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Meet Chicago’s Newest Elite Athlete: 73-Year-Old Grandmother Marjorie Conry

She and her daughter Heather travel the country, crossing finish lines in their sparkle skirts.

Marjorie Conry and her daughter, Heather   Photo: Courtesy of Heather Conry

Kedzie Avenue and 95th Street divide south suburban Evergreen Park into four quadrants. The perimeter of Marjorie Conry’s quadrant measures 3.2 miles. She knows, because she walks or runs it six or seven days a week, sometimes twice in one day.

That level of dedication has powered her across 241 finish lines, as she’ll tell you with a click of her spreadsheet. Of those, 70 have been half marathons. Nearly all were run step-for-step with her 36-year-old daughter, Heather.

Now, at age 73, Marjorie has earned a sponsorship from running apparel company Oiselle, which recently named her to its “Elite Grannies” team.

“I think they wanted to widen their reach and show young people that older people are running, too,” she says. “And not just those who have always been running.”

Indeed, Conry didn’t discover the sport until her 60s. In Pittsburgh, where she grew up, she was a cheerleader and swam on a country club team. More recently, she and her husband Richard — who passed away 13 years ago — would walk in the neighborhood or on treadmills.

Heather, a former Irish competitive dancer, started running first as a way to stay in shape and to connect with a supportive community. However, in May 2011, none of Heather’s friends could join her for the Brookfield Run Wild 5K. So, she asked her mom.

Marjorie figured that instead of sitting on the sidelines, she’d walk the race. They did a few 5Ks this way: Marjorie would walk briskly while Heather ran.

“I never came in more than 10 or 15 minutes behind her,” Marjorie says.

In 2012, the pair traveled to the Disney Wine & Dine, a multi-race festival at the park in Florida. Marjorie walked the 5K in the morning, and Heather ran in her second half marathon at night.

The race took Heather longer than she’d planned; she wasn’t feeling well. Marjorie tracked her using the Find My Friends app, worrying. Though Heather finished safely, her anxious mother decided that next time, they’d take on the full 13.1 miles together.

As luck would have it, they’d attended a presentation by Jeff Galloway before the race. The Olympian and long-time coach preaches run-walk intervals. It’s a safer and gentler — and sometimes faster, he says — way of completing long distances, giving bones and joints frequent breaks.

When they returned home, Marjorie and Heather tried the program together. Thirty seconds of running, thirty seconds of walking. Repeat. With that approach, the two could easily sync up their paces.

When Heather’s targeting longer distances — she ran the Chicago Marathon in 2016 and 2017, and will train for it again this year — she’ll extend her running intervals. Marjorie says she can’t run for quite as long. But when they’re walking, the elder Conry often surges ahead.

“She’ll say, ‘Sorry for holding you back,’ and I’m like, ‘I’m pretty sure I’m holding you back,’” Heather says.

At this point, they’ve logged thousands of running miles, not to mention those of the frequent-flyer variety. Themed Disney races, with routes through the parks, rank among their favorites. During one challenge, the Castaway Cay 5K, they raced, then took a cruise ship to run another 5K on a private Disney island, earning an additional medal.

The hardware is motivating, Marjorie admits. But it’s far from the only benefit.

“My cardiologist is happy too,” she says. Before she started running, she had a heart murmur. “I haven’t had any health issues since.”

Then, of course, there’s the mother-daughter time. En route, the pair trade tales about family, training, and life. They talk about Heather’s work as a graphic designer and her Great Dane puppy, or plot their next trip.

They also grieve their losses. Besides Richard, Marjorie’s son and Heather’s brother Brian passed away in November.

“That one’s tough; he was only 39,” Marjorie says. “Running is keeping us going.”

The longer Heather and Marjorie have traveled and raced together, the more friends they’ve made. Strangers often recognize their sparkly skirts in races and sometimes even attempt to join them.

Heather’s running friends — including those on the Illinois Volée, Oiselle’s local running team — all know about her intergenerational running partner. Last year, one of Heather’s Volée teammates texted and asked about her mother’s age. She didn’t mean for the question to be rude; she’d learned the company was looking to sponsor women 70 and older.

Marjorie applied and made the team with two other athletes (Peggy Richko from West Milford, N.J. and Donna Keto from British Columbia). The deal involved a photo shoot, a full kit of “Elite Grannies” gear, and discounts on future purchases.

She’ll definitely need the gear: Marjorie and Heather have already done their first half marathon of the year, the F3 along the lakefront in January, and their 2020 calendar includes the Star Wars Rival Run Half Marathon in Florida, the Illinois Half Marathon in Champaign-Urbana in April, and the new Bank of America Chicago 13.1 in June.

Marjorie would encourage anyone who feels inspired to join them. “It’s never too late,” she says. Run-walk intervals can make the sport far more approachable for those new to the sport or further along in years.

And if anyone finds themselves lacking in the motivation department? That’s easy, too. “Do it for the bling,” she says.

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