Buddy system encourages this group of Lawrence women to stay active in their 70s

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Rain falls as five friends shuffle into J & S Coffee one by one. After morning greetings, a few low grumbles commence. The earth needs the rain, but lightning shuts down swimming pools — even the indoor kind. Wet pavement isn’t ideal for running and biking, either.

But first, coffee.

“Each group that I belong to includes coffee afterwards or lunch,” says Twyla Dubois, gripping her cup.

Earlier this summer, Dubois celebrated her 70th birthday by completing an Olympic course triathlon. She swam nearly a mile, biked 27 miles and finished with a 6-mile run. She competed in a shorter triathlon last week at Kill Creek Park in Olathe. Goals help keep her motivated.

Marty Dubois / Contributed Twyla Dubois edged out one other competitor in the 70-74 age group to finish the Kill Creek Park Triathlon in first place on Aug. 12, 2023.

Dubois’ friends praise her for her commitment to the sport.

“I did my last triathlon at 60,” says Joanie Starks. “My biggest issue was, I wasn’t gonna invest in the equipment. I mean, I had to borrow bikes from my dad.”

Dubois credits local exercise opportunities such as Red Dog’s Dog Days, Ad Astra Running and Lawrence Bicycle Club for helping her connect with these women and other like-minded buddies. Dubois also takes advantage of facilities at the Sports Pavilion Lawrence, which Douglas County residents can access for free.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Pounding the pavement at Free State High School’s track are Dee Boeck, Ellen Young, Joanie Starks and Twyla Dubois.

Dee Boeck, 74, sits next to Dubois. Dubois recalls how their friendship began: “I just watched her finish a lot of races from behind. I ended up introducing myself to her because she’s just really good.”

Boeck grew up in Amboy, Minnesota. Her class of 27 graduated high school in 1967 — five years before Title IX would legally grant girls and women equal access to competitive sports. Boeck participated in volleyball and swimming — but only after school.

“There were absolutely no girls sports and at the time I just had two sisters, so it didn’t really occur to me or bother me, I guess,” Boeck says. “I just thought, ‘That’s the way it is.’”

Boeck’s bicycle served as her main mode of transportation at the University of Minnesota. She joined the bike club and pedaled through Washington state and the Canadian Rockies during an era when bicycles were much heavier and clunkier.

During the 1970s, she met her future husband, Gene Wee, at bicycling club in Lawrence.

“Right when we got married, we took a couple of long-distance bicycle trips,” Boeck says. “We rode to Montreal, Canada. We did like a thousand miles. We rode 100 miles a day.”

The couple also went on to launch the nonprofit running group runLawrence and the annual Thanksgiving Day 5K in North Lawrence. 

Running with others works best for Boeck’s lifestyle, which still includes a part-time job. Each group offers Boeck a unique mix of friends, genders, scenery and challenges — like the choice between a track or a hill workout.

“I know somebody’s there waiting for me,” Boeck says of her motivation to run three days a week. “They’re gonna be going and they’re gonna ask me why I wasn’t there. That gets me there.”

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Twyla Dubois, Joanie Starks, Ellen Young and Dee Boeck round the corner at the Free State High School track on Aug. 15, 2023.

Ellen Young, 70, also has formed many friendships as a running group participant and run organizer. She launched Lawrence’s noncompetitive women’s running group Running for the Hill of It more than a decade ago. Young graduated from Topeka West High School in 1971 and remembers cheerleading, drill team and synchronized swimming as the only athletic options for her at school. Hazing, she says, was common practice.

“Wearing funny things to school, clothing,” Young says of her experience as a swimmer. “You always had to have a bag of candy because you had to give seniors candy.”

As the friends reminisce, they scoff as Boeck recounts the warning issued when running evolved into a popular sport during the 1970s.

“I remember when women first started running, one reason that was given why women should not run — ‘Oh, your uteruses will fall out!’” Boeck exclaims.

Dubois remembers how fear and misinformation also hit home at Pretty Prairie in central Kansas.

“In fact, the high school did not have any girls athletics by the time I got there, but they had had them years ago,” says Dubois. “And this was the idea — that it was not good for reproductive organs in females.”

These women say that hasn’t been their experience, although studies have shown vigorous exercise can contribute to the weakening of the pelvic floor in some people.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Joanie Starks and Twyla Dubois take a break from lap swimming at the Lawrence Indoor Aquatic Center.

Starks, who’ll soon turn 71, no longer competes as a triathlete, but she remains active. She’s a townie who attended Lawrence High School. During Sports Show competition, Starks explains, LHS girls were assigned to one of two teams — Red or Black —  and they competed in an assigned sport such as volleyball, relays, swimming, gymnastics or broom hockey, beginning their sophomore year.

Starks describes the Sports Show as “very competitive” with an air of fascination among spectators. Fire codes were broken, she says.

“People were sitting in the stairwell because no one knew women could do sports,” Starks says. “People were just like, ‘What? These women are amazing,’ and it was because we had such desire to do it that we didn’t hold back.”

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Joanie Starks and Twyla Dubois swim laps at Lawrence’s Indoor Aquatic Center on Aug. 15, 2023.

After Starks graduated from LHS in 1970, she attended the University of Kansas. Starks qualified for the national gymnastics championships three years in a row before injuries forced her switch to swimming and diving. She remembers a KU gymnastics program so financially starved the team’s balance beam could only be described as “rickety” by the time it was finally replaced by a donor.

Starks went on to teach physical education at both Lawrence public high schools and coached swimming and gymnastics at LHS.

“I always told my students I wouldn’t ask them to do something I wouldn’t do,” Starks says. “So when I said, ‘We’re gonna build up to a 5K,’ and these girls looked at me like, ‘Excuse me?’ So, I did it with them.”

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Twyla Dubois and Debbie Miller pedal the Lawrence Loop on the south side of Lawrence.

Debbie Miller, 72, adores water aerobics and bicycling. She grew up in Emporia, where she says the only extracurriculars for girls were cheerleading and debate.

“I would have loved to have played volleyball, soccer, softball,” Miller says.

“I started working out when I was 29 because I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m getting old,’ and I never quit,” Miller laughs.

A spinal fusion put an end to 17 years of Iyengar yoga practice, but Miller adapted.

“I’m at the gym four times a week,” she says. “I still love to pump some iron.”

Miller’s personal experiences, coupled with a 42-year nursing career, taught her this lesson: “Lethargy produces lethargy. Energy produces energy.”

Seniors need socialization to ward off loneliness anyway, Miller says.

Exercising with friends gives people a reason to get out of the recliner and leave the house. Studies show sleep, a good diet and regular exercise can improve one’s health and quality of life.

“I’m not tired, but at bedtime, I’m very sleepy and sleep like a baby,” Miller says.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Twyla Dubois and Debbie Miller join friends from the Lawrence Bike Club for a Retro ride on Aug. 15, 2023.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Twyla Dubois and Debbie Miller pedal the Lawrence Loop together on the south side of Lawrence.
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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

Molly Adams (she/her), photojournalist and news operations coordinator for The Lawrence Times, can be reached at molly (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Check out more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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