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When the Road to Healthy Aging Leads to Ironman After 50

Liz Merritt
October 13, 2016
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As a lifelong athlete, running, swimming, biking and fitness endeavors are as much a part of my daily life as waking and sleeping. Even so, competing in an Ironman after 50 is a daunting decision.

I’ve been a competitor for more than 30 years, and at 58, I continue to work toward my personal best daily. Interestingly, it was at age 45 that I told myself I only had five good years of racing left in my body. My self-imposed deadline had me believe that my racing career would end at 50.

As the years passed, I continued to race triathlons, marathons and bike races, placing in my age group the majority of the time. At 50, that little voice echoed once again: “ Surely, I only had 5 good years left.” Despite the warning, I continued to race and place.

Overcoming Injury

At 56, a 30-year injury reared its ugly head, and so began my renewed battle with achilles tendonitis (“AT”). It was the one area of my body that reinforced the notion that my racing career may be coming to a rapid close.

Ironman after 50

On the last leg of the Ironman race, Bev Crupi is still smiling.

I started running when I was 25, and AT had visited several times over the years. This time was different. After several visits to the doctor, an X-ray revealed a bone growth right at the tip of my left heel. Wow! I finally had an answer.

But the timing could not have been any worse. I still had not done the race that I envisioned would “finish” my career – a FULL IRONMAN 140.2! It would be my last event, and in my head I believed I would do that race when I was in my 80s.

After talking with Coach Bettina Warnholtz of Racelab and my doctors, we came up with a plan. Rehab my Achilles and train for an Ironman after 50 – about 20 years sooner than I envisioned.

The Journey is the Reward

Being a seasoned shorter distance triathlete, my crowd included several athletes who where training for the 140.2 distance. I heard complaining statements like, “I have to ride five hours today and run 14 miles tomorrow.” I was determined not to go through my training for an Ironman after 50 with that mindset.

I shifted the gears in my mind to: “I GET to ride five hours today and the I GET to run 14 miles tomorrow!” My goal was to make the journey my reward and to finish the event in less than 15 hours. I chronicled my training with photography, finding one amazing experience to truly “see” each training session.

Months of Dedication

Ironman training, regardless of age, requires a solid six months of dedication. In my training, I built up to a 7-hour ride, a 6,000-meter swim and a 20-mile run. I closely monitored sleep and nutrition during training and afterwards. Fuel is scrutinized and manipulated to get the most out of nutrition. In fact, the complexity of the training prompted me to get my Ironman coaching certification so I could learn even more.

Ironman after 50

Working on swimming skills with my training partners.

My background is in group fitness and personal training, which made me question everything I was doing for my Ironman preparation! Luckily, I have a very understanding coach.

The swim was my nemesis. I was so afraid of the swim that I practiced swimming for seven years. Learning to swim as an older adult was a bit intimidating.

Practicing in the pool with swimmers who swam in childhood, high school and college took my breath away literally. Let me tell you, it’s much more technical than it looks. Much harder than my golf stroke!

My coach groomed me perfectly to build not only my endurance but also my confidence. To get to the finish, I had to work up to a four-mile swim. Every Monday for six months I swam the lake with my friend Dawn Brooks, plus did three other pool swims each week.

Day of Reckoning: An Ironman After 50

Ironman after 50

Before the start, with my husband, Jim.

The day of the Ironman started beautifully. My husband Jim was a calming influence.

Ironman Arizona had a new mass swim start, which meant everyone went in the lake at the same time. I was so worried about not making the cut-off time that I decided I would be first in the water. Big mistake. I got hammered by men swimming on top of me, punching me, and dragging all 5 feet 1 inches of my body under the water.

“Be Calm. Be Iron.” was my motto, so I just kept swimming. Ironically, the swim turned out to be the easiest part of the day.

Athletes can waste time here because they are cold from being in the water so long. My strategy was to run out of the water with my wetsuit on instead of using the wetsuit strippers. This worked perfectly. Dawn volunteered in the T1 tent, stripped off my wetsuit, and I was pedaling off on the bike within 5 minutes.

Wheels Down

Training in Arizona’s 110+ temperatures that summer turned out to be a game-changer on race day. I was up by 3 a.m. most weekend mornings and out the door. The training took me to parts of Arizona that I had never seen in my 37 years living here. I witnessed full moons that lit my way most mornings and the sounds of coyotes howling before daybreak.

Ironman after 50

Six months of training culminated in Ironman Arizona.

The first loop on race day was beautiful. I paced myself on the climbs and was fearless on the descents.

On the second loop, the temp dropped to 45-50 degrees and it started pouring rain. Rain was not in the forecast, and no one – not even the pros – had been prepared for it. We wore nothing but skimpy bike jerseys and shorts.

My strategy went out the window when it became dangerous to fly down the slippery descents. I was so cold that when I stopped to use the Porta-Potty I did not want to come out of the shelter.

The rain just kept coming and so did my asthma. One of my triggers for asthma is humidity. Thankfully, one of my teammates is a nurse. As Cassie approached me, she could hear the wheezing. She asked how I was doing, and I told her I was having trouble breathing and took a hit from my inhaler. Falling back, she followed me until she knew I was OK. She made a lifelong friend in me in that act of kindness.

I watched several competitors call it quits on the bike, some with hypothermia and others who just had enough suffering in the rain. What my summer heat training taught me was that muscling through weather obstacles was a mental game.

Ready to Run

T2 was a much different experience compared with T1. There were far fewer volunteers in the tent to assist athletes with the transition to running gear. I had to walk thru the mud with my bike shoes to find my backpack – usually the gear is handed to you.

In the tent, I found a spot and stood in calf-deep water, trying to wrestle my helmet off, but my fingers where frozen. I thought I be disqualified if I ran with my bike helmet on. Finally, I found someone to unclasp it.

Here’s a tip: Two nights before you pack your transition bags, pack an extra pair of shorts and a jersey. I almost cried with joy when I saw dry clothes. 20 minutes later, I left the transition area for my final marathon leg of 26.2 miles.

The Final Leg

Ironman after 50

At the finish line.

Coming out of T2 for the running leg with a plastic trash bag over my body to keep me dry and warm, I spotted two of my good friends, Liz and Brenda. They were videoing me and shouting words of encouragement. I have no idea what I said to them, but their presence gave me a push to start my run.

My Racelab team tent was next and the cheering was as wild as the Wellesley College section of the Boston marathon course. It was amazing and just what I needed. Coach Bettina listened to my breathing and told me to slow down and take my inhaler. Off I ran as the sun was setting.

There is only one hill on the run, and when I got there my daughter was on the side of the course in her high heels and street clothes. I asked her to run with me a bit, so she did.

To motivate me to get up the hill, she told me she would like to run a marathon. I was excited by that because she’s not a runner! Not too long after, I saw my entire running club lining the course and cheering for me. Their familiar faces gave me a much-needed spark of energy.

In training I had run the course several times and envisioned the finish line, but when I was actually in the finish chute, I felt like a gold medalist in the winner’s parade. At that moment, my coach caught me at the finish line, and I was an Ironman!

Ironman after 50

During my training, Dad told me several times how proud he was of me.

Epilogue for My Father

Two years before I decided to do an Ironman race, my father had a severe stroke that left this scratch golfer, a very active man, disabled on one side.

He summoned tremendous strength and determination throughout his recovery simply to get out of bed and start walking again. During my training, Dad told me several times how proud he was of me.

At the finish line, my sister Kim was there FaceTiming with Dad, Mom and sister in Illinois. Dad stood up and cheered, “That is my daughter! She is an Ironman!” When I saw him later, he whispered in my ear “Never stop.”

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