Just popping out for a 1,000-mile run, says new role-model for the middle-aged

HITTING the big 5-0 and the prospect of advancing age is enough to make anyone reach for a packet of Hobnobs and the television remote control.

• Orkney-based William Sichel, 56, is the oldest Briton to complete the Athens International Ultra Festival. Picture: Complimentary

But William Sichel, 56, an ultramarathon exponent – who has just smashed two world records running a gruelling 1,000 miles in less than 14 days – says what middle-aged people need a positive role models to inspire them.

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Sichel, a grandfather from Sanday in Orkney, took up marathon running shortly before his 40th birthday after watching the 1992 London marathon on television.

He has continued to push himself to the limits despite being diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1997, and his latest achievement has been completing the 1,000 Mile World Cup race in Athens.

However, he says he encounters negative comments about age, some from people in his own generation.

"People ask me, 'When are you going to retire?' rather than say, 'Why not carry on?' It almost seems like I am an embarrassment to people of a similar age or slightly younger.

"But if you do stop running at 40, you become a self-fulfilling prophecy – putting on weight and losing yourself.

"Only the brave few have the courage and conviction to carry on. The veteran runners over 40 are often seen as a curiosity, a novelty, when in fact we could be seen as role models."

He added: "There is a strong bias towards the young performer and the feeling that if you have not achieved something by a certain age, you are past it and have no chance. There is this very strong obsession with youth in lots of areas of life and it is important to challenge it."

Mr Sichel runs Orkney Angora with his wife Elizabeth, selling hand-dyed knitting yarn, and said mental focus and thoughts of home helped sustain him during the race in Athens he completed last week.

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"There were 16 of us including three women from around the world, running on a tarmac track. I had 'work' periods of running up to five hours at a time with breaks of up to three hours at the most for a sleep. I mostly took the sleep breaks during the day so I could make the most of the cool night air.

"It was very intense and I focused my thinking on three areas. Firstly, I thought about how I was running and if my shoulders, hips, knees and ankles were relaxed enough – I was checking if I was keeping everything as loose as possible and if I was keeping upright with good arm action and not leaning to the side.

"I was also turning my mind to where I was in the race, what I was eating and drinking, and considerations such as was I going too fast.

"Lastly, if it came to a crunch point and I needed deeper emotions to drive me on to make extra effort, I listened to songs on my MP3 player which reminded me of home."

Mr Sichel came second overall, finishing in 13 days, 20 hours and eight minutes and one second – breaking the previous world record for the over-55s by more than a day – despite being forced to spend time off-track when race doctors were concerned over his health and insisted he rest.

He became the oldest Briton to complete the 1,000 miles. On the way to the finish, he set a new age-group world record for the over-55s for "six-day road" with a distance of 800km/497.09 miles.

He followed this up with a new over-55s 1,000km world record with a time of seven days, 23 hours, 45 mins and 43 secs.

Dr Mary Brown, a lecturer in psychology at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, said: "Sichel is getting some negative feedback but some of it is from himself because he's absorbed what society thinks older people should be like.

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"Nowadays, people are inclined to put themselves on the scrap-heap around age 36 . But you don't need Madonna's money to present yourself well. You can be positive no matter what age you are."