Hiromu Inada Will Attempt to Be the First 90-Year-Old to Finish Kona
Already the oldest person to ever finish the Ironman World Championship race in Hawaii, Inada hasn’t slowed down. He shares his training schedule and mental approach to triathlon and to life.
The scene is Kona 2015. An elderly man is collapsed on his knees in the final meters before the finish line, completely spent, as spectators reach over the barriers and attempt to lift him up. It’s an image that dramatically shows all the harsh reality of Ironman, and it was a photo that grabbed attention worldwide.
The man was Hiromu Inada. 82 at the time, in his first attempt to become the oldest finisher at the Ironman World Championship, he’s kept coming back to Kona ever since.
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Inada turns 90 this year, and he has announced that this year he will try to become the first person 90 or older to finish Ironman Hawaii. The Guinness Book of World Records has already recognized Inada twice as the oldest-ever Ironman World Championship finisher, once in 2016 and again in 2018. What drives him to keep going even further?
“It’s not that I’m doing it because I’m 90. I just happen to be turning 90, and it’s a goal that looks achievable,” he said. “My body is deteriorating, of course, but I’m confident that at this point it’s still something doable. That’s why I’m going for it.” Cheering him on are people from all over the world. “They’ve given me a sense of mission,” he said. “I have to live up to their expectations. I can’t stop now.”
Read this story in Japanese (日本) here.
A debut at 70 years old
Inada took up swimming at 60, and after buying a road bike when he was 69 he made his triathlon debut at the age of 70. Immediately after that race his wife died from a long illness, and Inada devoted himself to triathlon as a route to channel his grief. After a DNF in his first Ironman at age 76, he went knocking on the door of the Inage International Triathlon Club, home to a number of pro and Olympic athletes.
There he met Junichi Yamamoto, his coach ever since. “We’re closer than blood relatives,” Inada said. “Meeting him was the greatest luck I’ve had in my life. If he weren’t in the picture I wouldn’t be here. When I joined the club Yamamoto was coaching there while still active competitively. There was nobody else even close to me in age on the team, so I must have been an oddity. He often came and talked to me and kept an eye on me in training.”
Their bond grew deeper after Inada made his Kona debut in 2011. Traveling to the Ironman World Championships for the first time by himself, Inada was awash in interviews for American TV and Japanese magazines, and was caught up in the excitement and tension that permeates the atmosphere on the Big Island. But overcome by the experience, his hopes came crashing down with a DNF on the swim.
“I was humiliated,” he remembers. “Everyone else was hopping on their bikes and roaring off onto the course, and I was the only one pushing my bike back to the hotel, right there in front of the huge crowds of spectators. I was completely crushed, and when I got back to my room I called coach Yamamoto even though it was the middle of the night back in Japan.”
Understanding that he had to give this one a little extra care and attention, the next year Yamamoto flew to Kona at his own expense to see Inada finish it for the first time, in 15 hours, 38 minutes to be named the 80-84 world champion. “That was the beginning of my new life as a triathlete,” Inada said, the point where his way of thinking about participating in the sport shifted from a focus on his own enjoyment to a responsibility to the people who’ve helped and supported him.
“That’s the reason why I’m still doing this,” he said. “Before, I could easily quit when things got tough during the race. I just can’t quit like that anymore. There are people all around the world waiting to see how I do. I couldn’t believe the response to that picture from 2015, the tremendous number of people who left encouraging comments on my Facebook page, telling me, ‘Give it another shot next year!’ or ‘I can’t wait to cheer for you in person!’ Most of them were from strangers. I felt like it was either live up to their hopes or don’t go back to Japan alive.”
When he returned to Kona in 2016, the whole world was watching. It was incredible pressure, but the enthusiasm and cheering from everyone gave Inada the strength to make it to the finish. “When you cross the checkpoints your splits go up online,” Inada said. “As you go across the timing mat you hear a beeping sound as it registers your ankle band. Every time I heard that it would bring to mind the faces of the people I knew would be following my splits. I knew that they had just seen mine come up and confirmed that I was still in it and still alive, and that I absolutely had to make it to the next beep. If I fell behind they’d get worried. That was the biggest motivation when things got harder.”
That year, at the age of 83, he finished and became the oldest ever Kona finisher. In 2018, he became the first person in the 85-89 age-group to finish the race. Now, he’ll attempt to break his own record and set a new one at 90.
‘Most people impose limits on themselves as they get older’
There have been moments when Inada thought he was going to die. In 2015 his stomach rejected the nutrition he took in, leading to dehydration, hitting the wall, heat stroke, and his body not responding anymore. “When I was 3km from the finish I thought to myself, ‘I might die out here,’” he remembers. “But at the same time I was thinking that it would be OK if I did. If I died during the race people might accept it and say, ‘He really took it all the way.’”
Even after an experience like 2015 Inada remains fascinated by the final approach to Kona’s finish gate. “The sound of the cheering is like the voice of the Earth itself,” he said. “My legs tremble under its weight. Its emotional impact is something that can’t be expressed by words like ‘emotional impact.’ All you want is to taste it again.”
Over the last two years the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown up barriers to sporting events worldwide. At Inada’s age, the weight placed on his shoulders with each passing year grows at an ever-accelerating rate. With no Kona since 2019, it might have been a period of frustration and downed hopes, but when he talks about it Inada is full of a surprising optimism and positivity. “It struck me as lucky,” he said. “It was an opportunity to take things at my own speed and try training approaches I had never tackled before. I couldn’t train with others or go away to training camps, but my training load didn’t decrease at all.”
When he trains with others there are college athletes, age groupers, Olympians and pros, and it’s all Inada can do just to keep up. There’s almost no room for him to explore issues of technique. The necessity for training alone over the last two years gave him that room, space in which he was free to try out ideas and make mistakes, and he was rewarded with a rich harvest.
“You often see footage of people in other sports doing training, right? That gives me ideas for my own training. I’ve learned a lot from speed skating, thinking about what elements it has in common with the bike, and how to emulate the form and force skaters apply when they ride bike rollers in training. When I’m on the bike I’m envisioning the feeling of a skater’s smooth motion, and it seems to me this has an effect on the smoothness of my pedaling. That took trial and error to work out, but there was a lot to be gained by doing it.”
On the cusp of 90, this insatiable spirit of investigation and the joy of still being able to find ways to improve remain Inada’s primary driving forces. “When you explore different things you get the sense that things can still get faster and easier,” he said. “I can’t help but be happy when I find that I’m still evolving. When you repeat this process several times, you get even better. That’s a lot of fun. When you use your body in ways that you haven’t previously, it develops muscles that you hadn’t used before. If I can keep finding these areas then I think there’s still room to grow further.”
“Most people impose limits on themselves as they get older. But if there’s something you really want to do, then you should do it. You might find that it’s something you do unexpectedly well, and I can’t tell you how happy it’ll make you when you find that out. My Kona attempt is not about pushing the human limit or anything like that. It’s more about a chain of many small achievements. Once you’ve achieved one goal, it opens up other possibilities and reveals things you didn’t realize you could still do. You can go a long way during the fascination of that phase.” Underlying everything is the desire to enjoy life all the way until death. “Once you are able to feel like, ‘I’ve done everything that I wanted to do!’ it becomes easier to accept it when your time comes.”
Inada’s plans go beyond Kona at 90. “There are a lot of people I owe a debt of gratitude for having helped me when I’ve gone abroad to compete in Ironman races. I have no sense of direction and always get lost in foreign countries and have to ask people for help. I’d like to cycle all around the world and stop to see each of them again to say thank you.” Just as his age doesn’t seem to impose limits, there doesn’t seem to be any limit to the scale of Inada’s dreams.
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|Hiromu Inada's weekly training schedule|
Coach Junichi Yamamoto on Inada’s training
The overall training load hasn’t changed in the last few years. There are no days completely off, but after hard workouts there’s a minimum interval of 24 hours before the next session so that he has adequate recovery time.
A lot of people give things up because of their age, but Inada has been able to do so much purely because of his love for triathlon. His enthusiasm for the sport is his secret energy source. He’s around some of the best Japanese triathletes, like Ai Ueda and Yuichi Hosoda, and he is very seriously trying to compete with them. He’s never going to beat them, but the effort itself has changed the way he swims and runs. One of his strengths is that he doesn’t give up on things that he wasn’t able to do. If he couldn’t make it up a hill on his bike or hit his target time on a run, he will absolutely go back later and try again. I’ll always be impressed by that.
Inada on Coach Yamamoto
Coach Yamamoto doesn’t spoil me at all, even when I say that it’s hard. But I think that’s why I’m still able to chase Kona. Even though his training is tough, I have complete confidence that he has properly thought about how my body works and planned the training schedule accordingly. Because of that trust I leave it completely to him to tell me what to do and just have to focus on doing my best to fulfill his expectations. When I’m doing his training I’m always thinking, “If you can’t do this workout then there’s no Hawaii for you.”