Joseph Heymans: Healthy, active, and running 20km races at age 91

Joseph Heymans being interviewed in his home on April 10, 2019

Joseph Heymans: Healthy, active, and running 20km races at age 91


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Joseph Heymans may not be a household name, yet as soon as word got around the New Europe office that we were going to be interviewing the man who at the age of 91 will be participating in the 20km of Brussels race on May 19, an aura of mystery started to surround the legend.

Colleagues in the office range from non-runners (the kind of people who say that running is for crazy people), to marathoners. But despite the level of love for the sport, all who heard about Joseph Heymans wanted to meet him. The organogram won over, and our Editor and fellow runner Alexandros Koronakis accompanied me to Mr. Heymans Woluwe home. As we drove through the streets of the Brussels suburb, invariably with more uphills and downhills than most places in Brussels, we considered how hard it must be for Mr. Heymans to run in the neighbourhood.

Joseph Heymans at his most memorable run, the Nike Space Run

Joseph Heymans at his most memorable run, the Nike Space Run

As the door swung open, Mr. Heymans’ endless energy quelled our concerns. His warm smile took over, and we walked into his home. As he started to welcome us, we were scanning him – nearly rudely, working down from his smile. We had already been informed about some of Mr. Heymans’ accomplishments, and stood there somewhat starstruck.

A striped colourful button shirt under a burgundy sweater, inside of a blue fleece jacket; Grey khakis; and exactly as we had hoped, Grey running shoes with red accents at his feet. These were his old pair – mostly used for working around the garden. “Last year’s” as he would later go on to tell us, “are worn out from all the running.”

Born in 1928, Mr. Heymans celebrated his 91st birthday in March; he is the oldest person registered to run the 20km of Brussels in 2019.

“The one thing you need to know about me,” Mr. Heymans started before we moved to the living room, “is that I love to have stairs”, he said, looking at the staircase that led to the second floor. “Any excuse to go up and down these stairs … other people prefer an elevator.”

We sat down at the table, by the glass doors that overlooked the beautiful garden, which Mr. Heymans is very proud to maintain all by himself.  “When did you start running long distance running” I wondered, and Mr. Heymans started to tell us his story, in a tone that nearly resembled that of telling a fairy tale. But though the tone was warm, the response came like a bombshell: “I got the idea when I was 60,” Mr. Heymans shocked us. “It’s the kind of life you lead”, Mr. Heymans explained, recounting that he had always been very active, ‘’For holidays, I took my children and wife to the mountains and we walked all day, so I had always been trained.’’.

Joseph Heymans' diploma for his record year of the 20km of Brussels in 1991

Joseph Heymans’ diploma for his record year of the 20km of Brussels in 1991

Mr. Heymans’ brother, who was four years younger and already a runner of years, convinced him to sign up for the 20km of Brussels.

At the time, his first wife was ill with cancer. “When she was ill, she said to me: ‘I think you’d better go and run with the children; you’ll be quieter’,” Mr. Heymans explained as he reminisced with a big smile. He had two children who were also running the 20Km race. “She expected that [running would help] stop over-excitation which she did not like.”

Surely, at the age of 61 Mr Heymans didn’t just wake up one day and run 20km. I dug deeper and came to the truth: “Well,” Mr Heymans conceded, “I ran 10km in 1988, but not knowing there were special shoes or anything like that. I wore my regular clothes and shoes.” He recalled that the first three kilometers were the toughest. After the three kilometers, all sensation of being tired left his body. The only problem that day was the heat combined with the clothes he was wearing made for a very challenging experience.

Joseph Heymans and the runners of Les projets d’Eléonore at the 2018 20km of Brussels race

Joseph Heymans and the runners of Les projets d’Eléonore at the 2018 20km of Brussels race

In 1991, his wife passed away, but Mr. Heymans kept running. He has run the 20km of Brussels 25 times, and has also run several marathons, including those of Marathons of Brussels and London.

Mr. Heymans admits that his pace at age 91 has slowed, but that doesn’t stop him from getting out week after week, and race after race. “My goal for the 20km is under 4 hours,” he says, though he clocked 3 hours and 22 minutes last year. His tone was optimistic and hopeful. ‘’This year I will try again. Trying does not mean that you know before that you will succeed.’’

His fastest time for the 20km race is one that most amateur runners would be jealous of: 1 hour, 44 minutes, and 39 seconds in 1991 – at age 63. His top marathon time, 4 hours and 3 minutes – also ran in his sixties.

Joseph Heymans and Irini Panagopoulou

Joseph Heymans and Irini Panagopoulou

The toughest race Mr. Heymans remembers ever running is the 31km race of Sierre-Zinal, in Switzerland, with an over 2000m elevation gain. His most memorable, the Nike Space Run back in 1996. Mr. Heymans holds the fond memory because it passed by the Belgian Museum and the Space station. At the time he worked in the space industry.

I wondered about running at an older age and Mr. Heymans explained, as he fidgeted with his black running watch with orange highlights, that ‘’As you get older, you get slower. The way you run when you are my age is not really running, it is accelerated walking continuously”.

Mr. Heymans told us that a low week, training includes two runs, and a regular week three or more runs. He enjoys to run alone, although in the past he has trained with other friends while preparing for various races. He does not follow any special training, he just likes to run in the woods, around Forêt de Soignes.

Mr Heymans holds a post-it note with all the times of his 20km of Brussels races

Mr Heymans holds a post-it note with all the times of his 20km of Brussels races

His advice to runners who are participating for the first time in the 20km in Brussels is that they should go progressively, working up to run the race to their abilities. As regards the final frightening uphill that scars the runners of the race year after year, Mr. Heymans says that he reduces his pace a little bit, but not much. He just keeps going.

In recent years, Mr. Heymans has chosen to run at the 20km de Brussels for a cause that is close to his heart ‘Les Projets d’Eléonore’ a charity which fundraises for sick children.

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