Saturday and one on a Sunday, or 40- and 50-milers, and things like that. And that’s how they all added up to get to my first 100, and that was in 1999. I did that South Downs Way race for five years running.
Unfortunately, I lost my husband in 2000 and my running friends just took me in their arms in a sense and just encouraged me to do more and more—it was my ‘get out’ if you like. The group that I’m in were just doing marathons every week and I just picked and chose which one I wanted to do.
RW: How did you find Chicago and how was it collecting that medal at the finish?
GL: Chicago was freezing cold in the morning! It starts at 8 am and we were in the blocks, and I thought, ‘We’re going to go now’ so I took all my clothes off that were keeping me warm and it just didn’t happen, so I had to pick something up off the floor! But I had an amazing run, I met people halfway, some of my supporters, and they said, ‘You were so up on your toes, you were just flying along.’ I finished in 4:37. They [Abbott World Marathon Major representatives] met me at the end and gave me my big medal—it was just so memorable, but emotional as well. There were six from our running club who had got into Chicago, so with our partners there were 12 of us, so we had a big celebration there.
RW: You also recently hit your 600-marathon milestone—amazing! Tell us about that.
GL: I should have done my 600Th in Richmond at the beginning of September, but unfortunately, the Queen passed so it all got cancelled. My running club had organized a coach to transport us all to the race, and we’d bought beer and wine to take, and we all had t-shirts made. We had 70 people. It was a real shame. So, then I knew I would have to do it in Berlin because that was my next race that was booked. A couple of the guys all brought champagne with them, so when I finished they greeted me with champagne and everything and big hugs! It was just amazing, and the same thing happened when I did Chicago.
RW: You ran Berlin, London, and Chicago all in the space of three weeks–did you feel tired at all?
GL: It’s strange because we came back from Berlin on the Tuesday, and on the Thursday, I went to get my number for London and did that on the Sunday, and then I was off to Chicago on the Thursday, so I didn’t have much time in between to think about anything.
I must admit we didn’t sleep very well in Chicago—the noise of the night is just awful. We were really tired when we got home, and that first night’s sleep was lovely! But I went to yoga on Monday and my friend said to me, ‘you still look tired’, which is not surprising.
RW: Last year, you averaged two marathons a month! What is it you love about running marathons?
GL: Well, I think just the other runners you meet. I’ve met runners all around the world and you bump into them all over the place. I can virtually say I’ll go to any marathon and know someone there. I’ve just heard from people in America who have been emailing me [about my run in Chicago]—I’ve just made an incredible number of friends.
I’m a member of a running club—the Friendly Running Club it’s called and that’s exactly what it is. I’ll have been a member for 30 years next year. You just get into a group, you fill up a car, and you just go. In the beginning, when we used to race abroad, one person would just book for all of us, but now it’s easy to do that yourself.
RW: Out of all those marathons you’ve run, which is your favorite?
GL: I’ve run London 38 times. It was much nicer running Chicago because I didn’t know the course. I know London—pretty much the first six miles go past my house—so I know up to Tower Bridge like the back of my hand. I’ve done Berlin 30-odd times as well, but I don’t remember that much.
RW: Do you have anyone else supporting you at races, aside from your club mates?
GL: My husband, Ray, comes to all of them. The only one he didn’t come to, which he was really upset about, was my 599th because that one got canceled due to the weather, and I had to do another one, which was on a Friday and he had a dentist appointment.
He thoroughly enjoys it. He says, ‘You’ve shown me the world.’ He enjoys the company—he knows most people as well now. He’s really helpful and always carries the bag!
We go to the running club together, but I run in a faster group than he does. We go to parkrun together, but we don’t run together. I always wait for him to come in.
RW: Talk us through a typical training week—how often do you run with the club?
GL: Well, Monday I go to yoga. Tuesday, I run maybe six miles in the morning. Wednesday, I go to my running club and probably do six or seven miles. Thursday, I go to a class at the gym, with weights and things. Friday, I usually do HIIT. Saturday I do parkrun and on Sunday, I would do a race. But if I’m racing on Sunday, I won’t do parkrun. And I walk quite a lot as well. But I only run, at most, four times a week. I probably do 25 miles a week at most. Before the three marathons, I did a couple of half marathons, but they were my longest training runs.
RW: You ran Berlin in 4:34, London in 4:54, and Chicago in 4:37—impressive times! How do you think you’ve retained your marathon fitness as you’ve gotten older?
GL: I really don’t know! I’m only 5 feet and weigh just over 7st [about 100 pounds], so I think that’s quite helpful and I’ve always done yoga. I think you can run too much. That’s why I do my other classes. I find that gives me overall strength. I’ve always gone to a keep fit or a dance class of some sort.
But, through lockdown there was nothing going on at all and that was difficult. Someone said to me, your muscle memory will know what you’re doing [when you start running marathons again] because you’ve done it so many times. It proved to be true because I was a bit concerned about doing these three in a row after not doing anything and they all worked out fine.
RW: Do you ever do any speed work with your club?
GL: I’ve never done it, no, but I think if I had done it, I probably would have been quite fast! My best is 3:26. I’ve only ever just gone and run. I just run as I feel.
RW: So, you never run with a target pace in mind or to heart rate?
GL: No, I don’t understand all that. I clock my time that I’ve run and that’s it! I just go as I feel. And they normally average 9- to 10-minute miles. The running club I belong to isn’t into a lot of speedwork. I mean, some of the guys do it on their own, but we don’t really do it—we just all go out and run together.
RW: And how about your diet—do you follow a strict plan or anything?
GL: That’s another question everyone asks! No, I don’t. If I’m doing a race on Sunday, I invariably have pasta the night before, but that one meal isn’t going to get you round—it has to be a decent diet all the way through. I’m just doing some big jacket potatoes for tonight before we go to the running club. We just eat normally. If I want chips, we’ll have chips! And then in the evening we always have a bar of chocolate or ice cream or something. We don’t drink a lot, but we will sit and have a drink in the evening sometimes. I’ve never been any different.
RW: What would you say to someone who has never run before who is thinking of taking it up later in life?
GL: You’re never too old! Sometimes when I’m putting my date of birth on applications, I think to myself, whatever they think this woman’s up to! They’re probably thinking, ‘here’s another six-hour one!’
It’s possible to be able to run as much as you want. You need to keep yourself fit. I walk down the road like any other youngster if you like—and I’ll climb over a fence or whatever. I don’t feel that anything holds me back. I don’t feel 77. I might look 77, but I don’t feel 77. I just don’t find anything that I can’t do or won’t try.
There’s a couple of older ladies who now come to the gym, and I see them at classes. I know they struggle a little bit, but they’re still there and I just think: If you’re older, the ideal place to meet people is to go to the gym. I know it’s a bit frightening to begin with, but people are so friendly in these places because you’re all in the same boat—you’re all there for the same reason.