She is 105 and running the 100 meters

HAMMOND, La. - No human has run 100 meters faster than Usain Bolt's lightning streak in 2009. He was 22.

But what will Bolt's time be when he's 105?

At the Louisiana Senior Games on Nov. 6, 105-year-old Julia Hawkins of Baton Rouge became the oldest woman to run the 100 meters in official competition. Clocking in at 1 minute 3 seconds, she was the only competitor in the race for people 105 and older.

"I got a big kick out of it," the retired schoolteacher said in a video interview. The race also qualified her for next year's National Senior Games. "It was a cold, windy day, but it was worth it."

By chance, this year's Games occurred in Hammond, La., not 10 miles from Ponchatoula, where Hawkins grew up and worked as a teacher. That meant many friends and former students could attend to watch her achievement. "I had children that I taught through three different schools there on Saturday," Hawkins said, adding that some of those children are now in their 90s.

Hawkins's record followed a previous breakthrough performance in 2019, when she won gold medals in Albuquerque in both the 50-meter and 100-meter dashes at age 103. The super-ager offered a glimpse into how she's achieved health, wellness and athletic longevity.

--The right food and exercise

Hawkins is a lifelong exerciser. Before picking up sprinting at age 100, she competed as a cyclist for many years. Steep hills, which had become too difficult for her to navigate, and her deteriorating eyesight eventually ended her cycling days. But she could still run. With track events canceled the past two years because of the pandemic, Hawkins stayed fit by walking daily and running indoors. She's avoided running outside since she tripped over a magnolia cone. Increasingly as you get older, she said, "you have to be careful where you walk and where you run."

And while some centenarians claim habits such as a daily cigarette or afternoon martini, Hawkins isn't one of them. Asked about guilty pleasures, Hawkins only mentioned iced coffee and hot tea - both of which are, in fact, healthy in moderation. "I'm careful about what I eat," she said. "I sleep well. I don't smoke or drink. I do all the right things."

--Loving relationships

Hawkins has had many close relationships, most notably her husband of 70 years, Murray, who passed away eight years ago at the age of 95. Harvard researchers found that loving relationships were the most important factor for enjoying a long, healthy life among people they studied for eight decades.

Hawkins met Murray on the first day of college. "I knew he was the one," she said. "I went home that first night and wrote about him in my diary." They had four children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. "It's been wondrous," she told me. Her social bonds go beyond family. Before the pandemic, she had lunch with friends on most days.

--Books to stimulate the mind

Studies show that cognitive activity keeps the mind sharp, and Hawkins has been obsessed with books through her life. "I've read thousands of books," she said. "I read all the mystery books."

One activity that cemented Hawkins's bond with Murray was reading out loud to each other. "We loved doing it. It changed our lives." They didn't have a television, preferring to raise a family of readers. "We did things a little different with our children." As her vision worsened with age, Murray read while she listened. "That made such a difference," Hawkins said.

Since her husband passed, Hawkins has opted for listening to audiobooks. She believes in the connection between mind and body; her athletic longevity has resulted partly from keeping up her habits for mental stimulation.

--Passions, plural

"Magic moments and having passions are extremely important for older people," Hawkins said. "It keeps their interests aloft."

She particularly enjoyed fishing with Murray ("I'm a good paddler, and I paddled him for fishing whenever he wanted to go") and caring for her bonsai trees. Hawkins has been obsessed with growing them since she was about 50. "They're like having children," she said. The trees are spread out over an acre of land, and watering them regularly became a form of cross-training, helping her stay healthy and fit for athletic competitions.

Hawkins's bonsai passion could explain why she sleeps so well, which may be key to brain health; taking in greenery and natural light improves sleep by increasing melatonin and reducing stress. Her penchant for gardening earned her the nickname "flower lady." She wore a flower over her right ear for this interview.

But the activity she's most excited about these days is centenarian sprinting. Del Moon, the communications and media director for the National Senior Games, called Hawkins's race on Saturday "a singular achievement." It's also part of a broader bloom of older athletes thriving, he said. "There are more active people all around us. We see them coming up in their 90s. The wave is building." Hawkins now has an over-100 rival - Diane "Flash" Friedman, a 103-year-old upstart from Cleveland.

Hawkins wants to beat her own time. "On another day, I think it would've been faster." She'll have a chance in May at the biennial National Senior Games in Fort Lauderdale. "If I can, I'd like to go. You can't count on much at 105. One day at a time."

"Sometimes I wonder why I'm left out here at 105," she said. "I miss my husband so much. I keep thinking I'm ready to go where he is. The last great wonder of life is what happens afterwards, and I'm anxious to find out. But people keep telling me that I inspire them. I help them to stay healthy. That's the goal for my life. I'm staying alive to be an inspiration for a few people."