Beginning Triathlons as an Older Woman

author : tesselate331
comments : 26

Doing triathlons will help you re-energize your optimism about life and feel 30 again. I promise!

At 53 I decided that I wanted to do a triathlon.  The reasons were several.  I had lost a brother to AIDS in 1986.  What does that have to do with triathlons, you ask?  Well, while standing in the station in Chicago, I saw an ad that said, "you train you win" posted by the AIDS foundation of Chicago.  Apparently, they would train me for the Chicago triathlon if I would fund-raise to help prevent AIDS.  I realized that two things on my bucket list could be crossed off in the process of doing this:

1. Finally acknowledging my gay brother's death from AIDS publicly and releasing a secret I had kept from my parents who were very ashamed of him.  I lived in a city 300 miles away and probably could do this without making them aware or humiliating them in public to their friends.  (I don't agree with their attitudes, but respected them all the same).

2. I could do a triathlon which I had always sort of wanted to do but never done much about. 

After meeting with and talking to the coaches, I decided to give this a try.  I was unsure of my probability of success from the very start.  In fact there was the emotional catharsis of releasing the fact of my brother's death which was very hard.  Also I had several relatives and others realize this truth for the first time that year as I requested their support for my fundraising and there on my fundraising page was Johnson's photo and the facts of his death.  These conversations were tough but also drew me closer to several cousins who had suspected but never said...secrets can create so much distance. 

I also had a lot of work to do.  I could not swim more than one pool length with freestyle.  I could do this with breaststroke but that won't get you far very easily in a triathlon.  I began to slowly build up my freestyle abilities.  I also had NEVER run.  I hated running.  In fact that first summer I ended up with shin splints and never did run.  I did the elliptical.  Finally, while I loved to bike, I had a 30 year old bike weighing close to 40 pounds.  It was a good bike for its time but truly an elephant.  I call her Blue.  I resisted buying a new bike for this effort as I was unsure whether I would continue after this first time. 

We trained from May to August.  During that time we did lots of swims in Lake Michigan.  Lots of outdoor running, several "mock tris" of short distances (I considered them torture and really long then), along with bike clinics, discussions on nutrition, gear meetings at our sponsoring gear store, visits with the physical therapist for problems - they thought of it all and gave us the benefit of a lot of support. 

There were very few my age or older and those were often men.  However there were three females in my age group and we bonded.  In fact I bonded with many that first year.  (I raised a lot of money too becoming one of the top fundraisers).  I have a lot of 30-something friends on Facebook these days.  They keep me young but they can also cause me to crash into despondency about being so far behind them all.

I was an athlete in high-school, college and beyond.  I have been a gymnast, ballerina, weight lifter, and champion at Tae Kwon Do at 23.  In fact I thought I might be on the Olympics track in TKD.  However a serious back injury, then pregnancy, change in career...all affected my ability to do much of anything.  None of these sports really prepares you for endurance sports either.  While I used weights and rode my bike, by the time I hit 53, I was fairly sedentary and out of shape and carrying more weight than I should.  I'm 5'9" and at my competition weight in TKD I was 165 fighting heavy weight division.  At 52, and 170, those pounds were very different.  I was a size 8-10k at 165, but now I'm usually a size 12 or 14...more fat, less muscle.  And endurance?  None.  HR at 170 and feeling like I'm about to collapse were feelings I was dealing with.  Add to that new issues with gluten, soy and other allergens making me feel breathless or covered in hives, swollen and in pain.  Needless to say, I struggled a lot that summer.

I did enter the Chicago Triathlon that year.  I didn't give up.  I entered the olympic distance, not the sprint.  My coaches told me I could do it.  And I did.  4:32 was my time.  I walked the run (it was 110 heat index) but I finished.  I was so proud of myself.  I had thought it was most likely impossible, but the coaches kept me focused on each day in the present not on the mountain I had chosen to climb. 

Today I'm 55.  I just PR'd a sprint distance triathlon yesterday in the 55+ age group with 1:54.  I was 75th overall in swimming (of all age groups).  This is an enormous improvement in my swimming AND something I would never have predicted.  My brother was a NCAA champion backstroker in college so when I swim I think about him a lot.  I'm still slow on the bike although I did finally invest in a better bike last year and am faster than I was.  I did the Chicago Triathlon again last year at 4:20 because I panicked in the water with waves and chop that scared me a lot.  I didn't DNF...I heard my brother say, after 15 minutes of panic, "You'll never be a lifeguard." That made me laugh, relax and finally get on my way.  On the ride I saw a woman in her own panic with a flat tire and tears.  She was about 26 I think, so I stopped for five minutes and helped her, giving up my bicycle pump and my spare inner tube so I figure I would have done four hours or less.  I felt good about my performance, but considered not doing it again this year.  However as you can see I'm back at it again this year.  My mental state has been more of an issue this year.  That panic attack has really set me back, but yesterday was a good day to deal with it.  I swam really well, without a wetsuit.  However, on the run I was passed by a 71 year old woman (our ages were on our calves).  She finished in 2:33 and I managed to find and talk to her afterwards.  She has been doing these for 20 years!  My friend, who is 33, said, "you have 20 years to get as good as her!"   

Lately I've been looking up stuff about '50+ triathletes' and I'm finding that there are a lot of us women who are doing this...and the numbers are increasing.  So, if you are sedentary or not, 50 and above, I want you to know it is possible to get into shape to do one of these in four months and once you do, you'll be hooked.  It's always a challenge and that is exciting.  At 50 the metabolism, perspective, and your life tend to slow down and sometimes makes you feel sluggish.  Doing triathlons will help you re-energize your optimism about life and feel 30 again.  I promise!  It's the day after the sprint as I type this and I'm getting ready to get on my bike, ride eight miles one-way to a birthday party for one of my triathlon friends I made two years ago.  That ride seems like nothing to me.  Three years ago I would never have considered it.  What have you got to lose?  Change that question to how much have you got to gain? 


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date: August 13, 2012