Run, Betty run!

Even at 89, Betty Willis just keeps on running

Roxanne King

Twenty years ago, the Denver Catholic Register (now the Denver Catholic) featured a local 70-year-old who had recently run her 23rd marathon.

Betty Willis went on to finish four more marathons as well as numerous half-marathons, 10K and 5K runs. Set to turn 90 on Oct. 23, she plans to run a 5K on Oct. 7 to benefit her parish’s school, Sts. Peter and Paul in Wheat Ridge.

“I ran in it last year,” Willis said about Sts. Peter and Paul’s Cool Duo race. Laughing she added, “I was 89 and I got first place in the 80 and older group—there wasn’t anyone else in my age group!”

That’s how it’s been since she started running in 1979 at age 52 when she competed in a 10K.

“I had never done a race before in my life,” Willis said. “I walked and ran and walked and ran. I finished next to last.

“Actually, I came in second place in my age group—50 and over,” she clarified. “There were only two of us.”

Two years later—after training—she participated in her first 26-mile marathon, placing first in her age group. She went on to compete in a total 27 marathons.

“I did 27 to honor my birth year, 1927,” Willis explained.

Her best marathon time? An impressive 3 hours, 55 minutes in 1985, which according to wellness website VeryWell, is 50 minutes less than the median marathon time for women of 4 hours, 45 minutes.

Her most memorable race? The Oct. 28, 2001, Marine Corps Marathon, which took place in Washington, D.C., just weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and was dedicated to those who died, the survivors and the first responders. Runners carried flags as they ran by the damaged Pentagon.

Betty Willis, 89, shows just a few of the medals shes’s acquired in her many years as a runner. (Photo by Andrew Wright)

“That was the most patriotism I’d seen since World War II,” Willis recalled. “It was my favorite marathon.”

Born and reared in Springfield, Ill., Willis came to Denver in 1949 with just a small cardboard suitcase. She was 21 and on her way to San Francisco but needed to earn some money. She ended up finding a 39-year career with Security Life insurance. Starting as a file clerk, evenings she attended college and earned a degree in education and psychology. She retired from Security Life as an assistant vice president in 1988.

“I’ve had a very full life,” she said. “Lot’s of interesting things have happened!”

After retiring, Willis earned a master’s degree in Christian community development. She also completed the Catholic Biblical School’s four-year program. For 23 years, she directed the homebound ministry at Sts. Peter and Paul, where she’s been a 65-year parishioner.

Today, she still serves as a back-up extraordinary minister of the Eucharist and opens the door for the 7 a.m. Sunday Mass, which is convenient as she lives across the street from the church.

“Jesus has been my best friend for my whole life,” she said of her faith. “I’ve got through with help from the Lord, the Good Shepherd, who sent me good shepherds.”

A daily communicant for “many, many, many years,” Willis said simply of her dedicated Mass attendance: “You have to be close to the Lord. You have a reason to get up and get going, not just sit around.”

The same goes for her running habit.

When I get to where I can’t finish a race, that’s when I’ll call it quits.”

“It’s good for your health—mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually,” she said. “It keeps you agile and it’s a lot of fun. I run for all those reasons, and for the camaraderie with other runners.”

The benefits of running include slowing peripheral artery disease, which she was diagnosed with five years ago. She likes that runs benefit charitable causes and believes running has given her “bonus years.”

“I enjoy the challenge and just doing it,” Willis said. “I would really like to encourage older people to get off their duff and not shuffle their feet … to keep moving! They’ll be stronger and happier.”

These days, Willis limits herself to 5K races.

“When I get to where I can’t finish a race, that’s when I’ll call it quits,” she said.

Willis is looking forward to Sts. Peter and Paul’s 5k as last year some of the school’s teaching nuns ran in full habits, and the pastor and many students participated. The same is planned for this year, which she praised.

“I especially want to congratulate all the children who will run,” she said.

Twenty years ago Willis expressed a desire to travel, to write and maybe finally move to San Francisco. Running has allowed her to make trips there, and to Alaska, Hawaii and Ireland. Currently she’s working on freeing up time to write.

And some days, the dream of moving to San Francisco, where she lived a year as a teen, beckons.

“I loved the ocean,” Willis said. “But it might be to Los Angeles because my parents are buried there and my brother (her sole living sibling out of four) lives there.

“I still have my one little cardboard suitcase I brought with me,” she said. “I still might continue that journey to California.”

STS. PETER & PAUL COOL DUO 5K
Benefits Sts. Peter and Paul School in Wheat Ridge
Sunday, Oct. 1, 8:30 a.m.
Info: www.coolduo5k.com

COMING UP: Navigating major cultural challenges

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We’re navigating through a true rock and a hard place right now: moral relativism and the oversaturation of technology. In fact, they are related. Moral relativism leaves us without a compass to discern the proper use of technology. And technological oversaturation leads to a decreased ability to think clearly about what matters most and how to achieve it.

Fortunately, we have some Odysseus-like heroes to guide our navigation. Edward Sri’s book Who Am I to Judge?: Responding to Relativism with Logic and Love (Augustine Institute, 2017) provides a practical guide for thinking through the moral life and how to communicate to others the truth in love. Christopher Blum and Joshua Hochschild take on the second challenge with their book A Mind at Peace: Reclaiming an Ordered Soul in the Age of Distraction (Sophia, 2017).

Sri’s book describes conversations that have become quite common. When discussing moral issues, we hear too often, “this is true for me,” “I feel this is right,” or “who am I to judge?” We are losing our ability both to think about and discuss moral problems in a coherent fashion. Morality has become an expression of individual and subjective feeling, rather than clear reasoning based on the truth. In fact, many, or even most, young people would say there is no clear truth when it comes to morality—the very definition of relativism.

Beyond this inability to reason clearly, Christians also face pressure to remain silent in the face of immoral action, shamed into a corner with the label of bigotry. In response to our moral crisis, Sri encourages us to learn more about our own great tradition of morality focused on virtue and happiness. He also provides excellent guidance on how to engage others in a loving conversation to help them consider that our actions relate not only to our own fulfillment, but to our relationships with others.

Sri points out that it’s hard to “win” an argument with relativists, because “relativistic tendencies are rooted in various assumptions they have absorbed from the culture an in habits of thinking and living they have formed over a lifetime” (13). Rather than “winning,” Sri advises us to accompany others through moral and spiritual growth with seven keys, described in the second half of the book. These keys help us to see others through the heart of Christ, with mercy, and to reframe discussions about morality, turning more toward love and addressing underlying wounds. Ultimately, he asks us, “will you be Jesus?” to those struggling with relativism. (155).

Blum and Hochschild’s book complements Sri’s by focusing on the virtues we need to address our cultural challenges. They point to another common concern we all face: a “crisis of attention” as our minds wander, preoccupied with social media (2). More positively, they encourage us to “be consoled” as “there are remedies” to help us “regain an ordered and peaceful mind, which thinks more clearly and attends more steadily” (ibid.). The path they point out can be found in a virtuous and ordered life guided by wisdom.

To achieve peace, we need virtues and other good habits, which create order within us. “With order, our attention is focused, directed, clear, trustworthy, and fruitful” (10). The book encourages us to rediscover fundamental realities of life, such as being attune to our senses and to aspire to higher and noble things. The authors, with the help of the saints, provide a guidebook to forming important dispositions to overcome the addiction and distraction that come with the omnipresence of media and technology.

The book’s chapters address topics such as self-awareness, steadfastness, resilience, watchfulness, creativity, purposefulness, and decisiveness.  These dispositions will create order in how we use our tools and within our inner faculties. They will help us to be more intentional in our action so that we do not succumb to passivity and distraction.  Overall, the book leads us to consider how we can rediscover simple and profound realities, such as a good conversation, periods of silence, and a rightly ordered imagination.

Both books help us to navigate our culture, equipping us to respond more intentionally to the interior and exterior challenges we face.