The Ag­ing Triath­lete

The Power of Vin­tage Triath­letes

Triathlon Magazine Canada - - Features - BY HE­LEN POW­ERS

Older triath­letes are an ev­er­in­creas­ing part of triathlon events around the world. He­len Pow­ers looks at how older triath­letes are chang­ing the dy­nam­ics of the sport.

The sport might be tough, but that doesn’t mean that get­ting older means you need to stop. The de­mo­graph­ics of triathlon par­tic­i­pants show that more and more older ath­letes are com­pet­ing these days. If you think you can ever be too old to com­pete in a triathlon, it’s time to get with the pro­gram and ap­pre­ci­ate the achieve­ments of some of the world’s pre­mier older triath­letes – es­pe­cially since you might be one some day.

Cal­i­for­nian Cherie Gru­en­feld be­gan rac­ing triathlon events at age 48 and quickly de­vel­oped an im­pres­sive re­sume. She won her age group seven times at the Iron­man World Championship in Kailua-Kona and was the first woman over age 55 to break the race’s 12-hour bar­rier. Now, at age 74, she fo­cuses on 70.3-dis­tance races and is of­ten ap­proached by younger rac­ers with com­ments about “still be­ing at it.”

“I love it ev­ery time some­one says some­thing like that,” she says, “It is a lit­tle boost for me.”

Burling­ton, Ont.’s Roger Barker fin­ished last in his first triathlon in his early 60s, but con­tin­ued to push him­self for bet­ter per­for­mances over longer dis­tances.

“At the be­gin­ning of ev­ery year, I set a goal to do some­thing new that’s out­side my com­fort zone,” Barker says. “It’s great to start some­thing new in your 60s and to see your­self get­ting bet­ter at it.” His first Iron­man was in the 60–65 age group, and he’s been to Kona three times, most re­cently this fall in the 75–79 cat­e­gory.

“Now, the longer the race, the bet­ter I seem to do,” says Barker.

These are two of many triath­letes who are hoist­ing the up­per limit of age-group cat­e­gories with a de­ter­mi­na­tion to stay fit over the long term. With­out in-depth anal­y­sis, it is dif­fi­cult to say how many of these rac­ers are rel­a­tively new to the sport, like Barker, and how many have been run­ning through the cat­e­gories for years, like Gru­en­feld.

A quick look at the num­bers on Sport­stats.ca does in­di­cate a rise in the age-group cat­e­gories at a num­ber of well-known events. For Olympic rac­ers at Guelph Lake in On­tario over the last 15 years, the up­per limit of women’s age groups grew from 60+ in 2003 up to 70–74 this year. The men did a sim­i­lar climb dur­ing this time and stretched the top cat­e­gory from age 60–64 up to age 75–79.

Look­ing fur­ther west at Cal­gary’s 70.3 Iron­man, the age­groupers also ex­panded the top limit over the last nine years. In 2009, the women’s up­per age group was 60–64. This year, the old­est age group was 70–74 in 2018. The men’s age groups changed from a ceil­ing of 70–74 up to the age cat­e­gory of 75–79.

In ad­di­tion to the ris­ing ceil­ing of age groups, a se­cond ob­ser­va­tion at races is a shift to more par­tic­i­pants above the tra­di­tion­ally busy age groups of 34–39 and 40–44. Ray­mond Britt of RunTri Me­dia an­a­lyzed the statis­tics of en­trants from 2011 to 2018 for Iron­man Muskoka. He found that, gen­er­ally, age-group en­trants as a per­cent­age of to­tal age-groupers are trending older, but not in a marked way.

It seems as if there are more rac­ers in the older cat­e­gories at some races. At the iconic Iron­man Canada, there was a no­tice­able dif­fer­ence at the 2003 race com­pared to the 2018 race. This year, the 50–54 age group had 35 more en­trants for the women and 52 more for the men than it did in 2003. And sim­i­larly, the 55–59 age group in­creased by 15 en­trants for women and 19 en­trants for men.

As a coach, Gru­en­feld has seen a trend to more in­volve­ment by older ath­letes.

“In past times,” she says, “60 was con­sid­ered older, but these days we have plenty of rac­ers in their 70s and even 80s. Clearly, more peo­ple are con­tin­u­ing to race as they age.”

She feels that older adults may be more in­volved be­cause they now have more time avail­able and bet­ter fi­nan­cial re­sources for the sport.

Greg Pace, owner of PACEper­for­mance, has coached many peo­ple over the age of 40 and be­lieves that hav­ing an ath­letic

Lew Hol­lan­der at Kona 2015. Hol­lan­der is well known for be­ing one of the old­est and most con­sis­tent age-groupers.

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