The Old Fat Triathlete

author : Orforded
comments : 16

At 63 years old and 50 lbs overweight I decide to do a triathlon.

Last August I turned 63. At 6' tall I was over 245 lb. I had always been somewhat athletic (a scholarship football player in college) but certainly never anything close to an elite athlete. As I got older I was able to hold my own in the local touch football league, and during the first running craze in the '70's when Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers were shredding marathon records I even started jogging. My plan was to train up to run a marathon.  I was in my early 30's. I never got there. The longest race for me was a 12 miler. It didn't help that I drank and smoked like a fiend back then. For years off and on I would make some half-attempts to get back in shape. Then when I was about 55 I took up golf and became obsessed with the game. I did this for about eight years and got my handicap down from a thirty-something to a respectable 14, but more and more golf was frustrating, and less and less fun. I would walk and carry my clubs, so I thought I was getting good exercise but my weight stayed between 245 and 255 lbs. It didn't help that I was eating a quart of ice cream every night, but at least I had stopped drinking and smoking.
So now I turn 63 and I'm feeling lethargic and cranky. Golf's no longer doing it for me, so I decide to start getting some other exercise. The first day of the new regime, I ran a mile and it took about 15 minutes. I took out my old bike and with 10 years of cobwebs - it wasn't working to well. Only one gear worked and it kept getting flats, but it was a start.

We were scheduled to go to the New Jersey beach for vacation later that month and while searching the internet looking for things to do at the beach I came across a notice for a "Super Sprint Triathlon". This was to take place on September 12th at Seaside Heights NJ.  I had heard of triathlon before, but my memory bank only associated the word with people in despair crawling across finish lines. But this one was different. It was only a 200 yd ocean swim, 7 mile bike ride and 2 mile run. Despite my lack of conditioning and the idea that age 63 might not be ideal for starting a new endurance sport venture, something in me said, "this just might just be doable." I had about one month to train.

Before leaving for vacation I upped the running little by little and got to where I could do two miles at a little over 13 minutes a mile. The bike was another story. I live in the White Mountains in New Hampshire at the top of a long hill (about a three miles up) so every ride finished with a long uphill. I simply couldn’t get all the way up that damn hill on the bike and had to walk it up the steeps. It didn't help that I could only use the front middle sprocket.  But I figured the Jersey shore was flat so it would be easier. The swimming I tried to do at a pond by my home. Even though I was a strong swimmer when I was younger (high school swimming team one year, mile swim in Boy Scouts, etc.) I couldn't swim 50 yds without sucking wind. But I figured being at the beach I could practice every day. And besides, Jersey Multisport who was putting on the triathlon was having an open water swim clinic two weeks before the race and I could figure it out then.

So now, I'm on vacation and I practice running on the boardwalk and riding the bike in the middle sprocket on the flat Jersey beach roads. I go to the swim clinic.  The good news is that I wasn't the weakest swimmer there. The bad news is I almost drowned. The last exercise of the day had the group leader swim out past the breakers and we were to swim out to him and "hang out." Well I got through the breakers but it took a lot out of me and by the time I got out to the group I was spent. It didn't help that I was the only one without a wetsuit. So now I figure I better get back to shore ASAP when the biggest set of breakers of the day with accompanying undertow decides to make an appearance. I get tossed around a bit and have no idea which way is up - which is troublesome when you’re completely out of breath. So now I'm saying to the group leader who comes out to help, "yeah, I'm ok, just a little embarrassed." He says, "You better get a wetsuit.”

$300 later I have a wetsuit. Being a bit of a penny pincher I say to myself that now my sport is triathlon because I'll be damned if I'm spending $300 to use this thing just once. So every morning before the lifeguards and any people get on the beach I was practicing swimming up and down the beach in my new wetsuit which essentially made me feel like a rubber sausage.  A couple of days before the event I finally did 200 yards without stopping. The running and biking was ok.  With my one speed I was averaging about 14 mph on the flats and I had run two miles a couple times at about 13 mph. For the whole vacation I was now obsessed with finding out more about triathlons. I bought a book on how to swim. So during the day I'm on the beach reading the book, jumping in to do swimming drills and at night on the internet reading everything I can find about triathlons.

My goals were to not finish last, to not have to stop and to finish in less then an hour twenty minutes. This last goal was arbitrary because I had no idea how long the transitions would take. I figured 14 mph on the bike and 13 minute miles running and even if swimming took 10 minutes I should still be ok.

Race day comes and I'm way more nervous than I thought I would be. First, there's a lot of stuff to remember. Second, I had to get up at about 3:30 in the morning to get there about 5:00. Third, I wasn't sure what or whether to eat, etc., etc.  But when we arrived at the starting place it was very cool. It was still dark and there were all these very fit people milling around, most about half my age, but nevertheless I felt like I was part of something very athletic. Everybody was friendly and enthusiastic and there was a definite sense of excitement in the air. The sun started to come up and everybody heads to the beach after setting up their transitions.

The race is an in-water start. I know my swimming sucks and I read somewhere to stay away from the pack, so I did. I waited until everyone got started and then I began. I guess I was doing better than I expected because I caught up to and swam into the crowd. Now I'm getting kicked and pushed - not bad, but enough to throw me off my stride, then off my rhythm, and then when that happened my breathing went to hell and I quickly got spent, so now I'm sucking wind with about 100 yards to go. I decide to put my head down and gut it out. Not a good idea. I get about 20 yards and my lungs are bursting. I go on my back and suck wind until I get a semblance of breath back. I lunge toward the shore and stagger out of the water. I decide I don't care how long the transition takes, I need to go slow and gather myself. I get out of the wetsuit, which I now hate even though it probably saved my life and into my bike stuff and off I go.

I force myself to stay back even when people are passing me but I'm peddling pretty good. Then I look down and I'm only doing about 10-12 mph. I hadn't counted on the headwind. But I figure it is what it is and I have to save something for the run. The ride was an out and back so I made up some time when the wind was at my back.

I finish the bike feeling ok. I read somewhere that at the start of the run your legs can be wobbly so I figure I will start real slow and if I have to walk, so be it. But it was ok and I was running my pace. Turtle-like as it was, it was still my pace and I was feeling pretty good. I even passed a few people. During the second mile I felt I had some reserve so I picked up my pace a little. When I finally saw the big yellow finish arcade up ahead it was almost surreal. I was about to finish a triathlon, under my own power and standing up! Holy Cow! I managed to even muster up a short sprint for the finish and there I was getting a medal around my neck.

I never anticipated the feeling of accomplishment and elation I felt at that moment. Earlier in the summer I won my flight in a golf tournament and the feeling of achievement I got then was nothing compared to rush of elation I felt at that finish line. Everything about this event was terrific. The aesthetic of the sun rising on the ocean, the camaraderie, the enthusiasm of the support people and spectators, the good cheer, the fun atmosphere and maybe most important was the absence of any sense of elitism or superiority from the more accomplished athletes. For the rest of the day I was on cloud nine. It seems like those endorphins just stayed and stayed. As for my goals - I finished in an hour and seven minutes, I didn't have to stop and...guess what? I finished first in my age group, meaning I beat out two other old guys!

About a week before the event I was in a shop looking for a pair of goggles. I asked the women next to me if she knew anything about how to pick a good pair. We started to talk and I told her I was doing my first triathlon. Turns out she was a triathlete. She smiled and said, "Wait until you cross the finish line. You'll be hooked." She was right.  Now I'm back in New Hampshire and I'm working with a group and a coach. Funny thing is that the group and the coach are all women. That's ok with me because they are triathletes, so I know I'm in good company. I can't wait until the Spring. King Pine Triathlon, May 22nd, West Ossipee NH, here I come. But then there’s one in Florida in April, hmmmm.

P.S. I almost forgot to address the age and weight issue. Since the triathlon I’ve lost more than 10 lbs and feel better than I have in years. I realize its not about the race but the day-to-day training and conditioning, the evolution of healthy eating habits and whether biking, running or swimming just staying in the moment. My body is my body it has its own unique attributes and drawbacks. When I’m out on a run and I’m deciding whether to kick it up a little, age is irrelevant.  I also believe that multisport training is good for folks my age because it reduces the chance of injury in that if I was training this hard every day I one sport (especially running) I would be sure to overuse a muscle and sustain injury. Bottom line, I am getting into triathlon at just the right age and weight. I wish the best to you all!

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date: March 31, 2015

Orforded