True Grit

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Photo credit: David Clerihew
Photo credit: David Clerihew


Chris Bonington – 82

“I’m writing a book,” Sir Chris Bonington sighs. “What I should be doing is spending a few hours climbing each day. Instead, I’m sitting at a desk, which is the worst thing for you.” If days at the keyboard are taking their toll on the British mountaineer, the signs are subtle; Sir Chris is in good nick, his eyes shining, sinewy arms straining as he demonstrates climbing techniques. And, at 82, he has the kind of poise many men half his age would envy.

A former army mountaineering instructor with an SAS soldier for a father, adventure has always been on Bonington’s agenda. In 1958 he was a member of the party that made the first British ascent of the South West Pillar of the daunting Aiguille du Dru, part of the Mont Blanc massif. Today MH has coaxed Sir Chris away from the tamer environs of his Lake District home to a West London photography studio. But, were he unencumbered by press duties, he’d most likely be found halfway up a craggy rock face with one of a local group of climbers. “I tend to ring through the phone list and find someone I can persuade to come out,” he says. “Most days we’ll do a climb then have a pint.”

Fifty years since he first made headlines by scaling the Old Man of Hoy, Bonington really shouldn’t be as agile as he is. “You’re supposed to stretch before a climb, but I don’t really,” he laughs. “That said, I do have a new hip now, so I’m thinking about taking up yoga.” It’s an idiosyncratic approach to mobility, but then Bonington has never been one to overdo it off the mountain. In preparation for his Everest ascent in 1985, he bolstered his climbing with a daily brisk walk up the hill behind his home. “I didn’t start running until I was in my forties, and I’m not so good any more,” he says. “But when it comes to energy expenditure, athletes are racehorses, and climbers are steady plodders.”

When pressed, Bonington attributes his good health to a clean diet: “I have a lot of fish and vegetables,” he says. “Breakfast is muesli, linseed, blueberries and yoghurt.” Bonington’s vertical limits are not to be scoffed at, either. “Your peak for high-altitude climbing is probably during your early forties,” he says. “Even into my sixties I had a good success rate. I think I’m a young 82 simply because I’ve kept up my climbing. It helps maintain mental acuity.”

Like the mountains, there is a sense that Sir Chris will endure. “When you complete a climb the euphoria you feel is incredible. Hopefully I’ll be able to go on experiencing that for a long, long time.”

Photo credit: David Clerihew
Photo credit: David Clerihew


Neil Mackinnon – 75

Men's Health: How did you get into swimming?

Neil Mackinnon: It was a hobby at first. When I was much younger I swam for my local club, then went on to swim for Cheshire county. I was always a good way off the internationals, and didn’t get that far until I decided to give the British Masters Championships a go, aged 40. Strangely, my time had not improved much since I was 20. Somehow it was my lucky day.

MH: How do you maintain such unvarying fitness?

NM: It’s down to consistency with my training. I’ve basically kept to the same routine all these years but just got better and better at doing it. I got my first British record at 60. At 65, I got a British record that was a 10th of a second faster than I did it at 40, which – because it’s virtually equivalent to what I did at 20 – means I’ve had no fall-off up to age 65. Now, at 75, I’m just two seconds slower than I was at 65. And, on backstroke, I did a lifetime best at 68. It’s weird, but it’s all through holding performance.

MH: What does a normal week’s training look like?

NM: I train four to five times. I do a 30-length warm-up then 10 x 50m butterfly sets. I throw in a few front crawl sprints, but usually I don’t do much over an hour. I also swear by bodyweight exercises: pull-ups, dips, press-ups. Having a new goal to work toward is vital; I either want a new PB on something or to win the next medal. You can never rest on your achievements.

MH: What else gives you an edge?

NM: There are a lot of YouTube videos you can learn from to keep pushing yourself. At the moment I’m trying to learn the muscle-up. Diet-wise, I eat a lot of vegetables and not much meat, although I do use whey protein once a day. I also avoid processed foods. Miraculously, living this way has meant I have no joint problems and I’ve stayed at around the same weight – 10st 5lb – all my life.

MH: What advice do you have for younger swimmers?

NM: I tell them that sport has got to be a way of life, just like going to work. You shouldn’t think, “Oh, I’ll have a day off today.” It has to be automatic, and you’ve also got to enjoy doing it. And you should avoid stress like the plague. I never stand up when I can sit, and I never sit when I can lie.

MH: Who impresses you in the sport at the moment?

NM: [Olympic gold medallist] Adam Peaty put a video online where he does this explosive, super-human press-up. I gave it a go the other day. I couldn’t do it, but I did do 59 press-ups in a minute. And I can still do a one-armed press-up, too.

MH: What’s the biggest difficulty you experience when it comes to training at 75?

NM: Recovery takes a lot longer because I don’t train easy. I never plod up and down the pool. I’m a sprinter so everything has to be high intensity. I even push the warm-up too hard. But I’ll never say, “I’m old now, I need to slow down.” Never. If the 20-year-olds can do it, I want to do it too.

Photo credit: David Clerihew
Photo credit: David Clerihew


Phillip Howells - 69

MH: How has your fitness developed over the years?

PH: I had a ‘road to Damascus’ moment after my wife died when I was 50. I was four stone overweight and knew I had to do something. I ran a five-hour 20-minute London Marathon two years later. The next year I cut that down to under four.

Photo credit: David Clerihew
Photo credit: David Clerihew

MH: Marathons are one thing, but South Africa’s Comrades ultramarathon is another entirely. What drives you?

PH: I knew I could run a marathon, but two and a bit marathons? I started thinking about it and it wouldn’t go away. It’s a very emotive race. I did the first one in 10 hours and seven minutes. A friend said, “Your only limit is your self-belief.” It’s become something of a mantra.

MH: Have you peaked yet?

PH: I’d say running a 35-mile ultra aged 61 while feeling mentally and physically strong was
my best performance.

MH: How does your training routine work?

PH: I feel fitter if I do more than just running, so I cycle and swim. I get on the crosstrainer for core and upper-body strength and I do free weights, too. In a week I’ll run 30 miles, swim two miles and cycle 40. It recharges me mentally as much as physically.

MH: Do you take much notice of advances in sports science?

PH: To an extent, but I believe the greatest performances in sport come from mental training. I know people with more talent than me, but often the people with the right attitude triumph. I also think having an understanding of nutrition makes for a better athlete. If something is more than 10% sugar, I won’t eat it.

MH: What’s changed the most?

I have to go slower now. I was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation in 2012, which can cause stroke. My doctor told me I wouldn’t be able to run marathons any more, but I’m very bloody minded. As long as I take it fairly easy during the races I should be OK.

MH: Do you often suffer from racing injuries?

PH: No, but I have friends who get injured and take months off. If it’s achilles, groin or hamstring, you probably do need to rest up. But for most injuries it’s a case of active recovery. Dial down your ego, slow up a bit and you’ll be back to full speed in no time.

MH: What does the future hold?

I’m hoping to complete 333 marathons. Then I’ll do park runs. I will always set targets, albeit within my limits. Being fit improves your quality of life. The key is to keep going. I’ll be doing it until I collapse.


Ted Brown — 86

MH: You were a bodybuilder when you were younger. Why turn to powerlifting?

TB: I was in the army and worked in a woodwork factory so I’ve always been very physical. When I was 19 a friend saw me sunbathing and told me to try bodybuilding. I really enjoyed it, but my training gradually became stale. I met a former rugby player who offered to teach me powerlifting – the principles were the same, but there was much more room for progression. Six months later I won a county competition.

MH: How do you continue to set records into your eighties?

TB: You have to keep pushing. I used to run my own gym and had a motto on the wall, “Do what you can, while you can, because there will come a time when you can’t.” My wife wants me to pack it in, but what else am I going to do? Go fishing? I’d feel lost if I didn’t train.

MH: What does your training regime consist of?

TB: I put in three two and a half hour sessions a week: legs on Monday, chest on Wednesday, deadlift and back on Friday. I buddy up with a younger friend of mine. He’s 76.

MH: When was your peak?

TB: Aged 52. No doubt about it. I was squatting three times my bodyweight, bench-pressing double my bodyweight and deadlifting 205kg. Back then I read an article that said an American, Phil Nayer, was the world champion at the 60kg weight division and I thought, “He’s claiming these as world records, and I’m doing it in the gym!” So I went to America and took the lot from him.

MH: Is it exhausting to keep up this level of training?

TB: No. The only time I rest is when I take a week off after a competition. And even then I’m itching to get back into it. Even if I go on holiday with my wife I have to find a gym.

MH: Do you follow fitness trends?

TB: I stick to the same methods I always have. My gym is real spit and sawdust. There are two classes of powerlifting now: ‘classic’ – just a belt and a leotard – and ‘equipped’ which uses squat suits, bench shirts, all that stuff. As far as I’m concerned it doesn’t count.

MH: How would you advise athletes looking to maintain their fitness into old age?

TB: Swimming is one of the best types of exercise, because it’s easy on the joints. And the rowing machine, as so many muscle groups get involved.

MH: Has age caused any setbacks?

TB: I had a triple bypass aged 69. I took three months off to recover, and then I suffered
a stomach lesion. Doctors said it could have been the end. It’s the only time in my life when I wasn’t training. I honestly think the need to get back in the gym pulled me through. Powerlifting saved my life.

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