The Thrill of Triathlons After 50

Posted: March 31, 2014 by kirisyko in SykOtic, Triathlon
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At the Nautica Malibu Triathlon, women head into the water. Daniel M. Bethencourt, MD

Here’s one really big advantage in being over 50: If you suddenly decide to do a triathlon, a race that includes a swim, bike ride and run, the number of competitors in your age group is likely to be relatively small.And take it from me—at age 58—if you’re feeling somewhat adrift or have experienced a series of disappointments, entering a triathlon can lead to instant glory. Well, almost instant glory. It does take some effort. And naturally, there are risks.

Last May, shortly after two of my freelance stories had been rejected, I saw a sign at my gym in Palos Verdes, Calif., for the Nautica Malibu Triathlon on Sept. 8. “Try out for the Equinox Team!” the sign urged. (Equinox, my gym and a sponsor of the Malibu competition, had 75 slots for the race.)

Why not? I thought. I had done this triathlon a few times in my early 40s, once finishing 20th in my age group. It’s a relatively short race, with a half-mile swim, an 18-mile bike ride and a 4-mile run. I remember my husband and two small children beaming with pride as I raced out of the ocean.

But that was 14 years ago. Since then, a knee injury led me to give up running. I stopped cycling after two friends had bad accidents. And I dropped ocean swimming, being terrified of sharks and jellyfish—not to mention cold water and strong waves.

My workouts had shifted to gentle yoga, Pilates and the occasional spin class. I wasn’t exactly in shape.

Still, I tried out for the team, feeling more breathless than optimistic after the test, a mini indoor triathlon (a 500-yard swim in a pool, a 10-mile ride on a stationary bike, and a 3.1-mile run on a treadmill). A few weeks later, a congratulatory email arrived, saying I had secured one of the “coveted” spots on the Equinox team. Dana Staggs, our new complimentary team trainer, also emailed to introduce himself.

The author during the cycling portion of the Malibu Triathlon. Daniel M. Bethencourt, MD

That seemed too good to pass up. I could always drop out later. So I signed up, and in doing so became part of a growing trend. The number of participants in triathlons more than doubled from 2007 to 2012, reaching 1.8 million, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.

As I began training, I discovered two distinct groups. First there are the amazingly good-looking, driven, fit, athletic types who already own a massive amount of sophisticated and expensive gear. And then there are the rest of us: Those who are terrified of ocean swimming, don’t even own a bike and openly admit they can’t really run.

This all produces some drama along with great camaraderie. My first several ocean swims in my new wetsuit did not go smoothly. “Kathleen, are you OK? Are you OK?” asked my teammate Niecia Staggs (Dana’s sister, who is also a swim coach). I had finally managed to get past a punishing set of waves. I wear glasses and could barely even see the waves in goggles. Not only that, my goggles kept fogging up. I was having trouble breathing.

“Did you see that baby shark?” asked another teammate.

Soon afterward, an 18-foot great white shark made local headlines when it chomped a sea lion in half—right next to our practice area. I quickly ordered a pair of prescription goggles and several bottles of defogging spray.

The bike and running practices were somewhat easier, but not without incident. We were training on the treadmill when Dana yelled, “Empty the tank!” I immediately accelerated my pace—and felt a sharp pain in the butt, followed by lasting discomfort in one leg. It was a hamstring strain, according to the orthopedic surgeon and physical therapist I visited a short time later.

The doctors advised me to ease up, but they didn’t tell me to quit. So I signed up for more races, hoping to get over my fear of the waves. The first was a 2-mile pier-to-pier ocean swim starting in Hermosa Beach, Calif. on Aug. 4. It, too, required a short tryout. “Was that you in the back?” the lifeguard asked as I staggered onto the beach. I nodded. “Good stroke but slow,” he said, shaking his head but signing me up.

I swam that race but stopped halfway, looking for a lifeguard on a paddleboard who could pull me out. I felt nauseated. But raising my arm for a rescue seemed too embarrassing, and I plodded ahead, finishing in 1:30:42, good for 29th place out of 39 women over 50 wearing wetsuits.

The Pull of the Podium

I also signed up for the Santa Barbara Triathlon in late August, entering the women-only sprint. That meant 500 yards in the ocean, 6 miles on the bike and a 2-mile run. I checked into the hotel and hired a trainer for one hour to show me the bike course. “This is where three of us crashed last year,” he warned as we approached a curve.

The author nurses her injured hamstring home during the run. Daniel M. Bethencourt, MD

My race went smoothly, despite my hamstring injury and fear of death on the bike ride. But I was shocked to discover that with a time of 1:05:16, I placed third out of 14 women in my age group. I was called to the podium and handed a third-place plaque—marking the start of my current addiction.

I was starting to look a bit fitter in my new one-piece black and pink triathlon suit, and I looked up the number of women in my age group in the Malibu triathlon a year earlier. Only 12! The first five are awarded medals. How hard could it be to beat just seven?

On race day, my group, women over 45 in light pink caps, started at 8:30 a.m. “Thirty seconds,” the announcer warned. “Fifteen seconds.” Then came that awful starting sound, a cross between a foghorn and a gun. My heart was pounding as other swimmers began kicking me in the face and grabbing at my feet, presumably by accident.

By the time I reached the sand, I was disoriented. Transition areas can be comical as first-timers try to get out of their wetsuits quickly, often becoming hopelessly stuck. I got onto my bike without incident, though, and the ride went smoothly, followed by the run, a struggle with my hamstring injury. The man running in front of me was apparently age 91. (Competitors have their age written in black magic marker on their calf.) I felt compelled to pass him. “Are you really 91?” asked a runner behind me. “Yes, I am,” he said cheerfully.

I finished fourth out of 14 in my age division, with a time of 2:15:30, only a minute and a half slower than my best time in my 40s and 1,104th overall. I was still standing on the podium beaming at my husband’s camera when I realized the other four medalists had already stepped down.

Now hooked, I have signed up for the national competition in Milwaukee in August. I looked up the 91-year-old, who finished first in his age group. Yes, he was the only one in it, but still, he was first. If I’m very lucky, I’ll get to that division eventually.

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  1. betunada says:

    it’s easy for me to sympathize/understand: 30-some years ago i was ‘decent’ in tri’s (especially when i found a short-swim one) — but it’s been a while. my wife suggested she swim and i do the bike and run in our town’s “short” tri last year. now, if we were ONE person, we would have been 3rd over-55, and 2nd over-60. alas, no age-group categories in the team portion …

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