the Aging Athlete? M2 comments…

It has been very heart-warming to have received so many well-wishes and congratulations for my recent performance at IM Japan. Common themes and questions expressed by my friends and supporters have been the following:

  • What a strong performance given my old age
  • Did I meet my goals?
  • Was I satisfied?

My responses in short form are the following:

  • I haven’t seen age as an issue thus far. I am quite sure though that my age is 44, as my name was never mentioned during the race without shouting out this fact!
  • No, I did not meet my goals.
  • Yes, I was satisfied with aspects of my race, not so with others, but feel that the big competitive picture is positive.

For those that are interested, here is a little more on my background, my goals and motivation, and how I see myself at age 44.


As reported earlier IM Japan was my 3d attempt in as many years at the IM distance after a nearly 5 year competitive hiatus due to an injury condition that defied explanation. During this “dark” period, it was difficult not to think that I would ever race again.

Briefly, the problem was one where my right leg would lose all power if I attempted to cycle at any higher intensity, or if I ran uphill. Thus, I could train to a limited extent, but competing at any meaningful level was out of the question. During this time,I swam intermittently, biked consistently yet absent higher intensity, and did not run.

When I was finally able to get to the crux of my leg issue which involved a compressed artery in the hip which would choke blood flow, it was another year of gradually working through the problem so that the hip would open up. Nevertheless, I was thrilled to see light at the end of the tunnel and to see my body allowing me to train without such obvious limitations.

Prior to my leg issue, I felt that I was on the verge of a breakthrough on a grander scale than my two IM Canada victories. Having lost 5 critical years and with a sense of a time clock ticking, I returned to IMC in 2002 with high hopes, but perhaps not entirely realistic given that my running had begun with 15 minutes on a treadmill only 4 months earlier, and progressed to an hour by the end of May. The result was a decent swim (52min), a 4hr55min bike which was decidely slower than my earlier form, and a quad busting 3hr20min marathon which exposed my inadequate run training.

The next year saw improved fitness which I took to IM Wisconsin. The result there was a good swim (50min), and improved bike until I faded as a consequence of dehydration on a very hot day and not being able to process Gatorade. I opted out of the run as cramps and a near paralyzed state meant that a trudge-a-thon was the best I could hope for, and that is not what I had come to do.

Japan ’04 saw even better training, significantly higher training wattage than the previous years, and thus my hope was that the 3rd time would be the charm in my attempt to regain previous IM form. The result was a decent swim in tough conditions, a decidely subpar bike relative to the competition, and a low 3s marathon which I was pretty happy with and am confident that I can easily improve upon.

Quite simply, to race at my previous level. I don’t see why I should aspire to anything less quite frankly. Translated this means 8hr30 or under on a legitimate course like IMC.

As I said, I truly felt that I was on the verge of consummating my improbable triathlon adventure odyssey with a breakthrough performance in Hawaii when the rug got pulled out from under my feet.

I have no doubt that at some point age will make thoughts of a strong performance unrealistic. Thus, I am simply trying to finish what I had originally set out to do.

Beyond the goal, I continue to enjoy all of the training process—planning, adjusting, evaluating, getting out bed excited about moving the ball forward, the satisfaction of improving across 3 disciplines, the return of familiar sensations, and passing on what I continue to learn to my many athletes.

That said, I am not sure that I would choose to train for IM if in some way I did not think that my goal was attainable. The distance and its requisite training (despite my decidely less is more training approach) is too consuming and difficult to be fun absent a compelling goal. Certainly I would remain very active, but I would not be doing 20 mile pavement runs.

AGE 44? 
There are no shortage of people who suggest I should downgrade my aspirations, but so too were there many who felt that winning a race like IMC in record time against what was a top-flight field was entirely unrealistic. I don’t think these folks have ill will, but neither must I accept their projections.

I don’t think I am kidding myself when I say I have not felt myself particularly affected by advancing age. Perhaps I am missing the signs, but I recover very similar to before, can train quality with the same frequency, and times in training are similar. Should I be trying to run/bike slower in consonnance with my dooms-day age?

Perhaps age has facets beyond the physical aspect which affect training/racing. Certainly I have more responsibilities now than when I was living in Spain and taking naps every afternoon after watching the cycling event du jour. A 2.5 year old, another on the way, and a home in Marin County require more immediate attention than might be garnered by the vast riches garnered by a top tri performance.

Willingness to suffer might be another age factor, although I am still undecided as to whether this applies here. I shudder at times when I recall many of the epic rides that I performed in my old training ground of Madrid Spain. My most recent IMJ race had a relative lack of these training rides, and I found my appetite for pain and grimace to be not so strong on the bike. On the other hand, I was able to dig down and battle in the run.

Admittedly, my attempt to regain previous form has proven to be a bit more tricky than I imagined. Lessons painfully relearned include that IM is too long and hard an event to not see shortcomings in training exposed and magnified.

The one missing ingredient in IMJ was my bike, where I ceded far too much time to my rivals. This is especially frustrating because the bike has always been an important weapon of mine–fastest bike splits at IMC, 4th fastest in Kona, 17 minute lead on the field at IM Japan 1997. Whereas swim and run are similar or within striking distance of previous form, I find it hard to believe that age is the culprit with my notably subpar bike performances (4hr55min IMC, 5hr IMW minus an aburd 5′ penalty for not riding staggered to a rider a quarter mile ahead).

Think that I was off in IMJ on the bike due to some one or combination of the following:

  • Depleted state due to 3 days of sauna/hot springs to recover from what turned out to be a debilitating airplane saga. Tried to be careful about replacing fluids/electrolytes but initial flat state on bike and major fade might indicate otherwise.
  • A lingering mechanical issue with my right hip which does hinder my pedaling efficacy somewhat—again, the magnifying effect of the 112m distance makes me ponder this small hitch.
  • Perhaps not enough long rides, and/or not a long enough ride; I fell short of what I typically do here as well as what I recommend for my athletes; simple disorganization caused by not getting out the door early enough and that annoying thing called darkness.

Blah, blah, blah.

M2 is going to give it another go with similar illusion. The worst-case scenario is that I come up short of my goals and am forced to realize that my goals have to be adjusted…I can deal with that, but not before the writing is more clearly etched upon the wall!

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