Seniors prove they are up to challenge of triathlons
Star-News (Wilmington, NC)
Oct. 21--For 67-year-old Lou Galli, the cool breeze at an early-morning race and nervous energy before the start have yet to get old.
Galli spent much of his life in New York before moving to Wilmington about 10 years ago. He was an overweight smoker looking to change his lifestyle when he started walking. That turned into running, which turned into triathlons.
"After a while, as you get older, running kind of beats you up. So I got into and did a couple triathlons," Galli said. "I did a couple every year, and I got hooked. I don't know why I started, I guess. But I'm glad I did. And I'm not going to give it up."
Increased fitness, his original goal, became a side joy to Galli. The sport became a way of life, and he now does a handful of triathlons every year.
"At my age, I'm not really competing anymore," Galli said. "I'm just out there to enjoy it. I was never really fast and I never had a lot of endurance, so I guess I don't know why I'm doing this."
Fraser Perry, 84, grew up in Wilmington, moved away and came back in the 1970s. Not long after his return, he started running at the local YMCA. When a few friends talked about doing a little more than just running, Perry joined them in racing in a triathlon.
More than 30 years later, Perry has stuck with it. He started on a whim but is glad he did. A mainstay at the YMCA Triathlon at Wrightsville Beach, Perry is well-known and his abilities are well-received. Although he used to do more, Perry now saves himself for only a couple of triathlons per year. But he makes sure to stay in shape.
"I did not expect (to be a triathlete for 30 years)," Perry said. "As time went on and I was able to still keep going and keep enjoying and finish, that's the good thing.
"It's changed through the years. Used to run real hard and swim real hard and bike real hard. Today I found if I do it a little easier I have a better chance of finishing without hurting myself."
Perry and Galli both raced at last month's YMCA Triathlon at Wrightsville Beach. In all, 89 entrants were at least 55 years old, the most in that age bracket in the 35-year history of the event. That was also the most in any of the 20-event North Carolina Triathlon Series put on by Setup Events. About 170 people 55 and older are registered for Saturday's Beach2Battleship, the most in its six-year history.
Triathlons have become another exercise option for seniors, and they are choosing them at a higher rate than ever.
On the rise
For the 20 events that make up the North Carolina Triathlon Series, 2013 had the highest rate of participation from men and women 55 and older. More than 600 of the 6,861 individual participants (relay teams were not counted) in the series were 55 or older, a 9.07 percent clip. In 2004, that figure was 4.22 percent.
Participation has fluctuated in recent years, peaking in 2010. But even though the total number has decreased, the number of people 55 and older has held steady at more than 600.
"We definitely have noticed that increase (of 55 and older)," said Jeremey Davis, race director at Setup Events. "I think people are seeing triathlons as not as extreme a sport as it used to be. When triathlon first started, only a few people did it. They were the crazies. Now it's more doable."
The increase has taken place across the board in Setup Events, one of the leading race production companies on the East Coast and headquartered locally. It produces about 125 events, with triathlon series in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Maryland and Virginia.
The South Carolina series has seen a bigger jump than in North Carolina. Of the almost 3,500 participants in the 2013 series, 336 of them (9.61 percent) were 55 or older, compared to only 4.54 percent in 2005.
Although that age bracket accounts for only 10 percent of the participants, it's clear those who get involved are not going anywhere.
"I started running after I had children in my 40s to lose weight," said 63-year-old Jackie Hill, of Deep Run, who has been doing triathlons for three years. "Just a few years ago I started the biking. Then I started the triathlons. They're just fun. And it's a goal. I'm very goal-oriented. The training is fun. I do a lot of other working out, too. It just all fits together."
A 2012 study by a group of Texas doctors revealed that masters athletes with at least 15 years of endurance exercise experienced less deterioration of white matter in the brain than their sedentary, but otherwise healthy, counterparts.
The doctors looked at 12 athletes (average age 72) and 12 sedentary seniors (average age 74), comparing them to nine people in their late 20s and early 30s. White matter transmits messages in the brain between grey matter, which is responsible for senses and muscle control. The athletes had higher concentrations of white and grey matter than the sedentary group, leading doctors to conclude endurance training has positive long-term effects on the brain.
"White matter is clearly very important. It's as important as gray matter," said Dr. Rong Zhang, one of the leaders of the study. "Physical activity is just one of many things people should be doing as they get older to prolong their lives."
Zhang said studies have emerged in recent years looking for causes and risk factors for Alzheimer's disease.
"Aging is a risk factor for Alzheimer's disease," Zhang said. "We cannot stop time. The first line of defense is identifying the risk factors. So we wanted to see how exercise impacts the brain.
"This has become a problem. Of people 85 years or older, almost 40 to 60 percent of them have Alzheimer's. We're living a lot longer. So the question is how can we improve life?"
Exercise is commonly linked to positive effects on heart rate, blood pressure and cholesterol, especially in younger adults. Those benefits are just as important -- if not more -- when getting older, said Dr. Dan Dawson, a family and internal medicine physician at New Hanover Regional Medical Center.
"And it's never too late to achieve those benefits by starting to become active," Dawson said.
Dawson said exercise could help fight heart disease, stroke and diabetes in seniors and can reduce depression or falling down in men and women older than 60.
Someone looking to improve fitness has many options, so the willingness to do multiple-sport events such as triathlons -- especially iron-distance or half iron-distance -- adds another layer of dedication.
"Anybody that exercises more than four times a week or maybe an hour a day is doing it for reasons other than fitness," Galli said. "They're competitive by nature. They're goal-oriented. They're doing it for something. Once you get started in endurance exercise, it becomes part of your life."
Chris Elmore, 57, started doing triathlons three years ago as a way to lose weight. The Atlanta native has lost 50 pounds and now does about five races per year, including the Wilmington YMCA triathlon each September. He said being able to do more than just running attracted him to the sport.
"I realized when you're at my age, your joints, you don't want to get them too messed up," Elmore said. "I had been a runner in high school, so I knew a lot about running. So I didn't want to be a marathoner or anything like that."
The appeal of multiple events compared to one was common among local senior triathletes. Instead of a monotonous 10-mile run or three hours on a stationary bike, triathlons give participants a little bit of everything.
"The hard part of exercise is motivation and getting in a routine," Dawson said. "Triathlons are a really well-rounded program."
The length of triathlons varies. Sprint triathlons involve a short swim, 12-mile bike and 3.1-mile run. Beach2Battleship, however, offers half-iron and iron distance -- a daunting 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run. The long distances bring out a different breed of dedication, Davis said.
"They are active, affluent achievers," Davis said. "They want something and they go get it."
Hill sees triathlons as defeating weakness. She is a veteran distance runner and picked up biking a few years ago. For her, swimming is the weak spot. But it also gives her a goal.
Hugh Nobles, 53, of Southport, used to be a runner but changed to triathlons to aid his bad knees. Elmore did not swim before getting into triathlons.
"One of the disciplines is always a weak one, so it makes you want to strive to improve on your weakest," Hill said.
More than 300 men and women 55 and older competed last week at the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. That race is the pinnacle of the sport and a dream race for competitive triathletes.
That competition has not reached most of the area's senior triathletes, who usually opt for shorter distances and place an emphasis on completing rather than competing. The focus is on having fun and being in good health as they age.
"You can go to the mall, sit down at the mall for a while and watch people our age walking around," Galli said. "I see people every day that I swear are 70 years old but they're only 60 or 65. The whole country I think kind of a mess physically. I don't want to be like that. I want to be healthy."
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