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I Started Triathlon at Age 61. The Sport Has Taught Me to Respect My Age Without Using it as an Excuse

By Erin Swenson | April 02, 2019, 11:30 a.m. (ET)

Erin Swenson

I looked at the finished chart outlining my planned races for 2019 and felt a sudden shiver. It’s January in Atlanta and it’s cold, but not that cold (well, to me it isn’t). The list is incomplete and it already has eight races I want to do this year. I think the shiver is the anticipation of friends and family asking the inevitable question. Why?

The people in my life question this because I am 72 years old, and I am not a lifelong athlete. I picked up triathlon at the age of 61 when my boss (herself a Kona finisher) dared me. I had just won an indoor triathlon offered by the club I joined to stave off the ills of aging. As I was bragging at the office about my feat, Andre, my boss, said, “You ought to try (an outdoor) triathlon. You would like it.” 

As I stepped back and assured her that I was not triathlon material she laughed and said that if I would try one that it wouldn’t be my last. That was 10 years and 48 races ago. She was right. And it made some sense when I was 61, after all 60 is the new 40. Right? But 72? 

While I don’t need to justify my behavior to anyone, I have been reflecting on why racing is so important to me and I wanted to share.

  • Racing has kept me engaged with my physical and mental health. My ex-spouse (and the love of my life) is in fabulous shape following a great diet, seeing a physical trainer twice a week, and walking briskly most every day. I can’t (or more correctly, “won’t”) do that. Try as I may to adhere to a fitness regimen I am naturally lazy and eventually the best program gets neglected, and therefore I get neglected as well. Having a race scheduled gives my training (and trying to eat well) the focus I need to stick with the program. And it obviously works!
  • The people in the race world are amazing. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but at 72 I have been privileged to be part of many communities and none surpasses the energy, encouragement, courage and wisdom that gets passed around in this world. Part of my regimen is a track workout on Thursday mornings. Running is my biggest challenge, and the track workout is with younger people who have distinguished themselves in the world of competition. I get to run with Kona champions, Boston Marathon age group winners, and ultramarathoners. By comparison I creep around the track, but in the years I have been doing this I have never heard one word of criticism or discouragement. One of the IRONMAN triathletes pats me on the butt once in a while passing me. If I start flagging she often shouts my name, “Erin, go!!!” 
  • Racing has taught me to learn from my failures and not let them discourage me. I have finished two 70.3 IRONMAN races (and won one of them) in the last 10 years. I have also gotten a DNF in my most recent two 70.3s, leading me to wonder if I am unable to do them. The distances are no problem for me, it’s the time limit placed on each leg of the race that stops me. Sitting down with my coach and looking at my times I realized that I have been doing great in the swim and then losing time in both the bike and the run. I now have training goals for these, pressing me on to the next race in September.
  • It has taught me to respect my age without using it as an excuse. My coach (for all 10 years) is Debbie Price-Alexander, and she is wonderful. She has taught me that I can be 72 without being old. Every single time I tell her that I can’t do something because of my advanced age she reminds me of Sister Madonna, who finished an IRONMAN (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, 26.2 mile run!!!) at the age of 82. I got to race with her in the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships sprint-distance race last year. Cramps slowed her down, but she finished the race with a respectable time. It made me feel proud.
  • I love racing because it feels good. That may sound like a strange statement. After all, endurance racing necessarily involves a certain measure of pain. And that’s the point. One must be willing to endure pain in order to experience the joyful accomplishment of finishing the race. To do this involves learning not to be stopped by pain. For example I recently began having problems with a sore right big toe. At first it didn’t hurt all the time, but often enough that I went to a sports podiatrist. Apparently an old injury has caused the development of a kind of arthritis in my first metatarsal joint. It hurts. Recently in a 10-mile training run my toe began to throb. I thought about quitting and began to justify this in my head (where I often get in trouble) by telling myself that I might start to favor it, throwing off my gait, and that could lead to further injury. But then I stopped justifying and began really thinking. I knew what the pain was, and I decided that I could choose to accept it and go on. I concentrated on running and not feeling the pain and was able to finish 5 more miles with an excellent time.
  • I love racing because there is a finish line. Whether the race is short (I like to do 5k runs in the winter) or my longest (the 70.3 mile IRONMAN) there is always a place where the race ends – the finish line. This is very comforting to me because much of my life and work seems endless. I am a psychotherapist, and the work I do with people often has no definable end. It’s wonderful to have something in my life with a definable beginning and a definite ending.

I am thankful to my coach and my fellow athletes for being a part of the joy I feel in racing. But I am also thankful to the race itself for bringing us together, offering us something to strive for, giving us a reason to not be defined by age, pain or disability and teaching us to endure for there will be an end. Much like life itself.

Triathlon. Give it a try!