In 2016, when Swiss triathlete Pablo Erat competed in the Goa Triathlon, a friendly competitor told him he had a figurative target on his back. Then in his mid-40s, Erat had already won the competition thrice.
“I found out there was a coach from one of the armed forces teams who did not like that there was this old foreigner who was beating all these younger athletes. So, I learned that his team was specifically tasked with beating me,” Erat recalls.
Erat won that race, apparently much to the chagrin of the unnamed coach. Those tasked with beating him, however, were sportsmanlike. “They were actually really supportive. They were just really happy to see that I was still so good at my age,” recalls Erat, who later won three more Goa Triathlons.
Now 51, Erat nearly had another high-profile triathlon win in Goa on November 13, Sunday. He finished 6th at the Goa Ironman 70.3 race. The event was a half Ironman and featured a 1.9km swim in open water, followed by a 90km cycle ride, ending with a 21km half marathon.
Erat, who has regularly competed in India, was in the lead after the swimming and cycling legs, but the mid-afternoon heat and humidity caught up with him in the run.
The Ironman race is seen as the gold standard of endurance sports, but the half Ironman will also test the most iron-willed.
It could be easy to assume athletes as old as Erat and older will be at a disadvantage compared to younger competitors, but that would be off the mark.
Feats like Erat’s aren’t uncommon and the Ironman race in Goa was proof. Of the 719 competitors who finished the race, 58 — 51 men and 7 women — were over 50 years old. Reduce the age range to athletes over 40, and the number swells.
“Some younger athletes will try to fight the waves when we are swimming in the open sea. But as you get older, your technique is a lot more important. So, we try to glide through the water rather than fight it.”Brigadier Rajesh Joshy, who competed the race (men’s 55-59 age category) with a time of 8:27:40
The oldest finisher at the Goa Ironman was 66 -year-old Takako Morinaga of Japan, who has competed in 18 Ironman races. Morinaga though is a spring chicken compared to some Ironman competitors. For instance, Sister Madonna Buder, completed her last Ironman distance race in Kona, Hawaii, in 2012 when she was 82 years old.
One reason often advanced by the sport’s insiders is the Ironman distance is essentially an endurance race. Erat explains, “I used to be a nationally ranked 100m hurdler in my youth, but once I got into my 20s and 30s, I was more focused on my career so stopped any real sports. When I got back, of course, I wasn’t going to be as explosive as in my teens. But endurance sports are still something that you can do as you get older.”
Even within endurance sports, the triathlon has its advantages. Part of the reason, according to Jeff Edwards, the managing director of the Ironman series in Asia-Pacific, is the nature of the sport. As far as endurance races go, he says, it isn’t that the triathlon is easy. It is just that it is a lot more suitable for older athletes. “We have actually thought about it and it’s actually a little funny because we think especially for older competitors, it’s perhaps easier to do a long-distance Ironman than a marathon. The problem with a marathon is there isn’t a lot of variety in your training. If you do just one thing all the time with the same motion and impacts on your joints, then you have a higher chance of picking up injuries,” says Edwards.
In contrast, training for the triathlon is a lot more balanced. “A lot of triathletes run a significant amount, but balance that out with cycling and swimming, which are not high-impact sports. They aren’t just doing one thing all the time. There isn’t that sort of repetitive overuse that you would see with just running,” says Edwards.
This isn’t to say that older competitors disregard running events. Indeed, many older competitors in the Ironman distances, like Erat, found their way to the sport after initially getting involved with endurance sports through long-distance running such as the half and full marathon.
Deepak Raj, co-founder of ZOSKA, which brought the Ironman to India, says, “A lot of older athletes begin their journey in endurance races through marathons. You generally start thinking more about fitness at that age. After a few marathons, you start seeking out the next challenge and that for some turn out to be the Ironman races.”
There’s also the fact that, unlike their younger compatriots, older athletes are a lot more conscious about their limitations and pace themselves.
Brigadier Rajesh Joshy, who competed in the men’s 55-59 age category and finished the race, validates this. “I know for a fact that I’m not going to place on the podium at my age,” says Brigadier Joshy, 59. “Some younger athletes will try to fight the waves when we are swimming in the open sea. When you are young, you have a lot of strength, so you think you can do that. But as you get older, your technique is a lot more important. So, we try to glide through the water rather than fight it.”
Brigadier Joshy, who retired from the Army, completed his race with a time of 8:27:40. A younger active Services member, nearly 40 years younger, finished around the same time. An international-level athlete failed to complete the race after crashing in the cycling leg.
Erat has seen the wisdom of age as well. “I realise, I’m not going to win races like when I was in my 30s and even 40s. The athletes I used to lead are now overtaking me, but that’s fine. I compete in the Ironman not because I want to win but because it gives me a lot of satisfaction.
“So, I want to compete in a way that allows me to keep returning to the race. For a lot of the younger competitors, competing in an Ironman race is about having the bragging rights for the office. It is a reason to take part, but it doesn’t always help you compete in a sustainable manner,” he says.
For all the physiological and mental advantages that older athletes enjoy, there is another much simpler reason. There is a higher percentage of them at the Ironman distance events.
Dr. Kaustabh Radkar, who has competed in over a dozen Ironman races and also coaches athletes looking to take part in the triathlon, says, “Honestly, the Ironman is an expensive sport. The entry fee for a half Ironman is about $320 (more than Rs 26,000 at the current exchange rate) and double for a full Ironman. Then, you have equipment costs. A basic triathlon bicycle will cost you nearly a lakh and upwards. Your wetsuit for open water swimming will cost you several thousand rupees as well. There is the cost of training and nutrition. And there is the cost of travelling for a competition.
“Most of the Ironman events are outside India. If you are competing abroad, your training and competition expenses for one race will be at least Rs 4 lakh. A lot of my students have told me that there are a lot of people who might want to take part in the race, but they don’t have the money for it. A lot of athletes only make that kind of money towards the second half of their career. That’s when they can afford it.”
The sport, essentially, self-selects for successful and driven individuals. Those who do take part are willing to put in the effort and time. Edwards believes this is a growing tribe. “There’s a lot more knowledge now about how to prepare. It wasn’t there a decade or so ago. Nutrition, physio, and rehabilitation has gotten a lot better. That’s allowed many older athletes to stay active a lot longer than perhaps would have been possible earlier,” he says.
Many of the older competitors in Goa plan to make the most of those improvements and compete even longer.
This knowledge drives Erat. “I’m a lot smarter when it comes to training. In my 30s, I was able to throw myself hard into training. As I’ve grown older, I know the way to let my body rest and recover better. I don’t run as much as I used to do, but I do a lot more cycling, which works my muscles in a similar way without the extra load on my joints,” he says.
Erat believes he could still finish higher than the 6th place he had in Goa, but that isn’t what he wants at this point. “I know I can get even faster, but for that I’d have to spend much more time in training. But I’ve got a young child and I’d rather spend that extra time with her. Triathlon and Ironman races are a part of my lifestyle, but they aren’t the only things in my life. And that has actually helped me compete for a lot longer. I don’t want to only train in this sport and end up not being able to compete as long as I want to. Ideally, I want to do this into my 70s,” he says.
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