Men over 40 should not run triathlons

In a recent article published in Bloomberg news (seen here: a researcher presents a very well-constructed case as to why men over the age of 40 should not consider participating in the sport of triathlon. The article cites the obvious strain on an untrained body, the immediate shock and strain of open water swimming in cold lakes, and the long distances of some of America’s favorite triathlons all as reasons that middle-aged men die in triathlon, and should therefore rethink participation in the sport. As a long time triathlete, and a long time man over the age of 40, I just have two words to say to this “researcher”: but Shannon won’t allow me to print them here. Let’s understate it and say that I might disagree, and many of our fellow triathletes disagree as well.

The researcher cites the triathlon lifestyle as one that is overly taxing on an athlete’s heart, citing research that minimal exercise is best.  ““People need to understand that they’re not necessarily gaining more health by doing more exercise,” said David Prior, a cardiologist and associate professor of medicine in the article.  While on the surface that may be true, there are a long, long list of names that I have called across the finish line who are alive simply because they did gain more health by doing more exercise.  Brian Lamee of Findlay Ohio lost 125 pounds in his quest to get healthy and become the awesome age grouper that he is now; and hundreds of other people have taken to triathlon to get off the couch and start doing more exercise.  Every one of them healthier, happier, and better for it.  Personally, I found the sport of triathlon because of the weight loss challenge, and I know many other Clydesdales who revel in the competition and camaraderie of being on the course with other Big Dogs.  We’re not competing because we think we can set some course record, or because we think we can fly around the course like these light little 19-year-olds.  We compete to participate in the lifestyle, to exercise, to smile, and to be with other people enjoying the same things that we love.

People use triathlon and the lifestyle to combat many other things. Don Cain of Team HFP makes no secret of the fact that without triathlon he would be dead.  A struggling alcoholic early in life, Don turned to the triathlon lifestyle as a way to beat his addiction. Not only was he able to beat that addiction, he beat it down hard, and is now a nationally ranked triathlete, has earned his PhD, and counsels youth all over the country about how the triathlon lifestyle could put them on the path to greatness as well.  Don would be the first one to argue that he absolutely gained more health by doing more exercise.

Deanna Kiesel of Team HFP looks like any other racer on the course on race morning, but she’s far from ordinary.  A veteran of more than 85 marathons, and more than 100 triathlons and duathlons over the past 15 years, you cannot tell by looking at her that she’s been fighting cancer since that very first marathon.  She uses running, triathlons, and exercise in general as her coping mechanism.  She also takes that same fighting spirit and translates it into her job as a school counselor, helping young people realize that the fight is not over till you decide it’s over.  She takes another swing at cancer with every step on the course, and she’ll let the disease know when this fight is over.  She too would argue that a little more exercise absolutely gave her a little better health, both mentally and physically. Says Kiesel: “I was told that my exercise is probably the reason I’m still alive! Well, that and my total bullheadedness.”

Then there’s Kathleen Putnam, who is very easy to pick out on race mornings as she wanders through the transition area with a helper pushing her bike while she walks with two support canes.  Kathleen was hit by a car two years ago and was told that not only would she not survive, but if she did she would never walk again.  I’ve had the pleasure and the privilege of welcoming Kathleen to the finish line in both short and long distance triathlons since the day the doctors told her to give up.  Yes, she may take just a little longer than the average competitor, and those titanium canes absolutely glisten as her sweat rolls down them, but she does every inch of the course on her own power and each step is another testament to how the triathlon lifestyle can save your life.

Did you know that almost 25% of triathletes are either active-duty or veteran military?  These are people who had the exercise (AKA – “PT”) lifestyle thrust upon them and have made it a part of their life. Triathlons dangerous to men over 40?  Tell that to Lieut. Col. Graeme Henderson, a member of the US Air Force triathlon team, and a longtime member of the over 40 male club. A fantastic racer, Col. Henderson takes “PT triathlon style” to a whole new level. Add with him every grunt that comes back home and wants to jump in and stay active.  For that matter check out team RWB and talk to the members and hear the stories of how they “shadow raced” hometown races while they were deployed, how they ran miles in the desert sun to cope with boredom, or nightmares, or both.  Triathlon is dangerous for men over 40? Certainly less dangerous than defusing IED’s or standing in roadways as targets for snipers.  Ask Special Forces operative Sean Clifton if exercise was dangerous for him.  Almost dismembered by Taliban bullets, his exercise toughened body was able to withstand multiple gunshot wounds, and with some fantastic medical magic was able to heal.  He too was told to discard the triathlon lifestyle after his incident.  Ha!  You don’t tell a Ranger to do anything, he’ll tell you how it goes.  Sean told himself and his body exactly how this recovery process was going to materialize, and he used exercise as part of that healing process. He is now a nationally ranked triathlete, putting all of that determination and attitude he learned as a Ranger into excelling as a triathlete, role model, and inspiration.

Yes, the triathlon lifestyle is a bit more risky than sitting at home watching TV from the couch… Or is it?  Studies daily find that “sitting is the new smoking” and that certain levels of exercise are required just to maintain a healthy lifestyle.  Research proved decades ago that resistance training in both men and women improves muscle tone, improves bone density, and improves overall health.  So is the triathlon lifestyle any more dangerous than anything else you do every day?  You can probably make the argument either way, and I say go for it – argue away.  We’ll be swimming, biking, running, and planning for our next race.

See you on race day!

Rich Fowler