The Aging Triathlete
The Power of Vintage Triathletes
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.