by Mary Leigh Burke

I never used to be much of an athlete. My current co-workers would be shocked to hear me say that – since I’m now known as the office athletic fanatic.

I spent most of my life existing only from the neck up. Back home in Grand Island, NY, outside of Buffalo, I was the one who got the “D” in Gym; the one who pretended to have my period so I wouldn’t have to go in the pool on Pool Day (an excuse only good at most twice a month, and then only if the teacher was distracted); the one who dropped like a fly off the chinup bar during the President Kennedy Physical Fitness Test in fifth grade.

So nobody is more surprised than I am at how my life has gone.

Sometime around age 30, for some reason I don’t even remember (but it was probably related to calories) I decided to try running. By that time (the late 70’s, the start of the running boom), you could all of a sudden do things like that without being any good at it, and nobody laughed at you. In fact, they cheered for me at local races.

Now that it didn’t matter if I got an “A”, I got really, really into running. Lost many pounds; logged more and more miles; read books by with titles like “Running and Being” and “What It Takes to Go the Distance”. Accumulated bored friends and relatives.

Sadly, though, not knowing anything about the body, and especially the feet and knees,
I wound up with some chronic injuries that propelled me off the roads and into the gym (aerobics classes, etc.) and the pool. At some point, I got the cycling bug, too, and bought myself a fancy Terry Classic that I rode for years. At some other point, I discovered yoga, which has been my trusted companion ever since.

A couple of years ago, I happened upon Masters swimming: your workout dream come true. It has structured swim workouts, coaching, good buddies in your lane, incredibly fun competitions with people your age (honest to God, I’ve seen 95-year-olds in there) and ability level, and even Happy Hour once a month. You don’t have to be good at it (is this shaping up as the theme of this article?).

At Masters I started hearing rumors about people doing triathlons. I thought “Oh, no, that’s way beyond the likes of me.” Swim a mile in some lake, then hop on a bike and ride for miles and miles, then get off the bike and run for more miles? I’d for sure come in last.

I put it out of my mind, until my lane-mate Diane’s husband Flip, age 58, together with his 20-something daughter, finished Ironman Lake Placid together: 2.4 mile swim, followed by 112 miles on the bike, and topping that off with a mere 26.2 mile marathon. They had a blast. He did not drop dead. Hmmm…58, huh? Not to mention the one or two other women my age I met in locker rooms who have also done that, and more. None of them were career athletes or even ex-college-athletes.

So I embarked upon my latest, and likely not my last, new athletic endeavor – dug up the local triathlon training groups, and started reading books like “Transformed by Triathlon” and “Becoming an Ironman”.

My first experience training with my new triathlon club was less than stellar. At the very first meeting of the “New to Triathlon” program, I listened to an excellent talk about running technique. Then I watched the entire group, plus volunteer coaches, promptly disappear over the horizon as I ran by myself for the entire time. Bike day…same result.

But I stuck it out. And I saw results. Within a few weeks, I could actually **see** people, way out ahead of me, but at least they weren’t disappearing over the horizon anymore. Everyone was, unfailingly, encouraging. Nobody cares that I was slow – what matters is showing up and giving it your best effort. This is the first lesson of amateur athletic competition in the 21st century.

Eventually, I started competing. My first “tri” was a collegiate event at Stanford, a shorter “sprint” distance, with a few hundred yards around the pool, 15 or so miles on a bike around Palo Alto, and then a 3-mile run through the campus. The participants were about 80% gorgeous young college kids. Since they write your age on your left calf in big, black numbers, everyone knew I was 55. Think that was humiliating? No way! People cheered louder when they saw me! Young kids told me I was an inspiration to them! One even said I looked “just like Demi Moore” (what could be a greater compliment, huh?). On top of all that…I was not last. (Second lesson of amateur athletic competition: no matter how bottom-of-the-barrel you think you are, if you have done any training, you usually are not going to be last.)

Propelled by that motivating experience, I continued to enter competitions, moving “up” to the Olympic distance (.9 mile swim, 25 mile bike, 6.2 mile run) after a couple of months. Given the dearth of women in my age group, I have been “on the podium” twice. I’m in the best shape of my life, I feel strong and powerful, and I have an endless supply of wonderful experiences (and harrowing horror stories) to treasure.

You can too!