Olympian and top marathon runner Ron Hill reveals dementia diagnosis

79-year-old marathon icon Ron Hill has vowed not to let dementia get him down, as he faces the “biggest challenge of [his] life” living with his dementia diagnosis. With the same determination he used to break the 2.10.00 marathon time at the Commonwealth Games in 1970, Hill has vowed to use his status and his vast reserves of energy to inspire others living with dementia.

One of the world’s top marathon runners, Hill famously ran at least one mile every day for 52 years, clocking up more than 160,000 miles until a heart problem forced him to stop in 2016.

According to the latest figures from Alzheimer’s Society, there are currently 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK – set to rise to 1 million by 2021.

“Dementia is the biggest challenge of my life but it isn’t the end of the road by any stretch of the imagination.” Hill said. “I can’t be ashamed of it because I haven’t done anything to deserve it. No one does. It’s there and I can’t rub it better or run it off like a minor niggle – or get better with rest of physiotherapy like I would with a running injury.

“It won’t stop me in my tracks, so to speak. I don’t wake up feeling sad or anything like that. I sleep like a baby. So I’ll cheerfully carry on keeping active and, hopefully, this will give other people the impression that dementia is nothing to be frightened by and that there shouldn’t be any stigma attached to it.”

Ron lives in Hyde, Greater Manchester, with his wife May. He said it was his eldest son, Steven, who suspected his dad was developing short-term memory problems, uncharacteristically leaving his keys in the door, or being unable to make decisions. A symptom of dementia, Hill went to his GP for a memory test alongside Steven:

“I was effectively diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia or whatever you want to call it, with a short-lived test.” Hill said, as he now waits for a formal diagnosis. “I had to read an address and then when I was asked to repeat it I had no idea – it all just went away. That’s when the penny dropped.

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“It’s got to the point where my short-term memories quickly vanish, and I have to ask my wife what day of the week it is when I wake up in the morning. But I’m not daunted and I’m not embarrassed to say that I’ve got a problem.

“I’m lucky that I’ve got a lovely family and great friends and fortunately I can still vividly recall the days when I was in my running pomp and those memories always bring a smile to my face.”

The memories Hill recalls are representing Great Britain at three Olympic Games, being the first Briton to win the Boston Marathon and winning gold at the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, with a then record-breaking time of 2 hours, 9 minutes and 28 seconds.

Hill, a textile chemist, went on to create his own clothing brands. Convinced of the benefits of synthetic materials for runners, Hill started designing the clothes he wanted to run in. In an interview in 2015, Hill explained some of his earliest designs: “We designed some shorts called Freedom Shorts that were split up the side. These came about because I was running for Lancashire in the Inter Counties Cross Country Championships and I couldn’t life my legs fully in the shorts I had. So I ripped them up the sides at the seams and suddenly I had this freedom.” 

When talking about his recent diagnosis, Hill added: “I don’t seem to remember anything short-term, but I’ve got a feast of memories I can still get to and they can make me feel better. I remember enough about my running career to be able to talk logically about that. I will cope with dementia to the very best of my ability and I’ve been reading up of what I need to do.

“Whatever happens, it won’t get me down and it won’t stop me from being happy or living life to the full and it won’t stop me getting out and about or going away on holiday. It’s a blow but I’m handling it fine already. I certainly won’t start feeling sorry for myself. What’s the point? That would get me absolutely nowhere.

“But if I say I have developed dementia and I’m happy with it then hopefully other people will take my lead and realise it’s not a death sentence after all.”

Ron’s wife of 56 years, May, added: “It’s just so sad because Ron’s as fit as a fiddle and he’s the last person you would expect to develop dementia. It just shows that dementia doesn’t care who you are – but it won’t stop us being happy and I know we’ll deal with whatever it throws at us, together as a team with family and friends.”

Ron is urging runners of all ages and abilities to sign up to run next year’s London Marathon for Dementia Revolution – a year-long campaign delivered by Alzheimer’s Research and Alzheimer’s Society. The aim of the campaign is to raise awareness of dementia and fund the ground-breaking research the disease needs.

Jeremy Hughes, Chief Executive at Alzheimer’s Society said: “Ron is a true icon who has inspired tens of thousands of runners to push themselves and go the extra mile and I am sure that his grit, determination and fearless approach will now inspire people who are affected by dementia.

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“Dementia is the biggest health challenge facing society and no one should have to face it alone. But Ron is showing that people with dementia can be empowered to live a life they love after a diagnosis with the support of family, friends and people across our communities uniting against dementia.”