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Senior Ironman Shooting for Podium to Celebrate 75th Birthday

Liz Merritt
September 19, 2017
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Dave Wolford is aiming high for his 75th birthday. A few weeks shy of 71, this four-time senior Ironman triathlete is eyeing number five at 75 – just because he can.

Wolford celebrates his health and fitness each day by pushing farther, harder and setting bigger goals. “They call me Super Dave,” he says with a grin. “A lot of people try to keep up with me on the bicycle.”

Fast Track to Ironman

Perhaps the best part of Wolford’s story is this retired accountant and custom homebuilder didn’t even discover the sport of triathlon – or competitive athletics – until he was in his 60s. “The only thing I did was the work involved in homebuilding. I was active in my work, but I wasn’t athletic,” he says.

On a lark, he decided to give triathlon racing a go after watching his son complete an Ironman event. “I thought this doesn’t seem too difficult, so I asked my son who is trainer was,” Wolford explains. He promptly met with Coach Bettina Warnholtz of Racelab Endurance Training and told her he wanted to do an Ironman. “She said no you don’t. And I said yes I do.”

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Dave Wolford began training for triathlons in his early 60s.

The rest is history. Nine months after that encounter, Wolford completed his first Ironman Arizona in 2008 at age 62 and landed on the podium in fifth place out of 17 men in his age group.

A year later, Wolford took his second bow as an Ironman podium finisher. He took a break the following year, and then returned to the podium in April 2011 at age 65 for his third Ironman podium finish. “I had my best time ever at that race,” he says.

“I’ve always been the kind of guy who felt I could do anything,” Wolford says of his seemingly unending supply of persistence. “That first Ironman, I wasn’t so much afraid of it. I knew I could finish it,” he says.

Test of Endurance

As you might imagine, by now Wolford is breathing, eating, training and living for the next challenge. He ran half marathons, full marathons, competed in sprint triathlons, half Ironman’s and more as he fine-tuned his skills.

“A lot of it is up here,” he smiles and taps on his forehead. Little did he know, that mental toughness would soon be put to the test.

On July 31, 2011 as Wolford was descending a mountain road with his teammates, his tires hit gravel and his bike flipped. The crash left him with 5 broken bones – collarbone, scapula, two vertebrae and one rib – and out of commission for two months.

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With his family cheering him on, Wolford completed his fourth and fastest Ironman race ever.

At the time, he also was signed up for his next Ironman – in November of that year. “After two months of recovery, I said that’s enough. I need to train. I was not going to let any of those injuries get me down,” he says, despite the fact that he had to wear arm floaties on his first training swim.

And with his wife, Karen, and his entire family cheering him on, Wolford completed his third and fastest Ironman race ever. Once again, he was on top of the world.

Toughest News of All

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Dave and Karen on one of many hikes across the Grand Canyon.

His life with Karen was perfect. They were active, fit and loved the outdoors. They hiked the Grand Canyon rim to rim multiple times and loved taking weekend getaways together. She was a retired college professor and writer. He loved adventures.

The toughest news of all came in 2014 when Karen was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, an aggressive disease considered largely incurable.

“She was very strong,” he says of his wife. “She was a fighter to the very end. We walked 3 miles together every day. She always said a moving target was harder to hit,” he says with a smile.

It was no coincidence that during her illness Karen turned to her love of writing. Karen began writing stories about the future in hopes that by casting the vision, her life might be extended a little longer. “She knew her time was limited; she just didn’t know how much it was,” Dave says. Karen lost her battle with cancer in August 2016.

Before her passing, she wrote that she watched her husband achieve another Ironman podium finish in 2016. “At that time, I hadn’t even committed to a race or done any real training. We were just focused on having fun together,” he explains. “When she passed away, I felt obligated to do the race.

Racing for Karen

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Wolford accepts his Ironman trophy.

With only a three months to prepare, Wolford put all he had into it. He had to be ready to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run a full, 26.2-mile marathon in a matter of weeks.

“I did my best to train two days a week running, biking and swimming. But it just wasn’t enough,” he says. “When I got to the run portion of race, I didn’t have any juice left. But you know what? I finished it.” And just as Karen had envisioned, he made the podium, placing third in his age group.

Legacy of Healthy Aging

With his children and family supporting his endeavors and dreams, Wolford says he is ready to move on and to resume his active lifestyle. He says his secret is determination, commitment and never giving up on himself.

“It means a lot to me that my family and friends are proud of me,” Wolford says. “I believe anyone can do it if you just try. Just trying means you’re driven, which means you’re going to succeed.”

What’s his next finish line? “I want to get settled and simplify my life,” Wolford says. He loves to travel, golf, hike, and live the lifestyle of a triathlete. “I just want to stay in decent shape because when I do decide to race again, I will just have to build on that fitness.”

Big Goals

Hmmm, another race in the offing? Indeed. “Here’s the problem,” he grins. “I never finished first in the Ironman. And I want that.”

Wolford’s next goal is to qualify for the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. And he plans to do that at the age of 75. He searches his mind for a moment for the perfect words to explain why this is important to him and says this: “Only those who attempt the absurd achieve the impossible.”

Good luck, Dave! You’ve got this.

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