Book Review: Triathlon Story of Senior Triathlete Hilary Topper

Senior triathlete Hilary Topper is a cheerleader for everyone who has ever struggled with self doubt about their ability to take on a new challenge, like doing a triathlon. She has dedicated her story to ‘back-of-the-packers’, those who compete for the thrill of setting and completing a challenging goal with no expectation of winning an award.

Hilary’s book, titled From Couch Potato to Endurance Athlete: A Portrait of a Non-Athletic Triathlete, candidly chronicles her journey to becoming an endurance athlete who has completed various distance triathlons and other single and multiple sport endurance events.

About Hilary Topper

Hilary grew up in a challenging home environment. Her mother’s advice was to play it safe and avoid physical activities because of the dangers they presented. Meanwhile, she seldom saw her dad as he was working three jobs.

After attending college, starting a family, and establishing a career, Hilary started a successful public relations firm. At age 48, she realized she needed an outlet for stress that did not involve eating.

Hilary shares the challenges of beginning to exercise at a local gym, something she had never done before. However, before long, she was attending her first spin class and learning the new language associated with spinning.

Then, before she knew it, she was running thanks to the encouragement of a business acquaintance. Running quickly became an integral part of Hilary’s life.

First Triathlon

Hilary’s running partner unexpectedly decided she no longer wanted to do running races. Instead, she suggested that the two of them sign up for a triathlon. So, they registered for the 2014 Captiva Tri, scheduled for five months later.

One small problem. Hilary could not swim.

In her first visit to the pool to train for the swim part of the triathlon, she learned she could not swim a single, 25 yards length of the pool. Thanks to the help of a coach, she quickly learned to swim well enough to finish her first triathlon. In fact, two years later, Hilary completed the New York City one mile swim race.

Ironically, swimming, the sport that was initially her weakest, has become the strongest leg of her triathlon.

In 2015, one year after completing her first triathlon, Hilary competed in several races, including the USAT Age Group Championships. Later that year, while competing in a triathlon in Florida where her father was living, Hilary heard her father say that he was proud of her. This was a first.

Thanks to triathlon, Hilary’s relationship with her father blossomed.

Races aren’t just about the race; it is about the whole experience leading up to and after the actual race.

Hilary Topper, From Couch Potato to Endurance Athlete: A Portrait of a Non-Athletic Triathlete, p. 134.

Audience for the Hilary Topper, Senior Triathlete, Story

As I read the book, I imagined how each of three groups of senior triathletes would benefit from reading Hilary Topper’s story.

First Time Triathletes

To those planning for their first triathlon, she says ‘Go for it’. And, if you have signed up for your first triathlon, her story will help you prepare for it.

One lesson I think she learned from her experience is that you don’t need to spend as much money as she did before your first triathlon.

Before her first, she spent more money and made the preparations more complicated than necessary by having a coach who expected her to buy a new carbon fiber bike with clip-in shoes, before seeing if she liked the sport.

Anyone who has gone from non-athlete or ‘weekend warrior’ will relate to Hilary’s descriptions of her initial training. Her experience brought back memories of learning to ride with clip-in bike shoes. And her account of putting on a wetsuit for the first time had me in tears while laughing.

If someone asked me a year ago, what it takes to be a triathlete, I would have said, “Hmm . . . someone who could swim, bike, and run?” What I didn’t realize is, there are two other disciplines to master—proper nutrition/hydration and transitions. Both seem simple on the surface but are quite complicated.

Hilary Topper, From Couch Potato to Endurance Athlete: A Portrait of a Non-Athletic Triathlete, p. 87.

Those Thinking of Longer Distance Events

To those experienced with sprint distance triathlons who are thinking of going longer distance in triathlon or other single or multi-sport endurance races, Hilary says ‘You can do it. However, plan on training for it’.

Experienced Endurance Racers

Hilary also has advice for those with experience in training for and racing in various endurance events. You will find your head nodding in agreement while remembering your own similar experiences. I lost count of the number of times I recalled an experience similar to one Hilary recounted.

One example that is still vivid is of falling while on the bike leg and finishing the race with a damaged chain and derailleur. And, if you haven’t experienced what she describes about porta potties on page 204, you haven’t been to enough races. My triathlon bag includes several packets of tissues for the latrines void of toilet paper.

It quickly became habit forming and an addiction. . . .All I wanted to talk about was swimming, cycling, and running. I
was driving my family crazy, including my husband who ignored me!

Hilary Topper, From Couch Potato to Endurance Athlete: A Portrait of a Non-Athletic Triathlete, p. 85.

Run-Walk Method

Through Hilary’s story, I also learned about the Galloway run-walk-run method. This approach involves alternating running and walking to complete distances of 5k to a full 26.2 mile marathon. She became acquainted with the method during a triathlon on the Atlantic coast in Florida on an especially hot and humid day.

Since that race, Galloway’s method has become central to her run training, running races, and triathlons.

Mental Component of New Challenges

As with many sports, the mental aspect can be as challenging as the physical. Negative self-talk can derail even the most skilled and trained athlete.

Through her experiences and the lessons she has learned, Hilary shares advice for dealing with negative self-talk.

When you’re learning a new sport, have patience with yourself.

Hilary Topper, From Couch Potato to Endurance Athlete: A Portrait of a Non-Athletic Triathlete, p. 108

Value of Support From Family and Friends

Throughout the book, Hilary recognizes her husband, daughter, son and many friends for the emotional support they have provided throughout her journey. While encouraged by her own progress, it has especially motivated Hilary when her family has recognized it.

I have the feeling that this book would never have been written, or at least been much less inspiring, were it not for supportive family and friends.

When I finished the New York City Triathlon, I went to my social media. My daughter wrote this on her post on Facebook: “So proud of my mom for finishing the NYC triathlon! She is the strongest person I know and will always push herself, despite all obstacles, to achieve her goals. She inspires me every day.

Hilary Topper, From Couch Potato to Endurance Athlete: A Portrait of a Non-Athletic Triathlete, p. 122.

Starting a Triathlon Team

I was also intrigued when reading about Hilary starting a virtual triathlon team. This team comprised people from the New York metropolitan area, where she lives, as well as in other USA states and in Europe.

This team, called WeRTriathletes, could serve as a model for a Senior Triathletes team.

What do you think?

Worth Reading

This book reads like a cross between a diary and autobiography. It’s full of valuable information communicated through real-life examples.

Chapters open with an inspirational quote from an endurance athlete. They end with a lesson Hilary has learned through endurance sports.

Hilary is an open book. She does not whitewash her experiences, sometimes providing more detail than I would comfortably include in a post. One example is her experience with porta potties at triathlons. But I can’t argue with her assessment.

Even if you have never done a triathlon or have completed dozens, you will enjoy reading Hilary’s story about the impact triathlon, running, and swimming have had on her life.

The personal experiences, both tragic and hilarious, which she shares and the lessons she has learned will give would-be triathletes an unvarnished view of the things they should expect with the sport. They also paint a colorful picture of the pleasure triathlon training and racing have given multitudes of older athletes.

Meanwhile, those of us who have taken the plunge into triathlon and other multi-sport endurance events will be reminded why the sport has captured our attention.

Reading the story of senior triathlete Hilary Topper and her triathlon journey is worth the time.

If you want to purchase Hilary’ book, click on this link. Before checking out, use the promo code SNRTRI for a 10% discount.


Share your thoughts and comments below. I will send Hilary any questions and comments you direct toward her.

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“Atomic Habits” for Triathletes

“Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones” by James Clear is for those, including triathletes, who wish to create new, performance-enhancing habits. It is also for those who want to eliminate destructive habits.

In the introduction to the book, Mr. Clear shares a powerful case study involving the British Cycling team. By applying the principles in this book, the team went from a perennial loser on the world stage during the 20th and early 21st centuries to the dominant competitor from 2007 to 2017.

During this ten-year period, British cyclists earned 178 world championships and sixty-six Olympic or Paralympic gold medals. They also won five Tour de France races.

This is the first example of many that highlights how so-called atomic habits have been used to improve fitness training, running, and personal and professional development efforts.

Following are my takeaways from the book, from the perspective of a triathlete.

What are ‘Atomic Habits’?

Atomic habits are regular activities or routines that, while small (hence the word ‘atomic’) and easy to do, provide significant impact (also related to ‘atomic’) on a process. Repeating these over time (as a habit) leads to a compounding effect.

According to James Clear, “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them.”1

Developing the habit of consistent, regular, and structured training is an example of an atomic habit related to triathlon.

How to Develop Positive ‘Atomic Habits’

“Atomic Habits” summarizes the approach to developing new, performance-enhancing habits in a two-step process:

  • Determine the person you want to be and how you want to be defined.
  • Take small actions that prove that you are this person. Repeat these actions.

In How to Build a New Habit: This is Your Strategy Guide, James Clear clarifies what he means by ‘small’ relative to new actions.

One of the actionable pieces of advice from this book is “Start with a small habit”. Or, to say it another way, begin with an activity to which you cannot say ‘No’ because it is so easy to do.

This can, for example, mean combining walking and running until your fitness reaches the point that you can run for an entire session. It can also mean breaking up a larger activity into smaller ones. An example of this principle is swimming 10 minutes separated by a rest rather than swimming 20 minutes right away.

Before you know it, you are running the entire distance or swimming for 20 minutes (or more) without a break.

Related post: Book Review: The New Psycho-Cybernetics

Focus On Who You Want To Become

Rather than focusing on the action you want to achieve (such as to complete an Olympic-distance triathlon), the approach described in “Atomic Habits” starts with defining yourself in terms of the person who will achieve the goal.

In the triathlon example, the person makes the subtle but important change to define him/herself as an Olympic triathlete. From here, the triathlete develops a training plan, eating habits, sleep behaviors, and so on (the process) consistent with an Olympic-distance triathlete.

The new habits develop through a four-step process detailed in the book and described in the first column of the table below.

StepMakes an object of a good habitMakes an object of a bad habit

James Clear also describes ways to make sure the new habit sticks. These include habit stacking (combining an existing positive habit with the desired new habit), changing the environment, and reframing a habit (from “I have to go for a run” to “I get to go out into the fresh air and improve my heart health”).

You will also learn about the Diderot Effect and the Goldilocks Rule and how these can support building new habits.

Be Patient, New Habits Require Time

It often takes time to make new habits part of our new-normal routine. Mr. Clear cautions us to be wary of how we interpret the results as we work to develop new habits.

The tendency is to expect linear results. For example, in my training, I expect to see consistent (linear) reductions in my 5k time as I restart running after a break. However, this is not the way results typically come.

The graph of Results vs. Time below shows Mr. Clear’s representation of our expectations and experience as we build new habits.

Figure 1: Plateau of Latent Potential from page 22 of “Atomic Habits” by James Clear.

While we expect linear results, actual results are non-linear. The gap between the expected and actual results creates what Clear calls a “Valley of Disappointment”.

Seeing this graph for the first time created an ‘Aha-moment’. My experiences in run training definitely follow this, one reason that patience is so important. When impatience wins, I will try to speed up the results by training harder or longer. The result is usually injury and longer recovery time.


Our beliefs and the views of ourself can be engaged to drive processes that help us achieve our goals. Focusing on becoming the person we want to be can lead to greater performance than if we had focused on the goal. Atomic habits help us become who we want to be and perform at a higher level.

For More Information About “Atomic Habits”

“Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones” is available in print and audio versions at by clicking the link or picture below.

Throughout the book, James Clear refers to resources on his website for creating atomic habits. Please checkout the website at

  1. Clear, James, “Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones”, Avery, 1st edition (October 16, 2018), p. 17.)

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Share Your Questions and Comments Below

What has helped you develop new habits related to triathlon? Let me know what you think about the ideas presented here.

This post, originally published in March 2020, was updated on February 23, 2022.

Which Triathlon Has Been Your Favorite?

You have probably been asked about your favorite triathlon, especially if you have completed even a few of them.

First, a little background. I did my first triathlon on my doctor’s advice to lose weight and become more fit. However, as I have done more triathlons, spending time with family and friends through these and experiencing the USA from the perspective of triathlon have grown in importance.

Nevertheless, after my first triathlon, there have been a few races that have been particularly memorable. Following are my top five.

Favorite Triathlons for Family Connections

#1 First Triathlon with Our Daughter and Youngest Son

Our youngest son, Ben, and his wife Lindsey along with our daughter, Liza, and her husband Scott joined me in completing the 2014 Maple Grove Triathlon.

picture of family members who competed with me in the 2014 Maple Grove Triathlon
Completing a triathlon with family members makes for a memorable day!

#2 Colorado Triathlon

The Colorado triathlon was fraught with challenges. Nevertheless, it was the one opportunity I had to participate in a triathlon in front of my parents.

Terry with parents at IHOP
Enjoying ice cream and memories with my parents. Photo courtesy of Joy.

#3 Wyoming Triathlon

The Wyoming triathlon was memorable for two reasons. First, it was the last time we would see Joy’s aunt Evelyn. She passed away shortly thereafter.

It also provided my ’15 minutes of fame’ as a local newspaper writer interviewed me and published a story about our Triathlon Across the USA quest (see below).

Gillette News Record article about the Razor City Splash & Dash Triathlon

Most Memorable Races

#4 First Crash

During the Rhode Island triathlon, a slow leak in my front tire led to a crash that left my right arm and leg bleeding. Thankfully, a bike maintenance aid arrived shortly after I had started to replace the tube. He completed the repair and I finished the race.

#5 First Podium Finish

In my first triathlon, I learned about the importance of having the right bike to race competitively. Before my second triathlon two months later, I purchased a triathlon specific bike.

Thanks to a competitive bike split in this race, I finished third in my age group in this second triathlon.

Ranking to Find Your Favorite Triathlon

Early in my discussions with Laurent Labbe, I asked about his favorite races. Being a technical guy, he answered with a spreadsheet for rating the long course triathlons he had completed.

The table below illustrates Laurent’s approach for ranking triathlons.

spreadsheet showing Laurent Labbe's approach to ranking triathlons he has completed.
Laurent Labbe’s approach to evaluating and ranking triathlons.

Laurent’s approach is quite detailed. His quantifies the quality, difficulty, and aesthetics of the course for each of the three legs. He also rates the overall management and race location.

Ranking Factors

  • Management (‘Mgmt’) – The following factors all lead to higher rankings in the various Management categories:
    • easy check-in and packet pickup
    • orderly swim start
    • clear marking of the bike and run courses
    • bike and run courses that are completely closed to traffic; even partly closed courses are better than those on which motor vehicles are near racers.
    • plenty of volunteer support
    • high quality food and drink on the course and after the race
    • prompt communication with racers before, during, and after the triathlon
  • Ease – This ranking relates to the race course. A low score in this category comes from high waves on the swim course and high wind or steep hills on the bike and run courses.
  • Layout – A single lap course is much preferred to one with two or more laps. The greater the number of laps in each of the legs, the lower the ranking in this category.
  • Overall Location – This relates to the cost and ease of getting to and from the race, the ease of arranging lodging, and the quality and diversity of food.
  • Ambiance – This scores factors such as the natural beauty of the race venue and friendliness of the people.
  • Overall Ranking – This number is derived from the product of the other rankings.

Knowing that family is important to Laurent, I imagine that any race involving his sons or daughter will have higher rankings.

Laurent Labbe and his oldest son on the beach in front of the swim course at the Strongman All Japan Triathlon.
Laurent Labbe and his oldest son on the beach in front of the swim course at the Strongman All Japan Triathlon. Picture courtesy of Laurent Labbe.

What Has Been Your Favorite Triathlon?

Tell us about your favorite races leaving a comment below. If for any reason you have difficulty leaving a comment, please email us at

Book Review: The New Psycho-Cybernetics

“The New Psycho-Cybernetics” is an updated edition of a book that has sold over 30 million copies since being originally published in 1960.  The time-tested ideas originally put forth by Dr. Maxwell Maltz have become the basis for personal development, education, sales training, and sports coaching .

cover of the New Psycho-Cybernetics

About the Author

Dr. Maxwell Maltz began his career in a field of medicine sometimes called cosmetic surgery or plastic surgery.  Early in his career, Dr. Maltz learned the tremendous impact that cosmetic surgery could have on a person’s performance.  He saw “F” students becoming “straight A” students after surgery.  He saw shy, insecure people become confident and extroverted with even minor surgery.  This led to him publishing “New Faces, New Futures” in 1936.

Through continued work in cosmetic surgery, Dr. Maltz came to realize that cosmetic surgery alone could not change a person’s performance.  There needed to be a corresponding change in self-image.

This was the genesis of psycho-cybernetics.


What is Psycho-Cybernetics?

To be transparent, I am not a believer in self-help, ‘you-can-do-anything-on-which-you-set-your-mind’ philosophies that too many authors promote.

Psycho-cybernetics is different.  Psycho-cybernetics defines our ability to achieve goals or a desired level of performance in terms of a “goal-striving servo-mechanism consisting of the brain and nervous system, which is used and directed by the mind” (quote from “The New Psycho-Cybernetics”).

In the industrial world, a servo-mechanism is part of an automated machine.  The servo-mechanism causes the machine to zero in on its target through a series of measurements of position and corrections to the path as it makes its way toward the goal.  The example of a servo-mechanism used in the book is a guided missile.  The guided-missile works by locking onto its target and continuously adjusting its trajectory en route to its target.

The goals you attempt to communicate to this servo-mechanism must first pass through a filter of the individual’s self-image.  If the self-image is negative, results of the servo-mechanism will be negative or, at least, less than ideal.  Just as a faulty sensor can cause the guided-missile to miss its target, a negative self-image will lead to less than ideal performance.

Or, think about setting up to hit a golf ball over a water hazard when you are sure the ball will end up in the water.  More than likely, it will.  (The book contains many examples of psycho-cybernetics applied to golf.)

The good news is that the converse is also true – a positive, accurate self-image will promote positive results.

How is Psycho-Cybernetics Relevant to Triathlon Training?

There are at least three ways that we can apply psycho-cybernetics to preparing for and racing in a triathlon.


Believing You Can Succeed

As noted above, our self-image is the filter through which our built-in servo mechanism views our goals.   For me, consistent, structured training gives me a positive self-image and confidence that I can complete a race.  The more races I have completed, the more confident I have become that I will finish any race.

Think about being whacked on the head or yelled at during an open water swim.  A positive self-image will help us brush off these challenges and focus on finishing the race.   A negative self-image will set us back or cause some to drop out of the race.


Visualizing Stronger Performance

Dr. Maltz cites a study that reveals the power of visualization.

Researchers studied the performance of three groups of students in shooting free throws.    Their assignments and results on day 20 were:

  • Group 1 – Practiced shooting free throws every day for 20 days.  The result on Day 20 was 24% more free throws made compared to Day 1.
  • Group 2 – Did not practice; shot free throws on Days 1 and 20 only.  The result on Day 20 was no improvement over Day 1.
  • Group 3 – Shot free throws on Days 1 and 20; on days 2-19, students visualized throwing free throws and correcting their aim when they missed. The result on Day 20 was 23% more free throws made compared to Day 1.

The group that visualized shooting free throws improved as much as those who actually shot free throws each day.

Admittedly, shooting free throws is not an endurance sport.  However, we can still improve our performance in triathlon by visualizing certain activities in transition.  Some even say they rehearse, or visualize, how they will respond to the inevitable contact during an open water swim or to pain that sometimes occur during a race. 

Not Letting Others Define You

Albert Einstein’s colleagues considered him to be a daydreamer and even “dumb” at mathematics.  Fortunately, he did not let their opinion affect his success.

Some may consider us to be too old to take on a new challenge such as a first triathlon or even longer distance.  Or they may consider our goals to become a stronger athlete to be pointless.

Don’t let another human limit you.


In Case You Choose to Read or Listen to “The New Psycho-Cybernetics”

There is a good possibility that your local library has a copy of “The New Psycho-Cybernetics”.  I first consumed this material through an audio version of the book downloaded from our local library to my smartphone.

However, if you want to purchase a copy of the book or audiobook, you can do so at using the link below.

Disclaimer: Please note that is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program.  This is an affiliate advertising program that provide a way for sites to earn advertising fees.  They do this by advertising and linking to Amazon, the Amazon logo, AmazonSupply, and the AmazonSupply logo are trademarks of, Inc. or its affiliates.  As an affiliate, I will receive a small commission for any purchases of this product that you make through Amazon.



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