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A Healthy Retirement Plan – Mark Bartolomeo’s Story

A Healthy Retirement Plan – Mark Bartolomeo’s Story
Mark Bartolomeo's training partners at the Gulf Coast 70.3 Triathlon. From left to right Simon Burden, Daniel Lavoie and Mark Bartolomeo of The Villages Triathlon Club. (Picture courtesy of Mark Bartolomeo.)

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

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.

Triathlon Across the USA: State #43 – Virginia

Triathlon Across the USA: State #43 – Virginia
Spotsylvania County Courthouse

Spotsylvania Courthouse, Virginia; May 9, 2021 – Lake Anna State Park, Kinetic Lake Anne Triathlon

Our Route To The Virginia Triathlon

The Virginia 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 traveling to Virginia for the Lake Anna Triathlon, Joy and I had spent most of April in The Villages, Florida. During this visit, we joined The Villages Triathlon Club for their April meeting. I also took part in one of the club’s swim sessions.

Lake Anna State Park

Late Saturday afternoon, Joy and I headed toward Lake Anna State Park for packet pickup. The route included a detour into the village of Spotsylvania Courthouse to visit the historic courthouse pictured at the beginning of this post.

We soon arrived at the area in the park next to Lake Anna. At 13,000 acres, Lake Anna is one of the largest freshwater reservoirs in Virginia. The lake is formed by the North Anna Dam on the North Anna River. (I love the name Anna, in part because it belongs to our youngest granddaughter.)

After collecting my race packet, which included a t-shirt, a pair of socks, and race numbers for the bike, bike helmet, and run, we drove the bike course. I do this 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.

Lake Anna State Park was the location for the Kinetic triathlon, my Virginia triathlon in the Triathlon Across the USA quest.
Lake Anna State Park, about 80 miles south of Washington, DC,, was the location of the Kinetic Lake Anna triathlon.

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Virginia Triathlon

Most of us know that navigation apps can be fickle. I am quite sure all have experienced at least one occasion of being led astray by them.

On race morning, I left the hotel by myself while it was still dark. Thanks to COVID-19, spectators were discouraged from attending the race.

I was sure I would have no difficulty getting to the park when the transition area opened at 6 AM. After all, I had driven to Lake Anna State Park only hours earlier.

While it was still very dark, the route seemed familiar, at least parts of it.

So, when the Waze app I was using told me to take a left at Partlow Road, I blindly obeyed. Yes, I made the turn even though I saw a sign for Lake Anna State Park a little beyond the intersection.

I thought “Wonderful. A shortcut. I’ll be there early.”

After about ten minutes on winding roads typical of the area, I passed a small lumber mill that I had passed only minutes earlier. I realized that my ‘shortcut’ was not one at all when I found myself back at the intersection at Partlow Road.

This time, I ignored Waze, followed the Lake Anna State Park sign, and arrived at the park in another 20 minutes. I was a few minutes later than planned. However, I still had plenty of time to get a great position in the transition area for my bike.

16th Annual Kinetic Lake Anna Triathlon

The Lake Anna Triathlon is one of over twenty multisport events managed by Kinetic Multisports (Durham, North Carolina). This triathlon has been held every year, except 2020, since 2005.

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

  • Swim: 750 m (820 yards) – Actual: 787 m (861 yards)
  • Bike: 15.5 miles (25 km) – Actual: 15.4 miles (24.8 km)
  • Run: 3.1 miles (5 km) – Actual: 3.1 miles (5 km)

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

Would It Rain?

I woke to check the temperature on my phone app. It showed 39°F. While I was born and raised in Minnesota, I had just come from an unseasonably warm month in Florida with daily highs in the 80s and 90s.

Then, in the minutes before the start of the race, I heard a young woman, a friend of one triathlete, read from her phone that rain was likely to begin around 8 AM, the start time for the race.

It remained cloudy for most of the race which meant we did not fight with looking into the sun. However, it never rained.

Last Minute Activities – National Anthem and Quick Practice Swim

Just before the transition area was officially closed, race announcer Jill Blankenburg led us in an outstanding rendition of the National Anthem.

The race director then asked swimmers to gather on the beach for the swim start. Before the start, however, organizers gave those of us who wished to get into the water time to do so.

I always take advantage of this quick warm-up for two reasons. First, I like to know the condition of the beach. Will I be running into water with sharp rocks, weeds, muck, or a solid but irregular bottom?

With this short swim, I learned that Lake Anna is hands-down one of the nicest lakes in which I have done a triathlon swim. As the picture below attempts to show, the beach and lake bottom are of sugar sand consistency. Not as white as sugar, but clearly as soft. Besides, I did not see a single weed during the swim.

The ‘out, across, and in’ swim course was marked by orange and yellow buoys. About every five seconds, a racer would begin their swim by passing through the blue arch and crossing a timing mat.

More Reasons for a Practice Swim

A second reason for taking advantage of the practice swim is to get my heart rate up a bit. Doing so at this point makes it much less likely that my heart rate will spike during the first minutes of the race when excitement can drive me to swim faster than normal.

There is a third reason for doing the practice swim. I like to get the shock of cold water entering my wetsuit out of the way. When, shortly thereafter, I start the swim, my wetsuit is filled with water warmed by my body heat.

Today, this was especially relevant. The official water temperature was 68°F, making me glad to have a full wetsuit. Still, there were many with sleeveless wetsuits. There were even some more hearty souls who braved the water in just a triathlon suit. There were even a couple of guys, one who had to be close to my age, in only a swimming suit and no shirt.

Swim

After the time allotted for the practice swim, racers gathered behind the ‘Swim Start’ arch. Once the air horn sounded and the first competitor crossed the timing mat and entered the water, another swimmer entered the water about every five seconds.

This ‘time trial’ start is one positive effect of COVID-19. It reduces the density of swimmers in the water and, therefore, reduces, though not eliminates, contact between swimmers.

After swimming in a straight line out to the furthest buoy on the left side of the course, across those at the end, and straight back into shore, always keeping to the left of the buoys, then finally crossing a timing mat on the shore, the swim leg was complete.

Bike

The temperature at the start of the bike leg was 46°F. Because of this, I put on a light, long sleeved shirt for the ride.

The bike course reminded me a lot of the course for the Ohio triathlon – hilly with enough variety in the scenery to make the ride interesting.

The course followed the road out of the park, then turned left, heading northwest on the smooth, tree-lined Lawyer’s Road.

At mile 5, the course began an equilateral triangle-shaped loop covering another 5 miles of hills and turns. It was during this portion of the course that we passed farming areas with horses and cattle. There were even two Christmas tree farms – Belmont and Ralph’s – on the stretch furthest away from the park.

We soon rejoined Lawyer’s Road and returned to the transition area on the side opposite the one on which we had ridden a few minutes earlier.

A big thanks goes to the race crew and volunteers who did a tremendous job of directing bikers and controlling car and truck traffic with whom we shared the road.

Beyond the hills and turns on the roads, the bike course provided interesting scenery, from gorgeous stands of trees to pastureland, some occupied by horses and cattle.

Run

By the time I was ready for the run, the air had warmed to 50 °F and the sun was peeking through the clouds. I shed the long sleeve shirt for a pleasantly cool run, all within the park.

As advertised, the run course included “a good uphill coming out of transition”. This hill continued for most of the first mile.

For the next roughly mile and a half, the course covered gradually rolling hills. The last half mile followed a paved walking trail that traveled nearly completely downhill as it guided us toward the lake.

The end of this trail broke out near the beach. From here, we ran the last few hundred feet on grass to the finish line.

The bike and run courses for the Lake Anna Triathlon shared the road into the park for most of the first mile.

COVID-Style Awards Ceremony

Remember when triathletes gathered to celebrate the accomplishments of fellow racers? When high fives and hand shakes were prolific? Hopefully, we will get these back. I miss the celebrations.

Virtual awards ceremonies miss the point. Was it ever really about the actual award?

For this event, the Kinetic Multisports team creatively took advantage of a natural amphitheater in front of the Lake Anna beach. Rather than dismiss attendees after the race, organizers made use of the hill to reintroduce an award’s ceremony where attendees could both share in the results and stay distanced.

Race Firsts

  • First triathlon using my triathlon bike with running shoes and flat pedals having a toe cage, rather than biking shoes and clip-in pedals. I saw this at the Arkansas triathlon, shortly before I fell on my bike because I couldn’t get my bike shoes unclipped quickly enough.
  • First race in which I forgot to bring glasses as protection from bugs or other airborne material. Turned out just fine.

Your Favorite Lake For A Triathlon Swim?

What is the nicest lake in which you done a triathlon swim?

Have you done the Lake Anna triathlon or another triathlon in Virginia?

Tell us about these in the Comments below.

Christmas in October – Paul Zellner’s Story

Christmas in October – Paul Zellner’s Story

One way to picture Paul Zellner’s triathlon story is of a dad who became a runner, then followed his daughter into becoming a triathlete. This is an impressive story when you consider his accomplishments in endurance sports over the past 30 years.

However, his triathlon journey is much more than about the sport. As you will see, his fondest memories of running and triathlon are from the family connections he has enjoyed.

From the Desk to the Track

I’ll jump into Paul Zellner’s triathlon story a few years ago, when he was in his mid-30s.

Walking into his home office one afternoon, Paul received a wake-up call compliments of his then 7-year-old daughter, Maggie. She had drawn a picture of a cigarette with the word ‘No’ written across it. Determined to make certain her father got the message, Maggie put the picture on his desk.

Even though Paul was a self-described “passive smoker of mostly cigars”, he realized that his smoking was setting a bad example. This was certainly not what he wanted to teach his daughter.

He committed to stopping smoking. However, realizing that to be successful, he needed to replace his bad habit with a good one.

Paul never considered himself to be athletic. He had never participated in team sports. However, he had been gifted a tall, lean frame. In other words, a runner’s body.

So, Paul decided to build his new, healthier habit around fitness.

He bought a pair of running shoes and joined a small fitness center located in a basement near where he worked as an executive recruiter in Chicago. Eighteen times around the small track was one mile.

Realizing that he could easily add one or two laps, he gradually increased his mileage. Soon, he began running outside.

In September, at age 38, Paul ran his first 5k in Downers Grove, a western Chicago suburb near his home.

From 5k to Marathon

One month later, still filled with the sense of accomplishment and enthusiasm that followed completing this race, Paul packed up the entire family – his wife, three sons, and daughter – into their wood grain-sided station wagon.

Their destination? Downtown to cheer on participants of the Chicago Marathon.

From their Mile 2 position, Paul and family saw the happy, smiling, and hopeful faces of the roughly 4,000 racers. This was enough for Paul to catch ‘the bug’. Shortly thereafter, he signed up for next year’s Chicago Marathon.

He admitted that, in hindsight, he is not sure how things would have turned out had they parked at mile 24. In any case, Paul Zellner was among the finishers of the 1993 Chicago Marathon, his first of around 30 of these events he has now completed.

Paul was officially hooked on endurance sports.

To Runner and Triathlete

By now, Paul’s daughter, Maggie – the one who as a seven-year old led to Paul starting to run – was a Doctor of Physical Therapy and multiple Ironman finisher. She started trying to convince her father to do a triathlon.

Paul’s first triathlon was a sprint distance race in Naperville, Illinois. Paul doesn’t remember many details from this race. However, he remembers the swim held in a public reservoir. He described the swim as “a challenge”.

Like so many triathletes, Paul had come to the sport with a competence in one of the legs. In this case, the sport was running. On the other hand, he had never learned to swim.

“I remember stopping to hang onto something about halfway through swim. After that experience, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do another.”

Maggie convinced Paul to do a second triathlon. This one, a half Ironman in Benton Harbor, Michigan, included a swim in the icy cold water of Lake Michigan.

“I knew I needed a wetsuit because of the water temperature. However, that day, I learned how good a friend a wetsuit is. The wetsuit adds a remarkable amount of buoyancy.”

Paul Zellner and daughter Maggie in runner and triathlete
Paul Zellner and his daughter Maggie after his first half Ironman triathlon.

That swim was better. He completed the race and would from here on be a much more confident triathlete.

In fact, since then he has completed two more half Ironman triathlons and is registered for two more. Of course, he is also planning to complete the Chicago Marathon again this October.

Triathlon Training for a Senior Triathlete

Coming to the sport as a runner, Paul thought that training would simply mean “adding a few more miles”.

However, this changed when he saw triathletes exiting the swim to learn that they had missed the cut-off time.

“There is nothing sadder than seeing people coming out of the water after the swim only to be told they are finished for the day.”

Paul calls missing a cut-off ‘my boogey man’. It is a primary reason he follows a training plan that addresses all three legs of the sport.

The training plan he has settled on is “one simple enough to be able to stick with”.

Paul said “After looking over all the training programs, I found that many are focused on younger people and are very complex. My current program builds time and distance over 16 weeks.”

A typical week of training while preparing for an Ironman distance race involves workouts on six days. The routine, the results of which are recorded in a notebook, include:

  • Two days of biking followed by a run, typically 50 minutes each.
  • Two days of swimming.
  • One day of a long run.
  • One day a long bike ride.    

Paul added, “I also try to fit in one weight workout with my wife. By the way, she can curl as much as I do. So much for my male ego.”

While on the treadmill or stationary bike during the winter months, he often watches videos about other triathletes, such as ‘The Last Mile’, to keep him motivated and on task. “Sometimes I pretend that I look like the guys in their 30’s.”

Paul has noticed that as he has aged, he needs to push harder, not just complete the time or cover the distance.

A Family of Runners and Triathletes and Their Supporters

Paul has enjoyed the support of his wife Carol throughout his running and triathlon journey. He also credits his daughter Maggie and, more recently, her husband for encouraging him to pursue new goals in triathlon.

He has done many of his over 30 marathons and triathlons with family, including his daughter as well as nieces and nephews. The Chicago Marathon has become a family tradition, an annual event. For the Zellner family, gathering together for fun and festivity each October is like getting together around Christmas.

His love for endurance sports and for a granddaughter with spina bifada has moved him to fundraise for Great Lakes Adaptive Sports (GLASA) as well as serve on their board.

Paul’s family has made his journey in running and triathlon special. The pictures below are those who have contributed.

family supporters of Paul Zellner's triathlon journey
From left to right: Paul’s wife, Carol; (left) Paul’s granddaughter (center); and Paul’s nephew, daughter-in-law, Paul, son-in-law and daughter at the Ohio half Ironman (right).

Related post: The Road to Ironman Triathlon – Laurent Labbe’s Story

Lessons from a Senior Runner and Triathlete

What has Paul Zellner learned from his 30-plus years of competing in endurance sports? Here are his top four.

1. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

“It is funny to see how putting a wetsuit and swim cap on people our age can accentuate the wrinkles.” Enjoy the journey wherever you are in it.

2. Don’t overthink your training or punish yourself when your plans change.

“Get your workout clothes out, put them on, and do something. Even if it’s only part of the planned workout.”

3. Give yourself time to heal. Balance rest and keeping up with your training plan.

Paul is thankful for his ‘in-house counsel’, in this case a daughter who is a professional in physical therapy as well as a triathlete. “She is a tremendous resource for healing.”

4. Maintain gratitude.

We ought to be thankful for an upbringing and life that has given us courage to try something new, like triathlon. And, we should be grateful for the health to compete in triathlons.

On a lighter note, Paul also admits being grateful for – and having a bit of gleeful pleasure when – being able to represent the “wrinkly face club” in passing a younger guy during a race.

What Does Triathlon Mean to You?

How did you get started in triathlon? What are the lessons you have learned?

Leave your comments below.

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