For Some Athletes, Age Is Just a Number

— Susan London • • May 2017

It takes a certain mental fortitude to get up at 4 a.m., wriggle into a bathing suit, swim 2.4 miles in open water, get on a bike and ride 112 miles, and then get off that bike and run 26.2 miles. To do those things at an age when most people are content to retire quietly takes something else entirely.

Yet there are people who enjoy extreme sports and don’t consider age to be a limitation in any way. One of them is Wake Forest resident John Austin.

John Austin

John Austin points to his name on signage at the 2016 Kona Ironman in Hawaii.
Photos courtesy of John Austin

The laid-back, lanky, soon-to-be 65-year-old started running when he was 36 – not old, but not exactly young, either. Though he was a gymnast and wrestler in college, he hadn’t done much in the intervening years and decided he’d try running to stay in shape.

“I figured I’d try to stick with it for six weeks,” Austin recalled recently.

Six weeks morphed into 28 years and 41 marathons, 10 of them the Boston Marathon – a race many runners spend their entire careers striving for.

When he was 49, though he continued to compete in marathons, finishing 15 more as of this year, he switched his focus to triathlons because he’d reached a point where his run pace was no longer improving.

“I always figured a triathlon was the thing to do,” he said.

He figured the new endeavor would afford him another eight years in which he could work on getting faster again. For those unfamiliar with the sport, triathlons combine swimming, biking, and running, and there are races covering varying distances, from short sprints to medium-distance races to half-distance and full-distance Ironmans.

A full Ironman involves the aforementioned 2.4-mile open-water swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile marathon-distance run. It is a challenging race for which participants typically train a year in advance and the average athlete needs about 12 hours to finish.

Austin has since completed 137 triathlons. Twenty-two of those were half-distance and six were full Ironmans, in which he finished in the top three in his age group in 11 races. His first full Ironman was in 2011 at age 59, and he competed in the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, in 2014 at age 62 and in 2016 at age 64, taking on an event he describes as the holy grail of races.

Much of his success in these races involves conditioning through specific training plans. It’s not uncommon for Austin to swim 13,000 yards in a week, usually at the Kerr YMCA in Wakefield or at Falls Lake, in addition to running and cycling.

That type of training requires time – something that is in bigger supply now that he’s retired from DuPont, where he worked for 40 years in project management. And while competing requires the ability to travel, it is a great excuse for visiting different locales and often provides a great story to boot.

John Austin

Austin in the cycling portion of the 2016 Kona Ironman in Hawaii.

For example, Austin competed in the Lake Placid Ironman in July 2014, which qualified him for the 2014 Kona race, but effort wasn’t without drama.

Severe thunderstorms and lightning led officials to pull swimmers from the water before they completed the swim portion of the race, and Austin recounts a cold and harrowing 2,000-foot decline down a mountain at breakneck speed on his bike while thunder and lightning crashed around him. “It was absolutely terrifying,” he said.

Austin notes other mature athletes who have competed in extreme races. A friend of his, Laurie O’Connor of Wake Forest, just turned 60 and was preparing to compete in a 50-kilometer race at Zion National Park in Utah. And an 85-year-old competitor from Japan finished Kona in 2016.

Austin shrugs off the craziness of it all. The swim is the most daunting aspect for him – he worries a rogue leg cramp will take him out of the race – but once the swim is over, he can move on to the bike, his favorite of the three sports, and it all goes surprisingly fast. He said he tends to break a competition down into small increments, focusing on the task directly in front of him.

As for the future, he has no intention of slowing down. He runs a coaching business, Austin Tri-n-Run Coaching, where he trains athletes for similar races. And if he has his way this year, he’ll qualify again for both the Boston Marathon and the Kona Ironman.