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Senior Fitness: Triathlon, a sport for all ages

May 1st, 2013

“It’s never too late to start doing something as long as you have realistic assessment of what you can do and you progress slowly. You’ve got to enjoy it. If you don’t like it, you won’t do it.”, says Harry Cornwell a 64 year old triathlete from Snohomish, Washington.

Cornwell has been active his entire adult life, but eventually time and poor eating habits left their mark. He found himself working out less and eating more fast food. By the time he retired, Cornwell weighed in at 240 pounds.

After a long career of teaching and coaching at schools in the Snhomish School District, Cornwell retired in 2006. He worked at the Valley View Junior High in 1986 and was one of the finalists who didn’t make the cut to ride into space with the ill-fated space shuttle, Challenger. He later taught at the high school, coached sports and helped with the high school’s strength program.

“Teaching and coaching — it’s a full-time job. There’s a lot of involvement and not much time to take care of yourself as well as you should.”, he said.

“I really didn’t like the way I looked, That’s the moment I realized I needed to do something. I was way overweight and I was used to being fit. That was the ‘aha.’ “, he says. This was four years ago.

After his “aha” moment, Cornwell decided to train as if he were going to complete a short triathlon. His goal was to work out consistently, not race.

At the beginning, Cornwell could hardly swim a length of the pool or run a mile without walking. and he had no cycling experience at all. He joined a triathlon group at the Monroe Y.

Those first few months were brutal. It was neither easy nor fast. Cornwell didn’t rely on any gimmicks or special products, just hard work and a determination to change his bad habits. There were a few setbacks but he kept plugging forward, even when things didn’t go right.

Cornwell eventually found a short triathlon and tried to join in and compete. The day was wet and miserable, but he still had a great time.

Cornwell – now 64 – is lean, strong and energetic enough as a new man to complete in one of the toughest endurance events in the world, the ironman triathlon. In the past, he had needed to take cholesterol medication, but he no longer needs to, having shed 55 pounds and dropping his resting heart rate to 51.

In 2011, he did something a little over the top: Cornwell signed up for the spot at Ironman Hawaii lottery. In addition to triatheletes, only a few hundred “regular” people are selected by lottery each year. Thousands enter.

“I thought foolishly if my number got picked I could try to do it,” he said.

Cornwell was chosen and successfully completed the swim in Hawaii, but missed the cutoff time on the bike by 25 minutes and didn’t get to finish the race. He remembers the devastation when an official walked over and told him he was through.

He had been self-coached up until that time, using books and other references to figure out his training, and he needed to work on his cycling so he hired Mary Gandee of BlueFire Fitness, determined to finish an Ironman.

Gandee suggested that anyone starting a fitness program should talk to a medical professional first. Long-distance athletes in particular need a good support system.

Cornwell traveled to Florida last November and completed his first Ironman in a respectable 16 hours, 8 minutes. “I think the difference was when I went to Hawaii, I hoped to finish,” he said. “When I went to Florida, I knew I would finish.”

Cornwell is currently training to give the Hawaii Ironman another try next year, if he can qualify. “I’m happy to be able to participate,” he said. “I’m grateful I can, and that’s the most important thing to me.”

Cornwell has some advice for those out there who want to follow in his footsteps.

The longer the event, the more preparation and expenses are involved in training and competing.

“It’s a long day,” he said. “You can’t just go out there and wing it.”

A sprint length triathlon is good place to start for people in decent physical shape, a far shorter race than the Ironman.

Cultivate your own support network and consider joining a training group, such as a masters swim team or cycling club.

When it comes to diet, focus on eating a variety of unprocessed foods, such as lean meats, whole grains and fruits and vegetables. Avoid “empty calories” that have sugar and refined carbohydrates.

Cornwell doesn’t count calories but he does keep track of the types of foods he eats to make sure he’s getting enough of the right stuff. For example, he keeps track of the number of servings of protein he consumes daily.

His last piece of advice: “It’s never too late to start doing something as long as you have realistic assessment of what you can do and you progress slowly.

“You’ve got to enjoy it. If you don’t like it, you won’t do it.”

The original article can be found here.

Cornwell and Gandee runningCornwell and Gandee running

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