Mature athletes going the distance

ENDURANCE ATHLETES: Paul Howells and Leigh Davidson.
ENDURANCE ATHLETES: Paul Howells and Leigh Davidson.

Baby boomers are putting sprightly 20-somethings to shame in gruelling endurance races.

Whether it be a mid-life crisis or lowering cholesterol, the over-50s are taking on multisports in force and, with the wisdom of age, they have the stamina to get over the finish line in good time.

Among them is 54-year-old electrician Paul Howells, who takes on the Taupo Ironman next year, when he will swim 3.8 kilometres and bike 180km before completing a 42.2km marathon.

Howells and his wife, Leigh Davidson, 52, have an active sporting social circle and even plan holidays around races, competing in the 2010 Round Raro race in Rarotonga.

It has taken Howells almost 15 years to build up to the Ironman, since his first half-marathon in Buller.

Howells said that race took three hours to run and it nearly killed him.

But now he and Davidson are fitter than most 20-year- olds.

Howells said a lot of middle-aged people took up triathlon and multisport because cross training was more forgiving on the body than pure running.

After a lifetime of hard work, they have money to spend on equipment and entering events, and empty- nesters have more spare time for training.

"It's great. You're fitter and you have more money to spend," Howells said.

Richard Greer, managing director of Complete Performance endurance training company, said those 50-plus were "out there in numbers".

He chalks it up to that generation finally having the time and the money to pursue their goals.

"I have young children and I have not got the time to do long bike rides and runs," he said.

"You do need a lot of money to do it, from a logistics and equipment point of view."

A case in point was the Coast to Coast, which was known in endurance circles as "the mid-life crisis race", Greer said.

This year almost 20 competitors in the mammoth Coast to Coast Longest Day event, which traverses the South Island in one day, were aged over 50.

Another 35 over-50s took part in the classic two-day event.

Unlike many sports, gruelling endurance distances draw on mental dexterity and grit, which baby boomers have in droves.

"We have got the stamina," Howells said.

"Young guys might be fit, but they go fast and burn out."

Canterbury Triathlon Club president Dorothy McPhail agreed that the older generations perform well in endurance sports.

"People, as they get older, have more endurance ability," McPhail said.

As part of Howells' Ironman training the couple recently competed as a team in the half-distance at the Cairns Ironman.

Howells swam 1.9 km in 39 minutes and biked 90km in under four hours, and Davidson then ran 21.1km in 2 1/2 hours, slower than usual due to heat and injury.

The experience reminded the pair why they love triathlon, Davidson said.

"You get treated like an elite [athlete] and you get to run the same track as them. What other sport allows you to do that?"

The Press