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#MyTri: My First Triathlon at 68 Years Old

Having retired twice, after 21 years in the Air Force and 20 years as a college professor and president, Michael Heberling needed a new challenge.

We’re bringing back #MyTri—where we triathletes tell their stories in their own words. To submit your triathlon story email letters@triathlete.com with “My Tri” in the subject line.

In March of 2019, I completed my first indoor triathlon. Several days later, I was approached by Jeff Haggerty, the director of the local outdoor First Try/Fast Try race. He said: “Mike, now that you have completed an indoor triathlon, you are ready to move up to the big leagues.” I took the bait and enthusiastically agreed. This outdoor triathlon was three months out, and there were two things that I could not stop thinking about: 1. I needed a real bike, and 2. The swimming portion would be in a lake, not a fitness center’s 25-yard pool with lane lines and walls to push off of.

I had several old bikes in the garage (all with flat tires). Would any of them do the trick? No! I’d get a new racing bike for my 68th birthday, which would give me a month-and-a-half to train on this “super” bike. My neighborhood course had a number of rolling hills, but unfortunately, there were no long straightaways. I was never able to let it rip at full speed before race day.

When race day finally came around in June, it was very cold (not that unusual for Michigan). That would be a plus for the cycling and running, but I was worried it would make Lake Michigan extra chilly for swimming! After an uneventful check-in was uneventful, I went to rack my bike but there was no room for me! So, I moved one of the bikes to make room for mine and suddenly some guy started screaming at me. “Hey, what are you doing? You can’t do that!” I said: “Do what?” He said: “You are not allowed to touch my bike!” I thought to myself: “Are all these triathlon people this anal-retentive? This guy really needs to chill out.”

Before meeting by the lake for a pep talk, course update, and a review of the rules, I went to get body marked—someone mark my number on my arm and I was asked how old I was. “Why do you ask?” “We need to put your age on your calf.” Really? I then noticed that almost everyone else around me seemed to only have numbers between 20 and 39. Boy, was I old! (I found out later that I was, in fact, the oldest.)

Finally, we were approaching showtime. I would be in the third wave. As I watched the first two groups, I noticed that they ran for quite a distance before the lake was deep enough to swim. And the water looked damn cold. We charged in and then started to swim. The water was warm! This was not like the pool at all! It was dark and I couldn’t see anything. It then seemed like I was being slugged in the back and on my side and my legs. Since there were no lane lines, it was a free-for-all slug-fest. We were bunched so close together that many of the strokes from the other swimmers were hitting me (and not the water). All this, plus staring into the black water, was so unnerving that I was having trouble swimming. My breathing was off. I was lifting my head way out of the water. I could sense that I was starting to hyperventilate. To calm myself down, I decided to swim on my back. This worked, but, boy, was that slow. I then felt a tapping as if to get my attention. It was a woman in a kayak trying to tell me that I was veering off the course. I needed to turn back. Wow, did I ever feel stupid, but I was so far behind that there was nobody bumping into me anymore—and I was able to start swimming normally again. Good news! It was a relief to finally touch the shallow part of the lake, and then I was able to run the rest of the way to the shore.

The transition to the bike was uneventful and I was off. Compared to the swimming nightmare, this was going great. The only unnerving part was going down real hills—not the low neighborhood rolling hills. I had never gone this fast on my bike before. I instinctively wanted to ride the brakes all the way down. (I just knew that there had to be a rabbit waiting to jump out in front of me.) As I was waved into the transition area, I was very pleased with the way this second leg had turned out.

The running part also went extremely well. I was actually passing people—in fact, many people. And then it was over! I had a great sense of accomplishment. At age 68, I had completed my first triathlon. While I was the oldest to participate, there were actually other old guys in my age group. To no surprise, I was last in swimming. But I was second on the bike and first in running. In running, I beat the 2nd place old guy (who was only 61) by seven minutes. This was enough to offset my horrible swimming time and I won my age group! Overall, I was 26th out of 82 athletes. With this being my first real triathlon and being the oldest guy there, I was very happy with the results.

No matter how bad it goes, always force a smile. Even if you are not going to be a winner, you can always look like one.

The takeaways from my first triathlon:

  • Training for three events resulted in my exercising more major muscle groups than just running. A big plus!
  • This led to fewer injuries than when I only run. Spreading the training for each event over different days actually provided built-in recovery. Another big plus!
  • While my swimming was very bad compared to everyone else, I could now swim—which was something I couldn’t do a year before. An extremely big plus!

Things to fix after my first tri:

  • I needed professional help to improve my swimming. I signed up for swim lessons shortly after this.
  • To get better, you need to do this again and soon.

A month and a half later, I dove off the front of a “Bavarian Belle” paddlewheel boat into the Cass River, which runs through Frankenmuth, Michigan. This was the Tri-Bavaria Triathlon. Starting off in single file was less stressful than the previous slug-fest start. Unlike the lake, the river water was surprisingly clear. The bike route was very flat. I was finally able to let her rip. It was great and I am now hooked on triathlons.