Carolina Conversations: Defying the Odds With Irene Russell

by Crissy Neville, Photography by: Morgan Masson

When looking for a woman redefining her age, one need look no further than Moore county local Irene Russell, the 72-year-old firecracker whose spunk, grit, and adventurous spirit tells much more about her than a birthday. Harkening the words of her mother who liked to call her “defiant,” Russell has, with and without intention, defied everything from birth order and injury, to social norms and age limits. 

The youngest child of Landon and Irene Hilliard of Virginia Beach, Virginia, Russell arrived in this world on September 18, 1946, as the apple of her daddy’s eye who wanted another baby after returning from World War II. Her mother, however, was not on board with the plan after having older children in the home already the ages of 8 and 10, who according to Russell, could “pour their own milk already.” Alas, the third and youngest Russell did arrive, “despite my mother’s wishes,” she said.

The relaxed Russell, along with her husband Mike, sat down with OutreachNC recently in her horse-country home in Vass to reflect on this theme of defiance in her life. She has defied the odds as an artist, horsewoman, marathon runner and more. We talked about the positive side of this descriptor of her personality and life.

Crissy Neville: You don’t like the reference to defiance, a word your mother used to describe you. What are some words you would use to describe yourself?

Irene Russell: Resilient, I guess; I have been through a lot. I am tough. And funny. Very funny. I don’t take life too seriously. Life is too short, and I say, if you don’t enjoy something, then don’t do it. I did hate that my mother said I was defiant, but I guess it is true. I do things my way.

CN: You spoke about being the last child in your family, and perhaps one your mother did not exactly want. How did this early start affect the person you are today? 

IR: My father adored me; he thought I was funny as he**. Now, my mother, she was something else. By the time I came along, though, there was not much discipline at home, and I had the gift of being the youngest child. My older brother and sister watched me a lot so I did whatever I wanted; I guess I still do. 

CN: And you are also an artist – a potter. Does your art reflect this same laissez-faire style? Tell me a little about your work. 

IR:  About my style, I don’t know but I like being able to be creative and say I made it myself. That is me; I like being unique. As far as my work, well, my pottery is both functional and decorative. I make things such as serving pieces, ornaments, and beer glasses. And lots of bowls – I am a bowl freak. Each piece is one of a kind; I don’t make sets. I have been making and selling pottery since 1970, all from my home studio. I don’t sell in a store because I don’t need to. 

CN: You are from Virginia, so what brought you to North Carolina and Southern Pines?

IR: I originally came to North Carolina for college.  But first, when I was 18 years old I ran off and got married. I was a bad child. I was supposed to go to graduate school, but when I found my husband with my best friend I decided to come to Southern Pines and lick my wounds. I was coming down to foxhunt and ride in shows anyway and was commuting back and forth from Raleigh. I met (my second husband) Mike on a blind date for the hunt ball in 1970.  We were married later that year and have been here ever since.

CN: Was it love at first sight? Tell me about your family and home.

IR: He** no, (laughing). But we both knew what we wanted and it was the horses. We were drawn together by our mutual interests – horses and fox hunting. But we have been married for 48 years. We have two perfect children and four grandchildren. Mike bought this farm in late 1972. We built the barn and lived above the barn for 20 years before building the house we are in now (just across the field). We were the first horse farm on Lake Bay Road and had a riding school for years. It was Mike’s business but I worked there too, mucking stalls and taking the juniors foxhunting. 

CN: Mike is one of the Masters of the Hunt for Moore County Hounds. Does that make you a First Lady of  the Hunt of sorts? 

IR: Oh no, I have my own life and do my own thing, though some wives of Masters in the past have been. It was a different time back then. Now I mostly follow most of the foxhunts on foot instead of horseback because I am on foot all the time anyway training for some race or another. I still ride; I have not completely stopped. I have often helped our Huntsman with hound puppies who need more individualized attention after birth. I make pots, volunteer, bake, garden, rescue dogs – a lot of different things.

CN: It was a horse ride that led to a serious injury you had. Can you tell me about that?

IR: I had a traumatic brain injury in 1998 after a horse fall that happened at a show I was practicing for. This woman, really a kid, on a pony ran right into me and the horse I borrowed that day, just as I was coming off a jump. I was hospitalized from June to August that year and I had to learn to walk and talk all over again. The original prognosis was for the worst. But in time, I fully recovered, got seven plates in my head, and bought that horse.

CD: To what do you attribute your recovery? 

IR: I was a nurse at Moore Regional then and was due to work the day of my injury. The hospital called my nurse manager, Evelyn Dimps-Williams, who was at church that Sunday morning. They stopped the church service right then and there and they prayed for me and I promise you that is what saved my life. That and the phenomenal doctor and nursing care I received from my nurse friends who took time off from their own shifts to help nurse me. I had a great nursing career for 25 years. 

CN: Your recovery from your accident lead you to find a new passion in your life, running, is that right? 

IR: Yes, it started with my friend Sue walking my a** around the front field of this house. My first race was in the year 2000, two years after the accident, at the age of 52. I also never wanted to be like so many of my patients, who were in poor shape and didn’t do anything.  My daughter Landon lived in Chicago then and I decided to run the Chicago Marathon that year, just after competing in a half-marathon in Raleigh the month before. That was the most fun I had ever had and I have been doing it ever since.

CN: How many races have you competed in now at age 72, twenty years later? Where have you raced?

IR: Well over 400 to 500 races, with about 200 of those being marathons. I have been in the Chicago marathon 19 times, but also the Boston and Marine Corps marathons, also many in Virginia and North Carolina, and of course Disney. Then there was the Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota and the Flying Pig in Cincinnati; that one I did five times. Some are 5Ks or 10Ks, half and full marathons, but I have also done 24-hour races and 50Ks, which are 31 miles. I walk, not run, fast, really fast, like a 14-minute mile in the races. The medals are fun, the people are fun and we talk and get to know each other. There’s a common thought: what’s said on the road, stays on the road. 

CN: Have you earned a lot of medals?

IR: Of course, I usually win my age division, mainly because there is no one else in my age division. I mean, come on, there’s not that many old broads
racing (laughing).

CN: Your achievements are inspiring!  Do you consider yourself an inspiration?

IR: More like a role model, I hope, that says, “Get up off your a** people and get moving.” I want to see people get up, get moving and get outside. I come from good genes; my mother lived into her 90s and I have an aunt who is 94, but anyone can do what I do. After a race, if my name is called I ask the announcer to say my name and age; I want women to hear that we can do things, even if we are aging.