Meet the 86-year-old marathon man from Strabane

Ken Jones is living proof that there is nothing dishonourable about slowing down.

Wednesday, 12th February 2020, 10:15 am
File photo dated 18/04/19 of London Marathon Ever Present runner Ken Jones at his home in Strabane Co. Londonderry. PA Photo. Issue date: Tuesday February 4, 2020. See PA story SPORT Marathon. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire
File photo dated 18/04/19 of London Marathon Ever Present runner Ken Jones at his home in Strabane Co. Londonderry. PA Photo. Issue date: Tuesday February 4, 2020. See PA story SPORT Marathon. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Considering the 86-year-old is one of an exclusive group about to take part in his 40th London Marathon, he can easily be forgiven for not having his sights set on beating his personal best.

Ken, who has been living in Strabane since 2003, ran his first marathon in 1965 from Windsor to Chiswick: “In 1967 I did it again in a time of two hours and 41 minutes, that was my best ever time.

“I’ve done 20 marathons under three hours but now as I’ve got older I’m getting slower and slower and slower.”

Ken finishes the 1985 London Marathon

Born in London, Ken now considers himself at home in NI, listing the Walled City Marathon in Londonderry as the pick of the races he has run over the years.

Ken, who will be three weeks short of 87 when he is running the London Marathon, said: “It’ll take me about six and three quarter hours, but at least I can still do it at that age. I do it to keep me fit and healthy. That’s it.”

When I spoke with Ken last week he had just finished his training for the day: “No running for me today, I went swimming instead. Only for 20 minutes, but it’s enough to get all the joints working.

“I try to keep active almost every day, but the weather around here is often horrible, so I can’t always be outdoors.”

Ken’s London Marathon medal haul. The bottom left medal is from the first marathon in 1981.

Ken said he has been living an active lifestyle for nearly 70 years: “I joined the Army in 1951, since then I’ve been running, exercising.

“I just can’t run these days. I’m too old. Most of my training is five or six miles, walking.

“I don’t do long distances now. I’ll do the marathon, yes, but I’ll be walking.”

Ken lives with his wife Nora, 83, and will be accompanied on the marathon route by their daughter Heather.

He said: “My daughter will be there at my side taking care of me. What happens when you’re old, you fall over, you do all sorts of things, so the marathon people have agreed to let her be there with me. I’m going to be lucky this year to finish, but I’ll give it my best.”

Londoner Ken said he considered himself to be an honorary Irishman: “I feel absolutely at home in Northern Ireland. I would never go back to England. My wife brought me over here in 1958 to meet her parents.

“My grandparents were Irish and my mother, with the name of Catherine Winifred O’Rourke – that couldn’t be more Irish, could it?

“I married an Irish girl – Nora Kelly, she comes from a village called Convoy in Donegal – so I’m 99% Irish now.”

Explaining how he met his wife, Ken said: “We first met in an Irish dance hall in London. I liked doing the Siege of Ennis – it’s a dance where you twirl around in a circle.

“In 1960 we got married. We’ve been married over 59 years. We still get on alright.

“We’d be over to see Nora’s parents in Donegal at least every six months and they would come over to us in London.

“My sister-in-law talked me into moving here in 2003. I kept coming over and I really liked the place – the people are lovely, it’s nice and quiet, there’s cows in the fields in summer and in winter there’s sheep in the fields. My next neighbour is half a mile down the road.”

His neighbour, Eugene Devine, is also his training partner: “I train mainly with myself and with my neighbour Eugene. We go off walking five or six miles together, chatting.

“We get on ever so well, he’s a young guy, he must be about 55. Any problems I’ve got he seems to solve them for me. He never has any problems.

“I’ve got another neighbour down the road who helps too, with things in the garden and the like.”

Ken, who has been a member of the the London-based Orion Harriers club for 60 years, was involved in some marathon pre-publicity last week along with the other remaining nine members of the Ever Presents club who have run all the London Marathons since 1981.

He said: “They had us up at Marathon House in London. There were so many cameras snapping and filming, I think every television company was there. We gave loads of interviews, all the guys.

“In the evening they took us up to Tower Bridge where we were interviewed by the BBC. Last of all they called me up and said, ‘now we’ve got the famous Ken Jones’. They asked me lots of questions and I answered them.”

The Ever Presents have participated in every single London Marathon since the race was launched in 1981 and the milestone 40th race on Sunday, April 26 will be special for all of them.

More than 20,000 people applied to run in the first London Marathon on March 29 1981 and 6,255 crossed the finish line out of 6,747 who were accepted for a place.

A record 42,549 people finished last year while 457,861 people applied for a ballot place for this year.

The Ever Presents group was set up in 1996 to recognise those who had run every race and to give them guaranteed entry. It originally consisted of 46 runners but has dwindled every year and just 10 runners remain.

“It’s perhaps the only club you can only leave, you can’t join,” said retired headteacher Mike Peace, 70, from Lustleigh, near Exeter.

Ken is the oldest Ever Present and was the oldest competitor in the 2019 event.

The youngest is Chris Finill, 61, from Cranleigh, Surrey, who finished in two hours, 59 minutes and 46 seconds in 2019.

In 2018 he fell and broke his arm but still completed the remainder of the race with his right arm in a sling.

Ken said this April’s London Marathon is to be his final farewell: “I’ve done marathons all over England, a few in Northern Ireland. I’ve done about 112 so far.

“My favourite is the Derry Marathon, it’s near where I live. It’s a fabulous race, the course is so interesting. They take great care of you – they ride on bicycles to bring you water, ask if you’re alright.

“After this London Marathon I’m not going to do any more. I’ve been giving up for the last 20 years, but I always get talked back into it. All my running mates say, ‘you’ve got to do it’, but I’m saying that this is the last time. 40 is a good number to stop at.”

In terms of fundraising for the marathon Ken has taken a unique approach in recent years: “I used to raise money for Foyle Hospice, but I found I couldn’t keep going back to the same people every year asking for money. So what I do is I set aside a couple of hundred pounds and give it to the other runners. I’ve about £250 to encourage runners to go and get an entry form because you do have to raise a lot of money to run these marathons.”