For 59-year-old Ronnie Piña, the road to racing is paved with opportunities for physical and mental challenges that fuel this Boomer athlete’s passion for healthy aging.
“Mentally, I believe I am going to live to 110,” Piña says confidently. “I take good care of my body. I train smart, and I eat well. And I have a lot more races in me.”
But it wasn’t always that case. Sure, he played sports in high school and college, and even then, he had a natural talent for running. His forte, however, was academics. And with a full academic scholarship at stake, Piña focused on getting his chemical engineering degree and starting his professional career.
Fast forward, and Piña is now in the second half of his career as an accomplished corporate sales and business development executive, spending about half of his working days on the road. When he’s not traveling, life on the home front in suburban Phoenix with wife Karen buzzes with family activities, stacked schedules, and training – lots of training. The Piñas have four adult children, two of whom are still in college.
Just to Stay in Shape
“You know, I look at myself as an average person,” Piña says. “When I got out of college and started working, I began running just to stay in shape.”
With the stresses of a new job halfway across the country, Piña found the soothing rhythm of a good run to be relaxing. “It was almost like meditation for me. When I run – even to this day – there is a soothing, peaceful aspect to it.”
You might say he caught the running bug when he entered his first 5K race in Midland, Michigan. He was working for Dow Chemical Company at the time. As a sponsor, the company brought in several elite runners to showcase the race in the community and encourage employees to join in.
Piña took that quite literally. “I lined up with the elite runners at the start of the race. I just went up there, and in my head I was in it to win,” he says with a grin. “Those competitive juices just start flowing. If I had the time to train, I would win all the races. That’s just how I think.”
Cocky? Not so much. That self-confidence and belief in what’s physically possible after 50 has carried Piña far as an amateur racer.
A Way of Life
From 5Ks to 10Ks to half marathons and full marathons, running became a way of life and a vehicle to better health. He researched, studied and investigated all the resources he could put his hands on to train smarter and improve tactically as a racer.
In 1996, he dove into marathon training and racing with a vengeance. “I got a wild hair and registered for the Los Angeles Marathon,” he says.
“I didn’t train very well. Despite this, I felt fantastic throught he first 20-something miles. And then I hit the wall. I’m at mile 23 or 24 and I’m struggling, really hurting,” he recalls.
That was when an older gentleman taps him on the shoulder and urges him to keep going. “He was probably 65 years old, and he says, ‘C’mon. You can make it.’ He coached me the last two miles and then he took off. I never saw him again.
That experience really humbled me,” Piña says. “When I’m 65, I’m going to run another marathon.”
Setting Personal Records
From marathon to marathon, Piña crisscrossed the country on his journey to gain experience as an endurance athlete. Like most marathon runners, he dreamed of running in the Boston Marathon, the granddaddy of marathon traditions.
And he did just that. Qualifying with a time of 3 hours, 29 minutes, Piña ran Boston twice – in 2005 and 2006. And on the second go-round, he finished in 3 hours, 26 minutes, beating his previous personal record by 3 minutes.
Piña is a faster runner today than he was a decade ago at his first marathon. And he isn’t slowing down. “I’m in better shape and have more muscle mass now than when I was 30 years old. I feel stronger, leaner and smarter about racing and training.” He credits his coach, Bettina Warnholtz of Racelab Endurance Coaching, for showing him what is possible.
Piña’s personal desire to achieve more as an athlete drove him to take up triathlon racing shortly after he finished the Boston Marathon. “I actually prefer doing triathlons now because it is a bigger challenge mentally. Sure, I’m competitive, but I’m really competing against myself out there on the course,” he says.
That challenge means early morning training and balancing his athletic endeavors with his work travel schedule and family time. Piña has completed three full Ironman events and says he has another one in him in the future. “I’ll do another one. I’m an athlete in my soul and I like the challenge.”
Currently, Piña is training for a half Ironman event and relishes in the lifestyle that it brings. “This is my hobby. Some people enjoy reading books. I run and bike and swim. This is my soul, my spirit. It’s who I am.”
In Pursuit of Healthy Aging
Piña also competes to prove just how far he can go as a 50+ athlete. “I realize I’m not 26 years old any longer, where I can push my body so hard and it will absorb it,” he explains. “As we get older, we just can’t do that. But if I can get to the starting line, I like to see what I can do. That’s the challenge I look for.”
Living in gratitude for health and wellness is an essential part of the journey. “I’m fortunate enough that I am healthy and I can do this,” Piña says.
“I’m an optimist. The way I live my life makes me much more energetic in my work and sharper on my feet.” He grins and adds, “I kick butt, and I never tell the people at work how old I am.”
And the next challenge? He responds quickly: “Bring it on!”