For Cheryl Miller, the evolution of her athletic career takes on new meaning with every passing year. Like a fine wine that gets better with age, this 60-year-old triathlete has a passion for endurance sports that intensifies as she pushes her body and mind to achieve more every year.
Miller is truly an inspiration and role model for healthy aging. “I don’t know that I’m old until I pass a mirror,” says Miller, who just completed her 15th Ironman triathlon last month. “I feel like I’m still 30 years old on the inside, and I’m looking out.”
The athletic journey for this Kentucky-born Boomer began more than 40 years ago when she saw running and endurance horseback riding as her path to drop post-pregnancy weight after her daughter was born.
She competed throughout the Southwest for a decade, combining her love of equines and running. She excelled in Ride & Tie events in which she, another runner and a horse would race along courses up to 100 miles.
That’s also when she knew endurance sports would become her passion. Not long after, she was introduced to the sport of triathlon, which became the professional path that now defines her life.
Making the Leap
Back then, Miller’s days as an accounting and computer technology professional and busy single mom left little time for the countless hours needed for training. She came up with a plan that she executed on for years, accumulating personal training and professional coaching credentials along the way.
“I hated being in a cubicle, and not talking to people all day long. I loved coaching and training. And I really loved triathlon.”
In 2003, Miller earned her stripes as a USA Triathlon certified coach, followed by her elite coaching certification with USA Cycling. She is also an American Council on Exercise (ACE)-certified personal trainer.
Miller made the leap and left the security of her corporate job in 2004 and launched Miller Endurance Coaching, where she now spends her days coaching athletes of all ages, including triathletes, runners, ultra-runners, road cyclists and mountain bikers.
Perseverance in the Face of Challenges
As a lifelong athlete, Miller continues to train for and compete in endurance events alongside many of her coaching clients. After notching her Ironman belt for the 15th time last month, she also reflects on a health scare she has to navigate carefully in order to pursue the sports she loves.
Last spring, Miller was riding in a 96-mile cycling event when she passed out and crashed. “The chain ring was embedded in my leg,” she says matter-of-factly. She thought at the time she was suffering from dehydration and not eating enough along the course. With a nasty gash and surge of adrenaline she finished the ride.
Three weeks later, after passing out while trail running, Miller knew something more serious was going on. At the urging of a client who is a physician, she had some blood work done and discovered she has a homeostatic imbalance of the heart. For Miller, that means she cannot elevate her heart rate above 140 beats per minute without risk.
“I just have to go slower now, watch my heart rate and make adjustments,” says this grandmother of two. “It’s kind of hard because I’m used to pushing myself. I just can’t do that now. I suppose it’s better than not doing anything at all.”
Balance and Respect
Miller ascribes to the theory that as athletes age, they cannot ignore the physiological changes that travel with the turf. Recovery time becomes especially important for athletes over 50, she says.
“My older clients always get more recovery on their training programs. But it’s active recovery, like yoga, hiking or an easy swim,” she says. “They need to keep moving, because the more older athletes let their bodies remain inactive, the harder it is to get going again.”
Miller believes as athletes age, they need to change their expectations. “I’m not going to go out and win a race anymore. I’m not 20, 30, or 40, but I can still do well in the group of people in my age group who I compete with. Sometimes, doing well just means finishing the dang thing,” she says with a laugh.
She also says older athletes have to be smarter about their approach to training and racing. “I pick events that are super long because people who are older have a better head for that. Young people are impatient; they want everything right now. And when you get older, you learn that sometimes it’s best not to get everything right now.”
60-year-old Triathlete Going Strong
Wise words from a woman who has crossed more finish lines in her life than she can count, including her New Year’s tradition of running 100 miles at the Across the Years race held each year in Phoenix. “It’s a great way to get in a bunch of miles,” she says. “People come out and join me for laps, and I get to meet some great people.”
Miller believes the mindset of aging sets the tone for how much we can achieve later in life. “When you age, people look at you differently. It’s almost like you become invisible and people don’t notice you unless you are doing something unexpected. It takes people speaking up to make a difference.”
She describes a 70-year-old client in North Carolina who completed an Ironman triathlon. “She got all kinds of accolades when she finished the Ironman. In the real world, people ignore you when you’re 70. In the athletic world, when your 70 and doing incredible things, people are inspired.”
When asked for her one piece of advice for living healthfully well into your senior years, and Miller responds, “You just have to keep moving. You can’t stop. That’s what gets people. Never stop.”