Runners in Ecclesall Woods sometimes catch their breath as a famous 32 year old sprints past. “Was that Jess?” they whisper.
Some say they should watch out for a small grey haired woman too: 66 year old Dot Kesterton is still nailing international gold medals, after all.
“It was an incredibly proud moment” said Dot after winning a team gold and personal bronze at the recent British and Irish Masters Cross Country International in Swansea at her first ever outing for an England Masters running team. “But it was also slightly unbelievable.”
Not least because 51 years earlier, she decided to give up athletics for good, after a disqualification for being ‘paced’ after coming second in the whole of Birmingham in her first ever cross country race for her school.
“I didn’t even know what pacing was,” she said. “My friend who’d dropped out ran back to the school with me, and because she was running alongside me, I was accused of cheating, with my disqualification in the local newspaper.”
She vowed never to compete in an athletics race again. Until, that is, founder of the Smiley Paces running club Kate Morris buttonholed her in Ecclesall Junior School playground 41 years later and said: “Do you fancy running a 10K?”
Dot had played plenty of sports as a teenager, but never again competitively, after declaring that the athletics system of “men in hats strutting about in their blazers was unjust.”
Instead, she devoted her working life to enthusing children about sport as a PE teacher at Wisewood and then schools across Sheffield, and after taking early retirement, was preparing for a life of swimming, cycling and looking after her six grandchildren.
That is, until that playground conversation left her trying to keep up with a group of young mums running through the woods of the Porter Valley. After a few weeks, she said “I realised I had something in my legs” and was persuaded to run the 5K Race for Life into the old Don Valley Stadium.
“I came into the straight at the stadium and loved it, there were people screaming and clapping and I could even hear my name being called out by the women from the playground. I thought: ‘This’ll do!’”
She met trainer Stuart Hale of the Accelerate running shop, who saw her potential and set Dot up with a full training regime. “I was going on for 60 and there they were, treating me like a serious athlete,” she laughs.
Justifiably, it turned out. Dot started accruing trophies for her age group in 5K and 10k races, and then ran for the MIND charity at the London Marathon raising £2,500 and posting a time fast enough to get an automatic ‘good for age’ entry in future marathons.
Dot’s official age-graded run rankings are now regularly in the 90%+ category, which effectively means she’s racing at speeds comparable to the fastest 66 year old women in the world.
After winning her age group running for Steel City Striders at the recent Percy Pud, she observed that for the first time, there were more women than men taking part.
She reckons the 2012 Olympics changed attitudes to sporting activity, especially in the Outdoor City where she says the landscape and the supportive and inclusive attitude of most city clubs “encourages anybody from young mums to retired steelworkers.”
An early stage breast cancer diagnosis in 2014 made no difference to Dot’s attitude. “I’d run to Weston Park and back for my radiotherapy, and nobody turned a hair. In fact my nurse was delighted, because she said it would help my recovery.” Indeed, the gold medals and England team selections followed a few years later.
Several of her fellow runners in the recent international were past Olympians, and she reflected if she’d been encouraged as a 15 year old rather than humiliated in the local newspaper, “who knows what I could have achieved?”
But nevertheless, she’s looking forward to future England engagements.
“Running is now my career,” she says. “It’s what I do. Now there might be people in Sheffield who see this old woman jogging up and down, and say there’s no reason I shouldn’t do that too!”