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Revenge of the 40-Something Women

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Written by: Nan Kappeler

At the 2008 Los Angeles sprint-distance triathlon, 46-year-old Sherry Rennard from Costa Mesa, Calif. placed first overall, beating out hundreds of competitors several years her junior. First and fifth-place titles at the 2009 Ironman 70.3 Eagleman were won by women in their 40s. Last month, a 43-year-old female captured the third overall finish at the Solana Beach sprint triathlon in Solana Beach, Calif.

Call it a mid-life crisis—or call it just plain craziness, but the 40-something ladies competing in triathlons appear to be on a mission. They aren’t out there to just win their age group or the overall award, but to show the world age isn’t a deterrent to being fit and fast.

“Age today isn’t what we used to think,” said Lucy Danziger, 49, a mother of two, triathlete and editor of Self magazine in New York City. “For most women in their 40s they don’t feel like they are slowing down. We feel like we are getting faster.”
In some cases, with fewer responsibilities toward children such as carpooling, PTA meetings and soccer tournaments, time opens up to devote to mom, instead of the kids.  Other women discover the 40s is “their time” to reach fitness goals, shifting priorities from work and social obligations to training time.

“In your 30s you are still trying to meet expectations laid out to you in life. In the 40s some of that stuff didn’t work out, the plan didn’t go that way,” said Danziger, who entered her first triathlon at age 44. “In your 40s, you get to write your own story. It can include being super competitive or doing a triathlon.”

Up until the past several years, race results indicated that as women passed the 40-year mark, the competition thinned, with just a few dozen registrants in these age groups. Top finishers were often minutes behind the younger competitors. Reaching the podium and qualifying for championship race spots were very attainable.

But now, larger races are attracting older women more than ever before, sometimes close to 100 competitors in the over 40 age groups compared to 60 to 80 in the 30-something divisions. Older ladies are finishing competitively with younger groups. Medaling in the 40 and above age categories has actually become tougher, or “brutal” as described by some. A 2006 article in the New York Times quotes Tim Yount, the senior vice president of marketing for USA Triathlon reporting that the 40 and over age groups are the fastest growing age category in the sport.

For Rennard, changes in her life brought her into the sport. Her late 20s and 30s were spent raising her two children. While she remained active biking and running, it wasn’t until 2001, a year after her divorce and as her kids became more independent that she entered her first triathlon. Several years later she had another lifestyle change when she met her current husband Pete, who also became her training partner.

“I feel like I am the most fit that I’ve ever been. I love doing six-hour bike rides with my husband. I love the comradely with the other women,” Rennard said. “I also love beating the younger women. It shows everybody that just because you are older, you can still be faster.”

According to Dr. Catherine Birndorf, MD, a physician who specializes in women’s mental health in New York City, a new adventure, such as settling in on a relationship or job or a sense of community with other women who share the same values are all reasons why women take on a new activity like triathlons. This change often comes during their  “peri-menopausal” years, a time usually in the 40s, when the body’s biology and hormones are changing. “Some women may say ‘I’m 43, my career and marriage is on track, I feel like I have time now,’” Birndorf said.

The emergence of women-specific triathlon clubs, slower-paced training groups and fund raising teams such as Team In Training have all also opened more opportunities for females to participate in the multisport community with others who share the same goals and workout paces. “It’s part of the life experience,” said Birndorf. “People are living longer and want to be healthy. Fitness is a huge priority.”