Irene Gonzales did her milestone 50th birthday so big she landed on NBC’s “Today” show Aug. 8 to share her infectious enthusiasm with the entire country.
Like many baby boomers looking to do something extraordinary to mark the big 5-0, Gonzales, the principal at Spokane’s Franklin Elementary, decided to run a marathon on her actual birthday. But unlike most, she was joined by 50 friends she rounded up by starting a fitness Facebook page called Fit Fifty.
“I was feeling not very fit and complaining about it with a girlfriend on Facebook,” Gonzales said. “She said, ‘Well Irene, you have to make a decision. Are you going to be a fit 50 or a fat 50?’ ”
After a lifetime of struggling with weight, she picked fit. It was a slow journey that began with a Couch to 5K program that starts with 60 seconds of jogging and 90 seconds of walking for a total of 20 minutes. She trained for a year and a half. On the day of her 50th birthday, May 27, 2012, she crossed the 26.2-mile finish line of the Coeur d’Alene Marathon with her two daughters cheering her on with flowers and a Happy Birthday banner.
Twenty-five of her Fit Fifty friends finished the full marathon and 20 finished the half marathon while five completed the 5K.
“Oh we had a big party here afterward,” Gonzales said.
Then she was on to planning for her 51st birthday: the San Diego Triathlon. But first, she had to learn to swim, spending many hours at Bear Lake.
For her 52nd birthday this May, Gonzales and a friend finished the local Lilac Century Ride, a 100-mile bike ride.
Today Fit Fifty has 284 members, a tight-knit group where people post their fitness accomplishments and disappointments. It’s a place to find encouragement and support. Gonzales monitors the site closely and accepts only people who are serious about trying to get fit regardless of fitness level or age.
This summer Gonzales saw a Facebook post on the “Today” page, asking people how they celebrated their 50th birthday. It’s a big topic this year as the youngest of the baby boom generation, those born in 1964, are turning 50, including popular “Today” host Hoda Kotb.
Gonzales shared her story and soon got a message from a producer. Unfortunately she was in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, weathering a severe tropical storm. Finally the pair connected and a television crew was in her home two days after returning from Mexico.
Gonzales’ fitness story was highlighted along with two other women in their 50s: a single mother of five who got her bachelor’s degree and then attended law school while working as a waitress, and a woman who wrote an article that when viral after her boyfriend refused to get intimate because her body was “too wrinkly.”
“If you ever, ever needed motivation to get off the couch and try to change something in your life, these three women are amazing,” Kotb said after watching the segment with the other hosts.
The advice Gonzales gave to the world: “You’re never too old to set goals and go after them.”
Her peers on Fit Fifty confirm that Gonzales lives what she preaches.
“Irene has a contagious inspirational personality,” wrote Mary Buroker, a Walla Walla High School classmate who joined her for the Coeur d’Alene Marathon. “So positive and encouraging to always do better and to always try to do better.”
After the birthday marathon, Gonzales encouraged Buroker and another friend to run the Winthrop marathon two weeks later, becoming Marathon Maniacs.
Kay Mueller is another high school friend who ran the birthday marathon with Gonzales. Two months after the race, she treated herself to a birthday health check, including a pap smear, breast exam and colonoscopy that found stage 3 colorectal cancer. Two years later, she’s cancer free.
“Irene was my long-distance cheerleader and motivated me in so many, many ways to stay positive and keep exercising,” wrote Mueller, who lives in San Diego.
Gonzales still fights her weight and has had her share of injuries and physical therapy but she’s fit and healthy and loves her job as a cheerleader. Her therapists tell her to keep going.
Her advice to other people wanting to change their lives as they age: Have a bucket list and take care of yourself. Now. Not tomorrow.