Triathlon at 72: Because I Can

By Raphael | In Interviews | on September 8, 2016

“After the operation, I made a commitment to be even better at what I could still do than I had been before.”
-Joel Schwartz

A few months ago I was scanning through Facebook and reading through the usual posts from the usual people. And then… BOOM! Something caught my attention. The husband of one of my Facebook friends completed his first triathlon at the age of 72. My eyes were glued on his story and my sense was that this was quite a remarkable man.  My sense proved to be true.

In May of this year, 72 year old Joel Schwartz completed his first triathlon (He turned 73 in June) ). Joel competed in the Mack Cycle Tri-Miami Triathlon in South Beach, FL. He finished in fifth place in the Male 70-74 age group. He completed the quarter-mile swim in just over 11 minutes; the 10-mile bike ride in just under 45 minutes. And, his 3.1-mile run, which he walked at a brisk pace because of his back and knee issues, took approximately 50 minutes. He finished 364th overall out of the 735 competitors in the event.

Read my interview with Joel and become inspired by what he had to overcome, his training, nutrition, injuries, his deeply rewarding relationship with this wife, and, his personal philosophy on aging.

What initially got you motivated to compete in your first triathlon?
I started swimming about two years prior to my triathlon.  I knew how to ride a bike and I can walk (later about why I can no longer run).  I thought it would be a great thing to do.  As you know, Raphael, my wife, Susan, is quite a bit younger than I am and in great physical condition.  I have to keep up.  What a check in the box this would be.

I read the article in the Florida SunSentinal where you said that competing in your first triathlon at 72 was not a big deal. Please explain that further.

I can easily walk a 5K and do several 5K races each year.  I often ride my hybrid bike ten or more miles.  When I swim, three of four times weekly, I swim for 3,000+ yards.  All I had to do was tie these together.  Not a big deal.joel-in-5k-portion-2

What injuries or health conditions did you have to overcome prior to the race?
Both my knees are shot.  Both have been scoped and they have damages, bone spurs, debris and lots of arthritis.  In August of 2012, I had major back surgery for stenosis and disc damage.  I had two discs replaced, a titanium cage placed around my spine in that area, and had that portion of my spine fused.  It is for these reasons that I can no longer run.  After the operation, I made a commitment to be even better at what I could still do than I had been before.

Your wife, Susan, is super supportive of you and I know that the two of you often compete in the same road races. How much does the support from her motivate you?
Susan, my relationship with her, my ability to ‘keep up’ with her and be her forever partner is 98% of my motivation in everything I do.  When we do a race together and she comes back to ‘run me in’ for the last half mile or so, I feel that burst of energy that makes me want to excel as much as I can.

If you were to choose three words to describe yourself, what would they be?
Funny, Youthful, Competitive

Did you follow any special nutrition program in preparation for your triathlon? If not, please tell us about your normal/usual nutrition habits?
a. Yes – With Susan’s help and guidance, I ‘fueled and hydrated’ properly for my bricks.  I am notorious (within my own small circle) for neglecting both extra fueling and hydration.  Susan proved to me that I could not be comfortably successful without both. (Note: A brick is usually a bike/run combo. This helps with the bike to run transition – which many find to be the toughest part of the race.)

b. No – I believe in moderation in all things, and that goes for diet as well. My normal eating habits are not excessive and I only occasionally indulge. I did not change any of these habits while preparing for the Tri, but as indicated above, fueled properly for the bricks.

Do you plan to compete in another triathlon? If so, which one?I am not really certain.  If I do, it will be either at the end of this Tri season or at the beginning of the next season.  It’s just too hot for me now.

Did you have any specific time goals or personal goals that you wanted to achieve for this tri?
I had two specific goals other than just finishing: 

a.I wanted to finish under two hours and I did.  I had no other expectations as I had not done this before. 

b. My other goal was not to feel as though I had been run over by a truck the day after the Tri. If I had any thoughts about doing well within my age group, it was instant humility to see the fantastic physical conditions of the other four 70+ competitors.

While training for the triathlon did you have any days when you simply did not want to train? If so, how did you get around this mental block?
Why fight such an urge if it comes only once in a while?  If I took the day off, I attacked the next days with extra energy.  In this way, I never felt that I was chained to the goal, just choosing to do it.

 What was the most challenging aspect of the triathlon for you?
That’s easy.  It was the hill on the MacArthur Causeway.  As you know, there are no hills to practice on around here.  I did not know if I would burn myself out having to bike this hill twice, once in each direction.  Please bear in mind that I would NEVER get off the bike and walk it over the hill.  They would have to carry me off first.  As it happened, I made it up the hill with little to no difficulty, and managed to go no slower than 6 MPH at the very peak.  The reward was going as fast as my hybrid would go on the way down.  I almost touched 30 MPH!  Thrilling.

Did you always want to compete in a triathlon?
No, I did not.  I always thought that there was something a bit off with triathletes to want to do that to themselves.


What thoughts did you have during the triathlon that motivated you?
I am a member of Boca Tri group.  I was wearing their kit and anytime I was passed (that occurred a lot!) by another member, they urged me on.  That was motivational.  I thought about the first time I walked a mile after my back surgery and how very hard and painful it was for me.  This made me think about how far I had come.  Susan and I have a friend who has just qualified for Kona.  I thought about her; her training and her effort and that motivated me.  Most of all, Raphael, thinking about how proud Susan would be when I finished was all the motivation I needed.  The rest was just trimming.  I wanted to give her confirmation that I was the person she thought I was.

(Note: A kit is a triathlon race suit generally with the representing tri teams name on it)

 Were you competitive in any sports growing up?As a young child I was not active as I was on restricted physical activity due to two heart failures when I was 2 ½ years of age.  I was told to not be active as that was the treatment back then.  I rebelled at about age 10 and started playing all the sports I was not supposed to play: baseball, football, tennis, biking, basketball, etc.  And, yes, I was competitive.  It’s my nature.

What did you do to celebrate after your personal victory?
We went out to breakfast and then went home to take a nap.  Susan was more exhausted than I was just acting as my Sherpa and from worrying that I was down somewhere on the side of the road.

Tell us a little about your training and how you prepared for the tri.

My training consisted of –

  1. Swimming two or three times each week approximately 3,000 yards each day
  2. Doing two bricks each week at the gym consisting of 25- 30 minutes on a spin bike at level 10, aiming for 90+ RPM’s, followed by 25 minutes of Treadmill, followed by 1,200 yards of swimming.
  3. Riding my bike at least 10 miles once each week

What advice would you give to someone who wants to compete in an event but believe they’re too old to start?
Age is a number, nothing more than that.  If you think you are too old, you ARE too old.  If you think you can do this, then just do it.  Start with a training program that suits you and never look at the other athletes.  You are competing with yourself and no one else.

Did you use a triathlon coach?
I spoke with Bill Troy, a local Triathlon coach who knows me well, and asked him what I should do to train, and he wrote down the program I listed above.  I did not, per se, use a coach other than that.

Although possibly difficult to describe or remember, what were you thinking and feeling when you crossed the finish line?
I can remember quite distinctly that I felt so proud not so much for finishing, but looking at Susan’s face and her pride in me.  My other thought, somewhat incredulously, (I was probably incoherent) was that I felt good enough to start the whole thing over again.

joel-after-finishHave you always been physically fit and active? When did you start working out/training consistently?
I have been seeking physical fitness for most of my adult life.  I started running was I was in my mid-twenties, before it was really popular and continued until a few years ago.  My deteriorating knees and back ended my running.  I have been a gym person since my early twenties, though just for fitness and strength, not for size.  Most of that exercise has given way to swimming which is much more forgiving on my joints.

When I say, “don’t make age your cage,” what is your gut reaction?
Simply put, I love it.  My age does not define me.  My actions and fitness level overrides simple numbers.

Are there other events you enjoy competing in?
I will continue to do 5 and 10 K’s with Susan.  (She runs, I walk) and I earlier this year I competed in my very first swim meet.  At this point in my life, my competitiveness is aimed inwardly.

 Do you prefer to train for fun, or to train for an event?
For sure I train for fun.

What would you like to add?
I went to a birthday party for one of the members of Boca Tri and many real triathletes, some of them Iron Men, were there.  So many came over to me to congratulate me and to tell me that I was inspirational or motivational to have done this for the first time at my age.  Until that moment when real athletes said that to me, I never viewed this as being motivational to anyone but me.  If my achievement causes some people to toss their age out the window and start working for their tomorrows rather than remembering their yesterdays, what a wonderful thing that would be!

I was moved and inspired by Joel’s answers and I’m sure you were as well. Although my message has always been “Don’t make age your cage,” Joel takes it a step further because he never even considers age – it’s a non-issue. He simply acknowledges his capabilities, works around any weaknesses or issues, dismisses the word “can’t”, and then he goes about getting the job done.

We need more Joel Schwartz’s in the world showing us all what’s possible when we believe in ourselves. More Joel Schwartz’s leading the way calmly and confidently while sending the message that you can do anything you put your mind to no matter what society says, your friends or your family say. All you need to do is believe in yourself and to start now.

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