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Morphing from Infrequent Exerciser to Triathlete

Starting triathlons at 59, I'm proof that it's never too late to try


I am 69. I ran my first triathlon when I was 59, and as of August 2019, I will have competed in 50 triathlons. (A triathlon typically consists of running, cycling and swimming.)

My first running race, the Hudson Relay, was in 1972 during my senior year in college in Cleveland. In August 2018, I returned to Cleveland — a mere 46 years later — to participate in the USA Triathlon Nationals for triathletes from across the country. I’d call it an athletic bookend, but I’m not done competing.

I had never been an athlete before. In fact, I still somewhat joke about how great it was that when I was growing up there were no sports programs for females and no Title IX, so I didn’t have decades of abusing my body, sports-wise, as many men have.

I learned how to swim when I was 6, bike when I was, probably, 8, and started very low-level jogging sometime in my 40s. When I say low-level, I mean jogging maybe 50 yards, then walking.

So what if I started at 59? Take this to the bank: It’s never too late.

So how did I morph from being an overweight widow, whose jogging was more like walking than anything else, to a triathlete? It probably sounds disingenuous to say it just happened — but that’s actually the truth.

In my desire to date again after my husband died, I started dieting and doing minimal exercises at home, so I could feel good about what I looked like. I was 57. So, I had already started eliminating the overweight part.

Inspired by a Gift

I signed up for my first triathlon after a friend bought me a racing bike. I don’t know where the thought came from, but when he bought me the bicycle, I said to him: “Great, now I can do triathlons.”

I hadn’t contemplated doing even one — I had only run a couple of 5K races in 2007 and 2008. My office liked to participate in the Race for the Cure (the Susan G. Komen series of 5K fundraising runs and walks for breast cancer) and I thought: “Hmmm, I can do that.”

Up until a couple of years ago (when I went through an awful saga of dealing with two pinched nerves in my back and sciatic leg pain, which precluded walking, let alone running in a race), I would compete in about 12 races a year; seven running and five triathlons. “How else,” I’d ask friends, tongue firmly in cheek, “could I collect a dozen new T-shirts every year?” The wryest of them would say: “Um, at a store.”

Even with my back problem, the severe leg pain happened between triathlon seasons. So, while I didn’t train much during that time, I still kept up with five triathlons every season — and have no real end in sight.

Susan Paisner competing in a race
Susan Paisner competing in a race

Passing and Getting Passed

At Nationals last year, I ran past an 88-year-old woman. How did I know how old she was? Because in triathlons, your age is written in marker on your left calf. One upshot of this is that I’m often the oldest woman in the race and hordes of young’uns run past me delivering affirmations as they go: “You’re awesome!” “You’re an inspiration!” “I want to be as active as you when I’m your age!”

I’ll admit, it’s rather sweet. But even sweeter is running past men and women younger than me. Because, you see, while I hardly qualify as an elite competitor, I have never, ever, come in last.

I didn’t train for my first triathlon; I figured I knew how to swim and bike and could handle the 5K. My biggest stumbles had to do with the transition periods between each of the three events and not wearing the right clothes. (Hint: don’t wear cotton, because it holds on to your sweat and becomes a wet towel).

What I’ve Learned

Initially, I actually changed my clothes after the swim and before the bike portions of the race! Dumb, unnecessary and hugely time-consuming.

These days, depending on where the transition area is relative to where we swim, I take two to three minutes to get from swimming to biking. In my first triathlon — when I changed my clothes in the port-o-john — I took more than eight minutes. I used the port-o-john again between the bike and run for its intended purpose, and that visit took more than five minutes (versus my current, and usual, one minute or less).

Today, during my triathlons, I wear a tank top and special biking shorts (not as long in the leg and not as much padding in the seat) from beginning to end.

And I pay it forward, as much as people want, in terms of giving advice to first-timers.

Having done this for 10 years, I am now well cross-trained and don’t think about what I do as being an “endurance” sport. I work out five to six times a week.

In warm weather, I mainly bike (usually about 20 miles) and run (3+ miles), with occasional swimming. In the cold months, I mostly run and swim.

Happy With the Results

All of this working out results in a body I’m proud of — and to be blunt, a body that men like. As I’m fond of saying regarding being a triathlete, I love the returns. All of them.

My just-retired favorite doctor and I once had a conversation about quality of life. He said, “There’s what you get, your genetic inheritance; there’s what you opt to do with it and there’s that third thing that you have no control over.”

I’m living the hell out of my life and taking every advantage possible of the genetic gifts my parents gave me. So what if I started at 59? Take this to the bank: It’s never too late.

But I’ll easily admit that when people ask me my favorite part of a triathlon, my answer is always: “The finish.”

By Susan Paisner
Susan R. Paisner is a Maryland-based writer and criminologist. Her publication credits include The Washington Post, WhoWhatWhy.org, Asian Fortune and Passenger Transport. In between writing and competing in triathlons, she performs on stage and is working on a stand-up comedy routine about dating again in one’s 60s and beyond.

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