For 71-year-old Jean Oracheff, taking on the moniker ‘athlete’ still feels a bit foreign. In fact, she brushes off any suggestion that she is actually an athlete, despite the fact that she ran more than 700 miles last year and currently has her sights set on a marathon.
You see, Oracheff found her inner racer a year ago, at age 70. She is testament today to the adage ‘It’s never too late,’ and she thrives on the next challenge the running universe throws her way.
Running After 70
“For the past year, instead of playing Words With Friends – which I loved – or doing genealogy or making cards and scrapbook pages, I elected to run,” says Oracheff. “I started out walking to the corner and slowly added distance and increased my speed. I still run in the turtle category, but on I go.”
Indeed. In 2016, she earned a medal in a virtual running challenge for running 1,250 kilometers during the year. That’s 776 miles. She will earn that same medal again this year, accomplishing the 1,250K mark halfway through the year.
As if destined, she comments, “I’ve accomplished so many things in my 70+ years, why not run? Add to that hiking, yoga, cycling and travel and you get a septuagenarian who knows that running after 70 may be the best decision of her life.
“To think that in 2012 I was overweight, sedentary and unhealthy,” she says. “Today I am just the opposite. By the time you are our age, we’ve accomplished so much we just have to keep searching for new challenges.”
Oracheff describes herself as the ultimate, original Baby Boomer. A Midwesterner raised in Gary, Indiana, she celebrates 49 years married to her high-school sweetheart, Richard Oracheff.
The vast majority of her adult life was spent pursuing a career she loves as a professional educator. Oracheff holds an undergraduate degree in deaf education, a master’s degree in special education and her doctorate degree in secondary curriculum.
“And I did motherly stuff dragging the tuba around from band practice. I was always busy,” she says. “But I always had sedentary hobbies. I did scrapbooking, some writing, and genealogy. That’s a lot of hours just sitting. The most activity I got was walking from the car and the library.”
As you might imagine, her career as a teacher and administrator, raising a family and tending to day-to-day tasks became all-consuming. There was no time or interest in fitness endeavors, and she eventually found herself overweight. “I put my weight on the old fashioned way – 1½ pounds a year. Next thing I know, I am 190 pounds.”
Fate Steps In
Like many women over 50, Oracheff chalked up the weight gain to aging and nearly accepted being overweight as her fate.
“I truly believe that in any turnaround that someone makes with health and weight loss, there has to be an a-ha moment. You have to have a bang on the head,” Oracheff insists.
Her moment came with the death of her mother and her brother within six months of one another in 2011.
“My a-ha moment was at the memorial service, and I and saw all these fat, diabetic relatives. And I thought, I’m on the same ship as they are. And that’s a sinking ship.
It was in that moment of clarity that Oracheff made the decision to get a physical, join a gym and take her fate into her own hands. “It took me two years to take off 65 pounds, and I’m so glad I did it that way. If you lose weight too quickly, it comes right back.”
A Walk to the Corner
By mid-2013, Oracheff was committed to a healthy lifestyle and sought ways to remain active and keep the weight off. She laughs as she relays a story about setting the timer on her phone for 10 minutes and attempting to walk to the corner of her street and back.
“At the end of 10 minutes, I turned around and came home. It took me 10 minutes to get to the corner and back. But each time I did it, I found myself getting farther and farther.”
The corner challenge evolved into a mailbox challenge, in which she would walk the distance of 3, 4, 5 and then 10 mailboxes. “Now I knock off mailboxes like dominos,” she smiles.
In April, she was first in her age group to finish a local 5K race. “I confess there were not age group awards, but I did have the fastest time in the 70+ group. I have another confession. I was the ONLY one in that age group, but I consider that a victory.”
For Oracheff, running is mostly a solo endeavor. She prefers the stillness and tranquility of an early morning run. And trail running has become her favorite way to commune with nature – whether training or racing.
However, she also has fallen head over heels for the camaraderie of the running community. To get her fix, she plugs in to MapMyRun’s You vs. the Year digital challenges. It’s not unusual for her to be participating in several challenges simultaneously, logging her miles at every turn and interacting with other virtual runners via the app and on social media.
“A big part of my motivation is the Facebook group, because I’m constantly being validated,” she explains. “I need someone besides me to tell me I’m doing a good job.”
In fact, 100 of her virtual friends gathered in Las Vegas to run the Rock ‘n’ Roll 10K race, and 60 of them met for lunch post-race.
Lifestyle of Active Aging
These days, Oracheff runs four to five days a week, adds strength training two to three times a week and takes yoga classes one to two days a week.
She is religious about her workouts and is committed to her lifestyle of active aging for as long as she lives.
She puts it this way: “By the time you’re my age, what opportunities doe we have for new achievements or accomplishments? I already had a career. I’ve raised my son, and I’m proud of him, but I can’t live through him. We have to find something else.”
She preaches the strength of forming like-minded connections. “Everyone needs an attaboy and a hug once a day. My attaboy every day is running. That validation creates the opportunity to make my own accomplishments and achievements.”
Recipe for Longevity
Oracheff advocates action. “You’ve got to start somewhere! For my 70th birthday, I asked everyone I know on Facebook to do 20 minutes of exercise and post about it on my timeline. About 50 people posted what they did.”
Work gradually toward your goals, she says. “Don’t let someone else set your goals. Be realistic, because if you set the bar too high, and go out and run like hell, it becomes discouraging.”
Following her mantra of slow and steady, she confesses her next big challenge just may be a full marathon. She ran her first half marathon last winter in about 3 hours. She will enter the Run Laughlin Half Marathon in Nevada in December.
And then her blue eyes twinkle when I ask her if she has considered running a full marathon. She pauses, and says she would love to run a marathon in 2018.
“The one thing I decided is there is always going to be a time in your life that you can make scrapbooks and cards and sit around. There’s not always a time when you’re going to be physically acive.
“Do those physically active things while you can,” she continues. “There are no guarantees for tomorrow. When I embrace something, I embrace it all. I don’t do anything half-assed. I just jump in there with both feet and determination.”