Age no barrier to inspirational generation of older athletes

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BBC Sport looks at the thriving British Masters scene

"Since I've been a runner it has turned my life around," says Angela Copson. Now there's an understatement.

The Northamptonshire pensioner only started out when she was 59 - "it was quite an accident really" - yet eight years later she is the fastest woman in the world, for her age, over the 26.2 miles of a marathon.

We often look to teenagers at schools or athletics clubs to unearth budding grassroots talent, but perhaps that's at the expense of our ever-growing older population - whose performances are equally impressive.

Copson is a leading light of the thriving British Masters scene, where athletes - aged anything from 35 to 85 and beyond - compete against each other on a regional and national basis, and even internationally.

Fun and fitness is the goal for most of them, but some jaw-dropping times are created along the way. Glyn Sutton, for example, was born towards the end of the Second World War; last summer the Welshman clocked 12.44 seconds over 100m in Solihull to claim the British Over-65 record.

Remarkably, humble Copson was never into sport as a schoolgirl.

More than 50 years down the line, she is vibrant living evidence that "you are never too old to do anything; you can always start slowly," as she puts it. Starting at a canter is sage advice but, metaphorically speaking, given she is a distance runner, Copson instantly flew out of the blocks.

She started running to raise money for heart research after her husband had cardiac treatment in 2006, cruising to a stunning sub-four hour debut London Marathon "with lots of chatting on the way" on her 60th birthday.

Having unearthed a rare dormant talent, she then joined Rugby & Northampton Athletics Club and hasn't really looked back since.

Copson, however, does concede that starting out wasn't plain sailing - that vague prejudice can swirl around an older person taking up sport. Laughing, she says "my family thinks I'm a bit crazy" and, more seriously, she faced the twitching curtains treatment from nosey neighbours.

"I did feel a little bit embarrassed going out running when I first started training for the marathon," she admits. "I used to go out in the dark. I live in a small village and people would say 'why on earth are you running?'"

Patsy Forbes and Guido Muller
Patsy Forbes (r) and Guido Muller (l) are officially the two fastest men in the world over the age of 70

Doubters were soon won round and - with progress she calls "lucky" - British, European and World Masters age group records followed, including world records in the 1500m, 3000m and 5000m Over-65 category.

Her marathon world record, a staggering three hours and 17 minutes, was set in Berlin last year.

Copson, however, is adamant that world records are irrelevant to her - all that counts is just getting out there, and getting out there with friends.

"I've really enjoyed the social benefits and healthy lifestyle from keeping fit," says the European Masters Woman Athlete of 2012. "I have met some great people as well as great athletes.

"I love the atmosphere at the athletics club, being part of a team.

"The younger girls seem to take me on board and don't seem to worry too much that I am a mature runner."

With thousands of people all over the UK signing up for or getting ready to take part in this weekend's Sport Relief Games - running, swimming, or cycling a short distance - Copson is keen to stress that the myriad benefits of being active are attainable for everyone.

"You don't have to be a specific age," she says. "People of all ages run.

"Our club coaches children from six years of age, and I possibly could be the oldest member, I'm not sure!

"It's so easy to put a pair of trainers on and go out whenever you feel like it. It doesn't take any effort or booking up courts or anything like that. It's easy to go out and run, for anybody. You don't have to run at a certain standard, you can run at any standard - whatever you'd like to do."

Across Britain, stories abound of inspirational people turning to sport as they enter so-called 'old age' - or just carrying on playing sport while gloriously oblivious to their age.

In Northern Ireland, Patsy Forbes was a Gaelic football legend to many, playing for Tyrone across two decades and captaining Ardboe to their first county title in 1968.

Yet 45 years later the 71-year-old is one of the world's fastest pensioners, and only narrowly beaten to a 100m gold medal by German arch-rival Guido Muller at last year's World Masters Games in Turin.

"As far as getting old goes, I don't think about it," he says. "There's just different stages of life."

Whether young or old, or somewhere in between, there's an mantra to inspire you while thinking about digging out the old trainers.

If you are inspired to try athletics, find out how to get involved