Completing the 26.2-mile marathon distance is a gruelling task for any participant. To prepare properly requires a lifestyle overhaul, particularly with regard to diet and exercise. But the London Marathon’s oldest competitor, 88-year-old Paul Freedman, takes it all in his accomplished stride. Last Sunday’s marathon was his 22nd and Mr Freedman is a man for sticking to a schedule — which makes him difficult to track down.
On the Thursday and Friday prior to the race, he was busy collecting sponsorship for his chosen charity, St Francis Hospice, which cared for his late wife Teeny, who died from lung cancer in 2007. Obviously, he was otherwise engaged on Sunday and, on Monday morning, I learn via his son Martin that he is at his aerobics class. So, Monday afternoon it is.
“I always like to keep fit, exercise and keep my body in shape,” the Essex grandfather says. “I get my energy from being on the go all the time. I do aerobics, body step and body attack classes every week. I like classes where there are more girls than men.”
Mr Freedman served with the RAF at home and in India during the Second World War, went on to work in retail and only took up jogging at the age of 61. Now quite media savvy, a favourite quote is that his motivation to keep on running during a marathon is “being behind a nice bottom because it makes all the aches and pains go away”.
Sixteen of his marathons have been in aid of the hospice he holds in huge esteem. “Teeny didn’t stay there but they sent her a bed, came over to visit and talked to her,” he recalls. “They were absolutely marvellous. I’ll always be grateful to them.” Following Teeny’s death, he has settled down with “a nice partner, Ellen. We share everything together.”
After a heart attack in 2003, he missed out on the 2004 marathon and had been advised not to take part on Sunday. “I was under orders not to run by my surgeon because of my heart. But I told him that I had to run because I’m committed to the hospice.”
I was under orders not to run by my surgeon because of my heart.
This year he has already brought in more than £5,000 in sponsorship with more to come in. “I want to raise at least £6,000,” he says. “I’ve got to start collecting now. One bloke promised me £150. All I have to do is make the phone call and the money will start coming in. But I need to rest now. I do tend to get the donations six weeks after the event.” Down the years, he has raised in excess of £80,000 for the hospice.
But fundraising aside, this has not been a vintage marathon year for him and he is unhappy with his seven-and-a-half-hour time. He reluctantly reveals that his “knees were playing up” and that the prolonged winter weather had affected his training. He further makes the point that, in his third marathon, he finished in three hours 56 minutes. But his 2013 time is hardly an embarrassment for a late octogenarian.
“I am officially the oldest runner in 2013,” he says, perking up. “I was also the oldest runner in 2011. They said another guy was the oldest in 2012 but they never could prove it because they didn’t have his birth certificate. At the end of the marathon, three ladies who support the hospice decided to come and join me for the last three miles. I felt like the queen — although I should probably say king.”
With “so much to see” of the capital’s sights along the route, losing focus is not an issue. “You speak to other runners and get to know people. Sometimes I stop and say: ‘I’ve only come here to get the Sunday paper’ or ‘Am I going the right way?’ That gets them laughing.”
His marathon efforts have earned the Hornchurch resident and Romford Synagogue member an MBE for fundraising efforts. He has also run for Jewish Care and Jewish Blind & Disabled, completed some 170 half-marathons in aid of the Jewish blind and was an Olympic torch-bearer. “I fell in love with marathons and charity work. I have a very full schedule and love every day of my life.”
An unfulfilled ambition is to run a marathon with grandson Samuel. “He’s 15 now but when he turns 18 we’ll run it together. But he’s a better runner than me.”
He also plans to join the annual Moon Walk for cancer, in which around 14,000 women and 1,000 men participate wearing decorated bras. And the whole Freedman family is getting involved with grandfather, father and grandson participating. “We’re the first three men from different generations to take part. Generations of women have done it, but not the men. They’ve asked me for photos of all of us. But I’m waiting for the bras,” he says jokingly.
He is almost as passionate about West Ham United as he is about marathons and fundraising. “I’ve been supporting the club for over 50 years,” he says. “I’ve heard that [West Ham co-chair] David Gold wanted to meet me but then got busy. I’d like to meet him and see if he can sort us out a box at a special price when West Ham move to the Olympic Stadium.”
He is also part of a group known as The Entertainers which performs “light-hearted musicals at homes and other places. This week will be our 630th show,” he reveals, once again demonstrating an impressive capacity for figures. “I’m the compère and tell the jokes. I would tell them to you, but you sound a bit young,” he teases.
For the marathon, he sported a T-shirt bearing the slogan, “Officially the oldest runner 2013”. “People kept shouting out: ‘How old are you Paul?’ I would say 88 but they didn’t believe me. I do look younger — I look 87.”