For 77-year-old Jim Pettett, every day is a gift. He is a devoted endurance cyclist, decorated war veteran and a member of an elite fraternity of road riders who delight in the opportunity to push their bodies to extremes.
Pettett logs 150-200 miles each week on his bike, tallying 10,000+ miles a year in his continuous pursuit of health and fitness. Perhaps the best part of his story is no one saw this coming.
Every Day is a Gift
Pettett got serious about cycling at the age of 60. When most people would be slowing down, he put the proverbial pedal to the metal.
Today, he is a double century veteran with 92 200-mile races under his belt. He’ll have 93 after this weekend.
He has completed the California Triple Crown (CTC) series 13 times, earned the coveted CTC Gold Thousand Mile Club award for the last three years and became a member of the CTC Hall of Fame in 2014. And if all goes well, Pettett will ride his way into the esteemed Hall of Fame 100 Club next spring.
“I have never been happier in my life than I am right now,” Pettett says. “I have my health. And I can choose whatever I want to do. There’s nothing holding me back from anything.”
He says as long as he is capable of turning the cranks, he will continue to cycle. “For me, every day is a gift. My motto is I’m going to go until I can’t go any further,” he smiles.
Road Well Traveled
With that, it’s important to understand the road Pettett traveled to get to this place. Let’s roll back the clock to the Vietnam War era, when Pettett was drafted at 18 into the U.S. Army. He proudly served as an infantryman on the front lines of one of the nation’s most controversial wars.
His ticket home came with a bullet in the hip and shrapnel to his skull. He invites me to feel the scarred divot left in the back of his head from that injury as he explains the honor of serving his country.
“As a kid, I always wondered what kind of soldier I would be,” he starts. “And for me, Vietnam was a personal test. Would I be able to pass the test? Could I be the man I thought I could be?” He returned from war a hero, with two purple hearts and battlefield memories that remain fresh to this day.
The transition to civilian life landed Pettett at the then-burgeoning Western Electric Company. He eventually transferred to Mountain Bell and rose through the ranks to management. During this time, he also earned a bachelor’s degree, with double majors in psychology and criminal justice.
“I had every intention of staying for 48 years for the Bell system, but things changed,” he explains. Bell became U.S. West, and the consolidation meant corporate downsizing. At age 45, Pettett was offered an early retirement package that he couldn’t refuse.
A year later, Pettett put his college degree to work and made his second career as a probation officer for the Maricopa County Adult Probation Department in metro-Phoenix, where he worked until his second retirement in 2005.
As is the case with many people who discover exercise after 50, Jim Pettett received a series of wake-up calls that got his attention. First, his sister was diagnosed with colon cancer. Second, a family vacation in Maui found him unable to swim a short distance out to a coral reef with his sons. And third, a doctor told him after a routine checkup that if he didn’t stop smoking, it would eventually kill him.
“I had smoked two packs a day for 38 years. Quitting was the hardest thing I ever did,” Pettett says emphatically. “The doctor says to me, ‘You are the patient who I tell if you don’t quit smoking, you will be in a nursing home, in a wheelchair, on oxygen.’”
That was enough. At 54, wildly addicted nicotine and a self-proclaimed couch potato, Pettett made the decision to turn his life around.
Road to Endurance Cyclist
Pettett’s first foray into cycling was on a mountain bike. He and his wife, Robin, drove past a bicycle shop with a sign advertising mountain bikes for sale. “I asked Robin, ‘Would you like one?’ and she said ‘Yes!’ So we went in and bought mountain bikes.”
Saturday rides led to group rides and local touring events. It wasn’t long before road bikes were added to the stable, and you might say the rest is history.
“I’ve never been really fast on a bike, but I’ve got endurance,” Pettett says. In his first year cycling, he completed the Amtrak 100 century ride in California and took to it like a duck in water.
Fitness After 60
“Part of the attraction is seeing continual improvement in your fitness level, and that drives me. Remember, I had never done anything like this when I was younger, so I was seeing improvement every day,” he says.
The added bonus is the camaraderie of the cycling culture.
“Cyclists are the most wonderful people in the world,” Pettett says. “They are caring and helpful. I’ve never met so many nice people in any other activity in my life.”
That culture led him to his cycling friend Susan Snow, who tossed out the idea of riding a double century together. Pettett thought about it and eventually committed to giving it a go. “We ended up doing five the year I turned 65,” he chuckles.
In 2014 after completing 50 double centuries, Pettett was inducted into the California Triple Crown Hall of Fame 50 Club. He tied ,with one other gentleman that year for the honor of being the oldest person ever to claim the title. “My new goal is to be the oldest person inducted into the California Triple Crown Hall of Fame 100 Club,” he says. “If I can stay healthy just one more year, I should be able to do it.”
Building a Legacy
Pettett’s journey into the world of endurance sports has had another side benefit. It became something he shared with his son, Jeff, who is a 56-year-old ultra-distance runner. For Jeff Pettett, 50-kilometer running races are as commonplace as his dad’s 200-mile cycling events.
Jeff chuckles when asked how a shared passion for endurance sports has fueled their relationship as adults. “For most of our lives, neither one of us had been very athletic. And now for us to have endurance athleticism in common is something I never envisioned. We’ve always been pretty close, but it has added another layer to our relationship,” the younger Pettett says.
He is proud of his father and the passion he now has for his health and fitness. “Selfishly, he and I go to Maui once a year and we do a lot of activities together, including hikes. I’ll be leading the hikes, and he apologizes for slowing me down. I say, ‘Dad, can you hear me breathing hard? He’s pushing me!”
Recipe for Healthy Aging
Jim Pettett is a prime example of the adage, “It’s never too late.” He was a heavy smoker half his life and didn’t even contemplate athletic pursuits until he reached his mid-50s.
Asked his advice for others who may find themselves in similar situations, his first response is to find something that you are passionate about. “When you go into retirement, don’t retire from something,” Pettett says. “I learned you have to retire to something.
For Pettett, the passion is long-distance cycling. “I have a social network, challenges and goals. I have things to live for,” he says.
“You can do anything at any age. You just need to find out how far you can go,” he continues. “I’m going to go until I can’t go any further.”