One hundred miles a week – that’s how much Caroline Rodgers used to run as part of her training for the British marathon squad more than 30 years ago. It started, come rain or shine, at six every morning when she did her first 10 miles of the day across Hampstead Heath in London.
Far from being a daily torture, Caroline enjoyed every minute of it. “Running’s really wonderful and I used to love pushing myself more and more, knowing that when I did I would be in with more of chance of beating my rivals,” she says.
Top boxers like John Conteh and Frank Bruno would sometimes join her at the prompting of her neighbour, the boxing promoter George Francis.
“One day Georgie asked me to take his boys out training with me and so I would take them across the Heath, slowing down my pace so they could keep up as they were really big and heavy. It was great fun.”
A member of the famous Highgate Harriers, Caroline was the club’s top distance runner who went on to represent the country all over the world, winning her first marathon as a member of the Britain squad in France in 1983.
But such is her love of running that when she finally retired from professional athletics, she continued to run for pleasure and today she’s on the road at least three times a week.
“I do about an hour at a time, that’s about six miles,” she says. “I’ve had four knee ops but I enjoy keeping fit and running’s still a thrill.”
Ironically, she only took up athletics as a teenager because of her asthma. “It was pretty bad but my doctor recommended that I take up sports in order to exercise my lungs.”
She joined the Harriers as a would-be sprinter but never really made the grade. “My trainer suggested middle distance events like the 400 and 800m and I began to do much better. In fact, the longer the race the better I was.”
Skinny and petite, she had the classic build of a long distance runner and she soon graduated from the cross-country to the 54-mile London to Brighton race, in which she came third.
But it was as a marathon runner that she came into her own and during the 1980s “Jolly Rodgers” frequently made the headlines in the local and athletics press as a member of Britain’s ladies marathon squad, with a number of notable international wins, including Spain and Northern Ireland.
“I was having a fantastic time, getting on a plane and landing in places like Trinidad, the Phillipines and Singapore just to do what I loved most, running.”
But when Caroline began her athletics career, women were banned from competing in marathons and she was at the forefront of a campaign to change this, applying to enter a race as plain ‘C Rodgers’.
“When I turned up, they would say you can’t compete because you’re a woman, to which I would say, ‘well you’ve accepted my entry and I’m going to run’. And I would, even though I was always threatened with being banned from the track. I’d say, ‘ban me’ and then end up beating most of the men. ”
She also points to how women were discriminated against in terms of prizes, recalling how the male victor of a 1979 10 mile road race she took part in won a sports kit while the women’s winner went home with a brush and comb set.
In 1989, Caroline decided to give up competition athletics and study for a social sciences degree “I wasn’t getting any younger and I needed to earn money away from athletics. Having been brought up in care, I aimed to become a social worker.”
She worked for a number of London local authorities but never lost her love of sports, working as a qualified personal trainer in her spare time.
Now long retired, she looks back on her glory days with fondness. “They were great days and I get to relive those good memories every time I go out running.”
This article first appeared in Never Too Old magazine, February 2017