Since Tom Wilson’s 60th birthday, he has run more than the distance from Phoenix to Honolulu (3,195 miles); biked 69% of the circumference of the Earth (17,304 miles); and nearly swam the distance from Phoenix to Los Angeles (368 miles). Better yet, he’s just getting started.
Today, at 68, Wilson is an inspiration to friends, family, and colleagues, and he is living proof of the adage, ‘It’s never too late to start.’
Healthy Aging Journey
Wilson’s healthy aging journey is fueled by an ingrained tenacity to accomplish big projects. This is evident in his 40-year career as an archeologist, anthropologist, cultural influencer, and now Director of the Arizona Museum of Natural History. There, he oversees research, programs, events and exhibits, including an impressive array of dinosaurs and artifacts that draw visitors from throughout the state. He is also Chairman of the Governor’s Archaeology Advisory Commission.
“I believe the tenacity to follow through on major (professional) projects mirrors the tenacity required for athletic training. Part of the reason I do this is to keep a goal and to keep inspired,” says Wilson.
As a committed amateur athlete, Wilson’s competitive fires are stoked primarily by triathlons. It is a sport the he says offers variety and a plethora of challenges for athletes of all ages and abilities.
He landed on triathlon as his favored sport almost by chance. “I already had an off-road bike and would pedal around on the canals. There was a swimming pool in the back yard so I would swim. And I would run. I did all of these things in a desultory sort of way.”
Little did he know that a perfectly timed e-mail for an upcoming triathlon would be a game-changer. With his 60th birthday looming, Wilson teamed up with his son – a runner – and his daughter – a swimmer – for a triathlon relay.
“It was my second triathlon, ever,” he says. It was also one of most notoriously difficult Olympic-distance courses on the local calendar, with steep and continuous climbs a mainstay of the route.
Learning From Failure
On the day of the big event, his daughter completed the swim leg first. Then it was Wilson’s turn to do the bike portion of the race. “I was on my bike trying to climb out of that lake basin and just wasn’t prepared for how hard it was,” he recalls.
“Pretty soon, there’s a sheriff’s vehicle behind me, which meant I was the last person on the course. I finally gave up, and the sheriff’s officer took me in.”
From that difficult lesson, Wilson draws a bit of wisdom. “You learn so much from failure. And there’s a certain amount of sweetness to this story.”
Tenacity and Purpose
Eight years and 42 triathlons later, Wilson found himself tackling the same course in 2016, just to prove to himself he could do it.
“I said this is where I get my revenge.” This time, he completed all three legs solo and crossed the finish line. “I was the only one in my age group, so I won it.”
What that meant, according to USA Triathlon (USAT) rules, was that Wilson earned an invitation to compete in his age group at the USAT National Championships held in Omaha this past August. “I went to Omaha and I had a great experience. It’s a really good course,” he says with a smile.
So what did he do? In characteristic fashion, he signed up for another round with his nemesis course that fall. “Hurting is pleasurable in a certain way,” he explains. “The hard races are something you don’t want to avoid. They’re something you want to tackle.”
Sure enough, his most-recent attempt was successful. He even shaved 22 minutes off of his previous time for the course. “I came in first again. But this time I beat someone. Three days later, I got my letter that I have qualified for the 2017 National Championships.”
So this bear of a triathlon, this huge challenge that seemed insurmountable so many years ago, is now Wilson’s best event.
Path to Life
For Wilson, living a long and healthy life took on new meaning after a prostate cancer diagnosis five years ago. “One thing that’s always been in the back of my mind is showing my kids what you can do when you’re my age,” Wilson says.
He points to the contrast between his 60+ lifestyle and his father’s to illustrate the point.
“I was at the Los Angeles Triathlon. the race starts at Jones Beach, then to Venice, Fairfax and Olympic Boulevard. My Dad used to live off of Olympic Boulevard. And me, at my age, in a race of that nature, going down Olympic Boulevard, would have been the equivalent of him landing on the moon. It would have been inconceivable to my Dad.
“Thinking about what he showed me about aging, compared with what I’m showing my kids about aging is a completely different picture. I think that responsibility extends until your last breath on earth.” Even more profound, he adds that he believes parents have the responsibility show their children how to die, leaving a full, robust, healthy legacy in their wake.
“This – what I’m doing – is part of getting there. It doesn’t means what happens to me in death will be prettier than anyone else, but this lifestyle may give me a better chance of confronting whatever those obstacles in life are more successfully than someone else.”
Support & Inspiration
Wilson has found in triathlon a community of support, lasting friendships, fun and inspiration.
“It’s such great camaraderie and acknowledgment that we’re all out there suffering together,” he says. “And because of my age, kids 20 or 30 will say, ‘You’re an inspiration. I hope I can do this when I’m your age.’”
Like most determined amateur athletes, Wilson has already mapped out his 2017 race season and goals.
“I’ve gotten older, but I’ve gotten faster with experience and training,” Wilson says. “I’m faster because I know how to take a beating better. I’m smarter about the courses. And when the devil on your shoulder is saying quit, I know how to put him off better. I see no reason why I can’t do it.”
That spirit and tenacity will carry Tom Wilson across more finish lines this year than most 68-year-olds, and he doesn’t see an end in sight.