Triathlon Across the USA: State #44 – Delaware

Bear, Delaware; May 16, 2021 – Bear Triathlon, Lums Pond State Park.

The Delaware triathlon was part of a six-week road trip that included stops in Omaha, Nebraska; The Villages, Florida; and parts of Virginia and Delaware for triathlons in these two states.

Before the Delaware Triathlon

Joy and I began the week between the Virginia and Delaware triathlons with bike riding on a portion of the Virginia Capital Trail, starting at Colonial Williamsburg. After a few days in the Williamsburg area, we packed up and drove to the Atlantic Coast of Delaware via the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and the Delmarva Peninsula.

We settled in Bethany Beach, Delaware from where we took the three days leading up to the Bear Triathlon to tour the coastal area between Ocean City, Maryland and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.

The sights and experiences of the area between southern Virginia and the Delaware coast for the first time reminded us how thankful we are to be on this triathlon journey.

Before the Delaware triathlon, we visited the Atlantic coast at Bethany Beach, Delaware.
The Atlantic Ocean from the Bethany Beach, Delaware boardwalk.

Previewing the Race Course

Late Saturday afternoon, Joy and I drove from Bethany Beach to Lums Pond State Park, outside Bear, Delaware, for the Bear Triathlon packet pickup. It surprised us to see a line of tens of cars stretching out of the park entrance onto the road leading up it. My first thought was that this was going to be a big triathlon. with a lot of participants.

The Bear Triathlon was a decent size, with about 550 competitors in the sprint and Olympic distance races combined. However, we eventually learned that Lums Pond State Park offers tremendous opportunity for outdoor activity beyond triathlon, from kayaking and paddle boating to picnicking. There was even a cricket match being played next to the race transition area.

After collecting my race packet, which included a t-shirt and race numbers for the bike and run, we drove the bike course. We do this as often as possible to check the condition of the roads, looking for potholes or other obstacles that could present a hazard during the race. This is also an opportunity to review the hills and turns along the course.

Near the end of the course, we saw the remains of a mother deer and her fawn lying on the bike path. By the next morning, these were no longer there.

Sign at the entrance of Lums Pond State Park in Bear, Delaware.
Lums Pond State Park (Bear, Delaware) is home of the Bear Triathlon.

3rd Annual Bear Triathlon

The Bear Triathlon is one of several running and multisport events managed by Rip It Events (Columbia, Maryland). The company also offers coaching services.

This race included both sprint and Olympic distance events. Organizers allowed participants of either distance to compete as an individual or as part of a relay team.

The advertised distances for the individual legs of this USAT-sanctioned sprint triathlon were:

  • Swim: 0.6 miles (966 m or 1,056 yards) – Actual: 1,348 yards (0.77 miles or 1,233 m)
  • Bike: 10 miles (16 km) – Actual: 9.9 miles (16km)
  • Run: 3 miles (4.8 km) – Actual: 3 miles (4.8 km)

Actual distances shown above are from my Garmin Forerunner 920XT.

An Anxious Group

Maybe it was because of the many race cancellations over the past year, but the triathletes competing today seemed anxious to race.

Lums Pond State Park opens at 5 am and the transition area was set to open at 5:15 am.

I arrived at the park entrance a few minutes before 5 am expecting to wait for the gate to open. I imagined there might be a few cars which had arrived before me.

However, to my surprise, the gate was already open. I passed through without stopping.

I was even more surprised when I reached the parking lot closest to the transition area. Cars were already lined up one deep across the width of the parking lot.

Cars filled with triathletes ready to race gathered in the parking lot before the transition area opened, some even before the park was scheduled to open.

A Cool, Still Morning – Perfect For a Triathlon

The 48°F air temperature during setup of the transition area made wearing a sweatshirt feel good However, as the sun rose and race time approached, the air temperature climbed a few degrees. Meanwhile, the air remained still, with only a slight breeze, and clouds covered most of the sky.

By the start of the swim, the combination of full sleeve wetsuit and temperature in the low-to-mid 50s °F was comfortable – not too cold, not too warm.

By the time we finished the bike and run legs, the temperature was still comfortably in the mid-60s °F.

As the sun rose on race morning, the temperature became more comfortable. Perfect race conditions.

Swim

The race director reported the temperature of the water in Lums Pond to be 68°F. Not only was this race wetsuit-legal according to USA Triathlon rules, but he encouraged racers to wear a wetsuit.

Competitors started their swim in one of eight groups based on race distance, age, and gender. The first four groups, or waves, included those in the Olympic triathlon.

The three-quarter mile swim was longer than typical for a sprint triathlon. The course traveled at an angle away from the beach, then turned left toward the opposite side of the pond. After a short distance, we made a second left turn and swam parallel to the beach, finally reaching the last buoy. From here, a swim of a few hundred yards brought us to the sandy beach.

However, the swim leg was not yet complete. To finish this portion, triathletes needed to continue another roughly hundred yards before crossing the timing mat. We were then in T1, the first transition period.

The Bear Triathlon began with a counterclockwise swim around a series of orange buoys. The course started to the right in the upper picture, then turned left twice before crossing the top portion of the water. A third left turn at a buoy beyond the left edge of the upper picture led to the beach (lower left). The swim leg officially finished after completing a jog across a grassy area to the ‘Swim In’ entrance of the transition area (lower right).

Bike

We mounted our bikes just outside the transition area. The bike leg followed a course that left the park on Bucks Jersey Road. The single loop course exited and later re-entered the park at the main entrance gate.

Once outside the park, we made four right turns following Howell School Road, Red Lion Road, and Route 301. The final of the four turns brought us back on Bucks Jersey Road and the ride to the transition area.

The second right turn on the bike course of the Bear Triathlon was at Howell School Road and Red Lion Road
The second right turn on the bike course of the Bear Triathlon was at Howell School Road and Red Lion Road. Volunteers and local police ensured safety of the racers by controlling traffic at this busy intersection.

We owe a big thank you to the race crew and volunteers. They did a tremendous job of directing bikers and controlling car and truck traffic with whom we shared the road.

Run

The out-and-back run course took us on a combination of grass, dirt trail, and asphalt covered roads. One feature of the out-and-back course I enjoy is the exchange of encouragement between racers. This was on full display today.

By the time sprint triathlon racers were on the run course, some of those competing in the Olympic distance race were also on their run. The difference was the Olympic triathletes covered all but the last few yards leading to the finish line two times.

The first and last few hundred yards of the out-and-back run course were across a large grassy area that had been the location of a cricket match the day before the triathlon. Note the location of the first station for water and sports drink.

After the Delaware Triathlon

After completing my race and repacking my bike and other gear (wetsuit, goggles, swim cap, bike helmet, and race number belt), I sat outside the transition area on the edge of a picnic table from where I watched others coming and going.

During this time, I met John Dean, a seasoned, senior triathlete who was closing in on his 100th triathlon. He made it. You can read John’s story, 101 Triathlons – John Dean’s Story, on this site.

I waited as long as I could for the awards ceremony. However, I eventually needed to leave to make the hotel check-out time. Thankfully, the race organizer was kind enough to send me the award I received for my second place finish within my age group.

After showering and checking out of the hotel, Joy and I started our journey back to Minnesota. Our route took us through Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, on the way to West Chicago, Illinois for an overnight stay with friends.

Upon reaching our Minnesota home, we began a multi-month project of decluttering, donating, and packing for our move to Florida.

Race Firsts

  • First triathlon in which the swim took place in a body of water in which swimming is normally not allowed.

Your Favorite Lake For A Triathlon Swim?

Have you done a triathlon in Delaware? I know John Dean did his first one in Delaware.

Tell us about these in the Comments below.

101 Triathlons – John Dean’s Story

Have you ever asked yourself, “Should I do a triathlon”?

If you have been thinking about doing your first triathlon or going further with the sport, John Dean is a good guy to know. He has seen and experienced a lot through his 101 (and counting) sprint to Ironman triathlons.

I should warn you that John will most likely tell you to go for it. And, if you are older, he will also tell you “age should not be a limiting factor in triathlon”.

John Dean’s Triathlon History

The Senior Triathletes’ community represents a mix of backgrounds and experiences. Many trained for and completed their first triathlon later in their careers. Others are now training and competing in retirement.

There are also individuals like John Dean for whom triathlon has been a nearly lifelong adventure.

After completing his first triathlon 30 years ago, John continued with the sport. When we spoke recently, he had completed his 101st triathlon.

The Journey Began With Running

John’s path to triathlon began nearly 40 years ago with running. Like many of us, running was a means for him to lose some weight gained after having given up smoking.

John’s initial goal was to complete a 10k race in under 40 minutes and to finish a marathon. He told himself that once he met these goals, it would be time to move on to something a little less strenuous, like fishing or golf.

However, once John easily met those two goals – his first 10k time was around 39 minutes and his first marathon time was 3 hours 25 minutes, he kept going, trying to improve his times.

For the next ten years, John competed in running races from 5k to full marathon distances.

Including his 101 triathlons, John has raced almost 300 times. Most of these have been running races, though he has also done a few duathlons and swim races.

“Should I Do A Triathlon?”

In January, 1992, John’s friend, Peter, invited him to complete a triathlon during August in Norfolk, Virgina. Fearless and eager to take on a new challenge, John answered, ‘Sure, I’ll do that’.

However, after looking deeper into triathlon over the next couple of days, John called his friend. A bit panicked, John asked Peter, “Isn’t there swimming involved in a triathlon?”

Peter confirmed to John that there is swimming in a triathlon. The problem was that John did not know how to swim.

Upon learning this, Peter unsympathetically replied, “Well, you have eight months to learn to swim”.

So, John went to his local pool and spoke to a lifeguard. The conversation went something like this:

Coach: “How far do you need to swim?”

John: “A mile.”

Coach: “How far can you swim?”

John: “How long is the pool?”

Coach: “25 meters.”

John: “In that case, I can swim 24 meters.”

Coach: “Then let’s get to work.”

Those who are holding back from doing a triathlon because they either do not know how to swim or are not comfortable swimming should take heart. John started his inspiring triathlon journey being unable to swim a single length of the pool.

Actual First Triathlon

Not wanting to embarrass himself in front of his friend on race day, John registered for a triathlon near his home before the August race. As luck would have it, one of the Bud Light Series triathlons was scheduled for May in nearby Delaware.

John’s experience with this race, his first triathlon, convinced him he would be ready for the August triathlon, at least enough to not embarrass himself.

Second Triathlon

John’s second triathlon, the one in Norfolk, Virginia in August 1992, was a bigger – meaning more participants – than his first. For this race of about 1,200 triathletes, organizers required all triathletes to rack their bikes in the transition area during packet pickup the day before the race.

The next morning, on race day, John arrived while it was still dark to finish setting up his transition area. Much to his shock, his bike appeared to be missing. He wondered, “Why would someone steal my $400 hybrid bike when there are all these $5,000 and even $10,000 bikes here?”.

With a walk around the transition area, he eventually found his bike. He had mistakenly racked it in the wrong place on the previous day. This was the first of many lessons John would learn from triathlon.

John had not set high expectations for this race. So, when he wound up near the middle of all finishers, John decided to continue with triathlon.

John’s Most Memorable Triathlons

It is easy to imagine that out of his hundred-plus triathlons, John has had some wonderful experiences.

What have been John’s most memorable triathlons? He described three.

John Dean after finishing the 2016 World Age Group Championship Triathlon in Cozumel, Mexico.
One of John Dean’s most memorable triathlon moments has been competing with the world’s greatest amateur triathletes at the World Championships in Cozumel, Mexico.

Racing in Cold, Rainy Weather

A not so pleasant but valuable experience came during one of his early triathlons. This race took place in Columbia, Maryland on a May day John described as “cold, rainy, and miserable”.

His sleeveless wetsuit and bare feet provided little protection against a temperature in the 40s °F. John remembers feeling “cold to the bone” before and during the swim.

The first oddity came during the swim. A group of swimmers donning red swim caps he encountered about three-fourths of the way through the swim had vanished by the time he reached shore at the end of his swim.

Once in the transition area, John had difficulty getting out of his wetsuit. He also fell twice trying to mount his bike. Something seemed off, but he was not sure what was happening.

The feeling that something was wrong continued after he was on the bike. Pedaling was unusually slow and difficult.

Convinced of a problem with the bike, maybe one brake dragging on the rim, John got off the bike to inspect it. He could find nothing wrong, so he remounted the bike and continued with the same difficulty.

Once again, he dismounted and checked his bike. He still couldn’t see anything wrong with the bike.

Fortunately, John eventually realized that he had been riding uphill, a fact he had not grasped prior to this. It was this sense of confusion that suggested to John the possibility of hypothermia.

Now, rather than mount and ride his bike, John ran with his bike on the bike course. As he warmed, he could eventually remount his bike and finish the bike leg and complete the run.

Thankfully, John had recognized the onset of hypothermia before it became more serious.

Racing With the World’s Best Amateur Triathletes

A much more pleasant experience occurred in 2016 after John qualified for the World Team at the USA Triathlon Age Group Championships in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

He and his wife, Jeanne capitalized on his high place finish at nationals to travel to Cozumel, Mexico, where John competed in the World Championships. After the race, they took some extra days for rest and relaxation in the sun and sand on this Caribbean island.

The course on this Caribbean island was flat. The weather was hot and humid. However, what made this race truly memorable for John was the chance for him to compete alongside some of the world’s greatest age group triathletes.

Becoming an Ironman

John’s sole experience with Ironman came in training for and competing in Ironman Lake Placid (Lake Placid, New York). He enjoyed the experience enough to plan a second Ironman race.

However, while training for it, John realized he would rather skip rocks or play ball with his young grandkids than do a long training ride or run. Acting on this feeling, John changed his plans and returned to focus on shorter distance triathlons.

John Dean crossing the finish line at Ironman Lake Placid.
John Dean crossing the finish line at Ironman Lake Placid.

How John Trains for Triathlon

Early in his triathlon career, John filled some skill gaps in swimming and biking through “several swim coaches and one bike coach”.

As we have already learned, the swim coaches took him from a non-swimmer to one able to complete an Ironman triathlon swim. His bike coach taught him both how to train (“ride lots of miles”) and proper technique (“remember to both pull up and push down to maximize power throughout the stroke”).

After these experiences with coaches, all positive, John returned to self-coaching. He continues today to be his own triathlon coach.

Training as a Lifestyle

Training is an integral part of John’s daily routine. Each week, John trains two days each in swimming, biking, and running. The seventh is a rest day.

On the swim days, John spends at least one hour in a local pool. Over this hour, John will swim a mile through intervals of between 5 and 20 minutes of swimming, separated by brief breaks.

On the two bike days, John typically joins one of two groups for a ride of between 25 and 35 miles. Many of the rides are on the Lewes-Georgetown Trail, a rail trail easily accessed from his home.

As with the swim training, John prefers to run on his own rather than in a group. On these days, he will run between 4 and 8 miles.

This is a typical schedule since John has learned to stay flexible in his training to avoid injury.

What About Technology?

John wears a sports watch with built-in heart rate monitor to track distance, pace, and heart rate. However, he does not actively use metrics from the watch during training.

Instead, John prefers to train based on feel, sometimes referred to as perceived exertion. At the end of each training session or race, he asks “Did I give it my best?”.

John’s Advice for Other Current or Would Be Senior Triathletes

You have a glimpse of where John has come from, his achievements, and how he continues in triathlon.

What are his top pieces of advice for beginner and current triathletes?

#1 – Give It a Try

John’s email signature includes a quote (included below) from author and personal development coach Michelle Landy. John’s belief is that anyone thinking about triathlon should consider her statement.

Triathlon is far from impossible. Many of us are evidence of this, so “give it a try”.

“It’s impossible, said pride,
It’s risky, said experience,
It’ s pointless, said reason,
Give it a try, whispered the heart.”

Michelle Landy, Author and Coach

#2 – Make Time for Recovery

John has learned that we need time for recovery to minimize injury. “We can’t train seven days a week.”

He believes he would still run even if he had not gotten involved in triathlon. However, John is also convinced that, had he continued running without mixing it with swimming and biking or other physical activity, he would have spent more time nursing injuries.

This is a common argument in favor of triathlon over single sports.

#3 – Pay Attention to Nutrition, Especially for Long Course Triathlon

Triathlon training and racing can burn many calories. This is a key appeal for many who get involved with triathlon, especially when weight loss is a goal.

However, in longer training sessions and longer races, it may be necessary to take in calories to supplement those consumed. On top of this, we need to train our bodies to take in these calories while continuing to bike and run to avoid digestive distress.

#4 – Thinking About Ironman? Get Family Buy-in

It takes a certain amount of Type-A personality to compete in triathlon. Therefore, it’s not surprising that many who have done shorter distance triathlons consider competing in longer distance races.

If this is you, first decide if longer distance is a priority. If it is a priority, next get your family’s agreement. The longer the race distance, the longer the training. Training for a half or full Ironman distant triathlon requires many hours each week over several months.

Several other senior Ironman triathletes whose stories I have published have echoed this advice.

Related post: What If I Want to Do An Ironman Triathlon? – Tom Lipp’s Story

John Dean and his wife Jeanne, a faithful supporter of his triathlon journey.
John Dean’s wife Jeanne has been a faithful supporter of his triathlon journey.

Other Benefits

John has experienced another important benefit of training for a triathlon. Swimming, biking, and running are all means of stress relief.

There is even further benefit of endurance sports like triathlon. Medical research has shown that physical activity delays or prevents mental decline. As one example, here is the summary of a 2011 research report.

A rapidly growing literature strongly suggests that exercise, specifically aerobic exercise, may attenuate cognitive impairment and reduce dementia risk.

Ahlskog et al., “Physical Exercise as a Preventive or Disease-Modifying Treatment of Dementia and Brain Aging”, Mayo Clin Proc. 2011 Sep; 86(9): 876–884.

What’s Stopping You?

John recalled his recent conversation with a woman while both were at their local pool for a swim. Upon seeing his Ironman tattoo, she asked him about triathlon.

The conclusion to their conversation was John saying, “Try doing a triathlon. They are fun. Plus, you will meet great people.”

What is holding you back from getting into triathlon?

Please share your questions and concerns with those of our community in the Comments section below.

A Healthy Retirement Plan – Mark Bartolomeo’s Story

Imagine being retired or near retirement and at the start of your first triathlon. Or, the triathlon could be the first of a longer distance. Are you feeling prepared? Or are you worried if you have trained enough?

According to Mark Bartolomeo, you can not only feel, but be, mentally and physically prepared for the triathlon using the same disciplines that got you to this place in life. Goal setting and planning followed by executing the plan are just as important for triathlon as they are for other parts of our lives, including work.

That has been Mark’s approach. And, it surely seems to work as he continues to become more fit and go longer triathlon distances in retirement.

Mark Bartolomeo’s Path to Triathlon

When I first met him in April 2021, Mark Bartolomeo was in the final stages of preparing for Ironman 70.3 Gulf Coast, his first in-person half Ironman. Within the next month, he completed this race.

Five months later, when we spoke to gather information for this post, Mark was training for Ironman Florida. Just before finishing this post, Mark completed Ironman Florida, his first full distance triathlon.

How did Mark arrive at a place where he is achieving more in triathlon with age?

Mark tracks the beginning of this path involving triathlon to around age 55. He realized it was time to take off some of the extra weight he had put on. It was also time to change what he called an “unhealthy lifestyle”.

Mark started running, sometimes on a treadmill and sometimes outside. His running shoes became a regular part of luggage when traveling for work. He also started eating better, prioritizing high quality whole foods.

Over three years, Mark shed 65 lbs.

What To Do With Extra Time in Retirement?

After retiring from full-time work as an executive in the wireless communications industry, Mark found he had “a lot of extra time”.

He told me “I asked myself ‘what am I going to do with this time?'”.

Besides running, Mark had, in his earlier years, enjoyed biking. Growing up on Chesapeake Bay, he had also spent a lot of time in and on the water. He had even taught watersports in his teenage years. Retirement gave him time to continue running while resuming biking and swimming.

He saw the unique benefits of mixing swimming, biking, and running for “a full-body workout”. Soon, Mark put the three sports together, completing his first triathlon, a sprint distance race at Fort Island Gulf Beach near Crystal River, Florida.

The experience was enjoyable. Part of this came from the accomplishment, but some of it came from the venue. Mark calls this triathlon “beginner-friendly”, with its “calm swim and flat roads for biking and running.”

Mark followed his first triathlon with several more sprint triathlons, including more at Crystal River and others in Clermont, Florida. He eventually also did a couple of Olympic distance races.

Distances for each of the legs of an Olympic distance triathlon are roughly twice those for the sprint distance. For Mark, this was a reasonable step toward a longer term goal to do Ironman races.

Taking On New Challenges

Over the next two years, Mark trained for a half Ironman triathlon. With most in-person triathlons being canceled in 2020, Mark completed his first half Ironman virtually during the pandemic.

While there were many negatives associated with COVID-19, Mark found at least one positive.

Auto traffic in The Villages, Florida, where Mark had moved when he retired, was almost non-existent. Now, he could ride safely on the roads within The Villages for both training and the virtual race.

Related post: Bright Spots in Triathlon From COVID Restrictions

As racing in the USA began to re-open in 2021, Mark put this training to the test with the Gulf Coast Ironman 70.3.

Not stopping there, he continued to train for and complete Ironman Florida in early November.

Mark Bartolomeo crossing the finish line of the 2021 Ironman 70.3 Gulf Coast in Panama City, Florida. (Picture courtesy of Mark Bartolomeo.)

Triathlon Training With Coaches and Friends

Retirement has given Mark more flexibility in training. This has made it easier to train with a group of like-minded, similarly motivated individuals. The extra time has also allowed him to train longer and with greater intention and to recover properly.

Relearning to Swim

Early in his triathlon journey, Mark realized he needed help with swimming. For this, he involved a swim coach who helped him develop a proper stroke and breathing technique.

“Biking and running performance are mostly about physical endurance and mental toughness. In contrast, swimming is the one leg of triathlon for which speed is most affected by technique. You can tell those who were Olympic contenders and college swimmers.”

Building Endurance for Triathlon Performance

Besides involving a human coach for swimming, Mark has found virtual coaching through TrainingPeaks to be effective in both cost and results.

With TrainingPeaks, the athlete (that’s you if you are preparing for a triathlon) completes a questionnaire showing the time available for training. You also indicate the distance (e.g. sprint, Olympic, etc.) and date of the race for which you are training.

With this information, the virtual coach produces an initial training plan. The virtual coach sends workouts to a linked smart watch and bike computer. Results from the workout (heart rate, pace, etc.) are then uploaded to the TrainingPeaks website. Here, they are analyzed and used to track progress and adjust future workouts, all with an eye to the athlete having their best performance on race day.

The cost for this training is reasonable (tens of dollars for the entire plan), based on the number of weeks in the training plan.

Training With a Group

Mark trains with a group within The Villages Triathlon Club who are all preparing for longer distance triathlons. The weekly TrainingPeaks-generated workout plan is flexible so he can adapt it to the schedule of others in this group.

However, a typical training week for Mark and the core group who are training for Ironman distant triathlons looks like this.

  • Sunday – long run of 13 or more miles followed by a 2,500 yard swim.
  • Monday – short (1-1/2 hour) bike ride.
    • NOTE: Mark does some of these bike rides on a smart trainer linked to his bike computer.
  • Tuesday – speed run comprising a 10k run at a fast pace.
  • Wednesday – short (1-1/2 hour) bike ride.
  • Thursday – hill run comprising a 10k run in an area with moderately steep hills.
  • Friday – 80 to 100 mile bike ride followed by a 6 to 10-mile run.
  • Saturday – long (2,500 yard) open water swim.

Training with a group that includes life long Ironman triathletes near his age has unique benefits. Experienced senior triathletes with whom Mark trains have helped him with the technical aspects of training. They have also helped him develop mental toughness needed to perform in stressful conditions that can arise in both training and racing.

swim to bike transition
Heading to the swim to bike transition at Ironman Florida 2021. (Picture courtesy of Mark Bartolomeo.)

Mark’s Advice – ‘Start Short’

According to Mark, triathlon is a sport in which nearly everyone can take part. Along the way, you too will benefit from the all-around exercise accompanying swimming, biking, and running.

One of the wonderful features of the sport of triathlon is that there are distances for every level of experience, fitness, ability, and desire. Many accomplished sprint and Olympic triathletes will not consider doing an Ironman distance race. And, I have met senior triathletes who do Ironman triathlons but have no interest in sprint distance race because of the overall faster pace.

If you are still not sure, start with a “beginner-friendly” super sprint or sprint triathlon. Let us know in the Comments below if you would like help with a training plan.

It’s Not All About Triathlon

Triathlon training must include time for rest and recovery. Mark has found other activities to fill these times, including taking classes at The Villages Enrichment Academy. Occasionally, you can also find him hitting the golf ball around the many courses within The Villages.

Your Turn

I hope Mark’s story, one of starting triathlon later in life and continuing to push his personal limits in retirement, encourages you.

Share your questions and comments about Mark’s triathlon story below.

Also, let us know in the Comment section below if you are interested in sharing your triathlon journey with our community.

An Unlikely Triathlete – Craig Cross’s Story

Is there certain experience you must have as a senior before competing in your first triathlon?

According to Craig Cross, his Scottish ancestry makes him much more likely to be weightlifting than running. Furthermore, before his first triathlon, Craig had only biked – a little. That’s it.

The one-two punch of genealogy and inexperience made Craig an unlikely triathlete. However, through persistence, a knowledgeable coach, and the support of new friends, he is now an Ironman triathlete.

Craig Cross Before Triathlon

While his peers were playing sports in high school and college, Craig Cross was in Alaska fishing commercially. This experience launched him into a lifelong career in fishery management which he continues today as an advisor to fisheries.

However, after pouring himself into work for more than four decades, Craig realized at age 60 that he needed to lose some weight. On top of this, he was finding everyday tasks, like getting dressed and tying his shoes, to be uncomfortably difficult.

“I joined a Crossfit gym near my home in Seattle, Washington. I began to work on improving my balance and building core strength” Craig told me. “And, boy, was it difficult. So difficult that for the first six months, I literally crawled off the gym floor and pulled myself onto a couch at the end of each workout.”

But he stuck with it. Over the next three years, Craig saw his balance improve, core become stronger, and overall fitness grow.

First Triathlon At Age 61

After about a year of Crossfit, Craig, then 61, decided to do the Whidbey Island Triathlon near his home west of Seattle.

Craig signed up for the triathlon despite having never learned to swim. He told me “I put on a wetsuit for the first time for this race. About midway through the swim, I felt so constricted by the wetsuit, that I stopped and pulled it halfway down. I dog-paddled and side-stroked my way to the end.”

Since he had biked a bit in his 40s, Craig was able to complete the bike leg without any problem. He finished his first triathlon by walking the run leg of the triathlon. Even though he crossed the finish line “dead last”, Craig Cross was officially a triathlete, a senior triathlete at that.

Learning to Swim

For the next three years, Craig continued to exercise. He did two or three sprint triathlons per year. However, he wasn’t making the kind of progress he had expected.

Craig said “I still couldn’t swim. I was still walking the run. I was finishing last or near last in all of the triathlons”.

“So, I joined a triathlon team. I joined a Masters Swimming class. And, I continued to lift weights.”

Reflecting on learning to swim in the Masters swim class, Craig said “I started out in the kiddie pool. The instructor, Kainoa Pauole, taught me how to side breathe and breathe under water. She also taught me a proper swim stroke.”

“I quickly realized that Kainoa understood my needs as an older athlete.”

Taking It To The Next Level

After competing in triathlon for about five years, Craig decided that he wanted to do a half Ironman triathlon.

The first step was to hire Kainoa as his triathlon coach. According to Craig, “Since Kainoa understood my unique needs, she brought me along slowly, over a year and a half, to avoid injury.”

Coming to coaching with a masters degree in kinesiology and exercise science; experience as a college swimmer, triathlete, and marathon runner; and specific training in triathlon coaching, Kainoa made all the difference for Craig.

“The key for my training, and I believe it applies to older people in general, especially those new to the sport, was to start by getting my body ready for triathlon. I started by strengthening my core. I also built up the muscles around my knees and hips. After awhile, I started to swim consistently with the Masters team. Then, finally, I began to run.”

Craig’s Advice On Training For Senior Triathletes

Craig has now completed over 20 triathlons, including 17 sprints and four Olympic distance triathlons. In April, 2021, Craig completed his first Ironman 70.3 in Des Moines, Iowa. Not stopping there, Craig is scheduled to compete in the Victoria, British Columbia, Canada Ironman 70.3 on May 29, 2022.

Given where he started from, Craig Cross is worth listening to for advice on training, especially if you are not sure you can complete a triathlon.

“If you are serious about keeping going with triathlon as a senior, join a club and hire a coach, especially if you are doing longer distance races.”

Craig Cross, Ironman triathlete

Use Other Senior’s Experience With Triathlon

During most of the year, when preparing for a sprint or Olympic triathlon, Craig trains six days and rests one day each week. Some of the time he trains with the triathlon club or Masters swim team and other times he is on his own.

A typical training week includes two open water swims, two bike rides of 20 to 30 miles each, a 5 km run on one or two days, and one 10 km run. Craig also lifts weights two days per week.

Being part of a triathlon club and Masters swim team has been invaluable.

“It may sound strange for someone in their 60s, nearly 70, to say they are being mentored. But that is precisely what one of the guys on the triathlon team is doing. This man, who is in his 70s and doing full Ironman triathlons, has helped me understand the importance of recovery.

“Recovery is important for triathletes in general. However, for seniors, recovery is a HUGE deal. Recovery takes longer with age.

“This gentleman also holds me a little bit accountable. For example, if I miss an open water swim, the next time I show up he will ask ‘Where were you last time?’

“Being part of a team is one key to progressing and continuing in triathlon.”

Craig Cross exiting the swim at Whidbey Island Triathlon in July 2021.
Craig Cross exiting the swim at Whidbey Island Triathlon in July 2021.

Hire a Coach With the Right Experience for Longer Distance Triathlons

The second key to competing in triathlon as a senior is to hire the right coach, especially for longer distance (half and full Ironman) races. Craig emphasizes the need to have a coach, like Kainoa, who understands the unique needs of the older athlete.

Craig now hires Kainoa as his coach for the six months before a longer distance race. During other times, Craig trains using the schedule of the typical training week described above and competes in sprint or Olympic distance events.

“Kainoa develops a schedule in TrainingPeaks that helps me build endurance. While I am not fast, I am ‘forever’.

“Kainoa’s plan gives me a range of heart rate to stay within during the bike and the run. She monitors my heart rate, my cadence on the bike, and how I am feeling during each workout. With this information, she will adjust the schedule, sometimes adding another rest day and sometimes ramping up my training.

“About six months before the Des Moines triathlon, she also had me train my body to take food and electrolytes during workouts, something I would need to do during a race.

“Kainoa’s monitoring continues until I start tapering a couple of weeks before the race. It holds me accountable. Besides, her involvement also protects me from overtraining.”

How Triathlon Has Benefited Craig Cross and His Family

Craig has found triathlon to offer benefits beyond the physical ones. Some of these are included in our “15 Reasons for Those 50 and Older to Do Triathlons“.

Here are the top additional benefits for Craig:

  1. Challenges him mentally by pushing him to learn new skills. There are technical aspects of each of the three sports that are interesting to study.
  2. The variety in swimming, biking, and running as well as weightlifting keeps training fresh.
  3. Motivates family members. Seeing their father and grandfather push himself physically and mentally, even in his late 60s, has inspired family members to stay active and take on new challenges. Craig recently did a triathlon with his son, grandson, and daughter.

From An Unlikely Triathlete to Ironman

During our conversation, Craig repeatedly told me “I am not an athlete”. Of course, his story says otherwise.

What has been the secret to Craig’s achievements in triathlon? According to his coach, Kainoa Pauole, it is dedication, discipline, and consistency in training.

“Craig is a dedicated and disciplined athlete.  I know he is a busy guy with work and his family responsibilities but he still remains so consistent with his training.  All of his hard work has paid off as he has found great success in our sport.”

Notice that there is nothing Kainoa said about having experience or exceptional skill in one or more of the sports of triathlon. If that doesn’t encourage you to take up the sport – so long as your doctor concurs – I’m not sure what will.

Craig Cross celebrating a third place age group finish at the 2019 Lake Meridian Triathlon.
Craig Cross celebrating a third place age group finish at the 2019 Lake Meridian Triathlon.

It’s Your Turn

Many who get involved in triathlon come with experience in one or more of the three disciplines of swimming, biking, and running. However, as Craig Cross proves, this is not required. You can become a triathlete after age 60 even with limited experience in the three sports.

A significant number of readers of SeniorTriathletes.com are in a situation similar to Craig’s when he first thought about doing a triathlon. You are not sure how to, or even if you should, jump in and give the proverbial ‘tri’.

Craig Cross and scores of others age 50 and over have proven that you can do a triathlon later in life. You can also learn to swim and run after age 60.

And, with consistency, it is even possible to “become faster and go farther” with age. This, despite the common wisdom that we only decline with age.

What’s keeping you from tri-ing? Share your questions and comments for Craig below.

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