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Endurance for Everyone? continued...

"I think mental endurance and focus really play a role," she says. "It's not that they're streaking out to be the best runner, swimmer, or cyclist -- they're just determined to keep going. We even have participants walking the run course, but they're still competing and finishing."

"The goal for most participants in triathlon is not to beat the pack," agrees Fred Apple, MD, medical director of clinical laboratories at Hennepin County Medical Center. "You might have an individual person you compete against, and try to pass them at the finish line, but the competition is based on your personal record. Everyone's got their own personal best, and everyone's competing with themselves."

The world record for a particular triathlon might be two hours -- but if you finish in five hours this year and four hours, 58 minutes next year, that's an enormous achievement. "The goal is to endure and maintain, and the sense of accomplishment is tremendous," says Apple, who is also professor of laboratory medicine and pathology at the University of Minnesota.

The Maturity Factor

According to USA Triathlon, the number of triathlon participants aged 60-69 is fully twice that of athletes in their late teens (16-19), and triathletes in their 40s easily outnumber those in their 20s. More people seem to take up triathlon later in life and stay with it longer (one elite example: Sister Madonna Buder, a 71-year-old nun who's completed more than a dozen Ironman races). "I'd call it maturity. You recognize that you don't have to go out and kill yourself in the first five miles of a 10-mile race. You learn to understand your body better and recognize what it can endure," says Apple.

"A lot of people want to complete a race with their time for the second half better than their time in the first, even if it's just by one second," he adds, talking about what racers call a "negative split." "That's becoming quite common in all these races: to pace yourself and understand what your body can endure, to not push yourself to the edge all the time," Apple notes. "The mature competitor understands that approach."

"This particular demographic is very in tune with their bodies. They have the wisdom to pace themselves and to think more about what they're doing," says Hawkins of the Tri-Umph competitors. "Rather than risking things physically to come in first, they're going to pace themselves so they can finish."

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