85-year-old Lew Hollander Looking For 24th Kona Finish

The Kona veteran is pioneering the 85–89 age group on the Big Island this October.

Photo: Eric Lars Bakke

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Kona veteran Lew Hollander is pioneering the 85–89 age group on the Big Island this October.

After finishing the Ironman World Championship more than 20 times, you’d think 85-year-old Lew Hollander would love Kona. Notsomuch. “It’s horrible,” he says, laughing. “It’s the ugliest, toughest race. … Every year I say, ‘I’m never going to do this again. Never, never.’”

But he’ll be back this year for some unfinished business in the lava fields. Even though he already holds the Guinness World Record as the oldest man to finish the Ironman World Championship (at 82), he tried again last year, and dropped out during the bike leg due to the relentless winds. He earned his 2015 slot at the shortened Ironman Florida in November and hopes to mark his 24th Kona finish.

Hollander is pushing boundaries in more than just triathlon, though—his athletic background is in endurance horseback riding, for which he’s in the hall of fame for being the oldest person to ever finish in the world championship, a feat he accomplished again this year. He’s only breaking barriers in age, he points out: “I haven’t sped up at all!” he says. “I can still do the distance, but I can’t do the time or the speed.”

Between horseback riding and triathlon, Hollander was an ultrarunner and completed the Western States 100-mile race in 1984. He was looking for the next challenge when he raced Ironman Hawaii in 1985.

A career physicist, Hollander views life through a matter-of-fact, logical lens (which drives his girlfriend crazy, he says), and he sees endurance sports as a vehicle to lengthen his life. “I think I’ll die otherwise,” he says. “That’s a fairly good motivator. I feel one of the bad things about getting in shape is that you can’t quit.”

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He exercises about three hours a day, and trains by feel. He joins a weekly group ride and runs almost daily since “I live in a pretty place” (Redmond, Ore.). “I listen to myself—I don’t run on a schedule,” he says. “If I’m not feeling well, I don’t do anything.”

Hollander’s been competing in endurance events for more than 50 years, and even though he’s slowed down, he shows no signs of giving up (or losing his sense of humor). “I used to count the number of competitors ahead of me, and now I count the number of competitors behind me,” he says. “I call that ‘the transition.’”

But he also keeps his races in perspective, following the “mirror principle,” he says. “You look in the mirror and say, ‘Lew, did you do the best you could today?’ And if I can answer myself, ‘Yes,’ that’s all I care about.”

While starting the 85–89 age group in Kona will be an impressive accomplishment, he views it more as simply a test of his own will. “There are guys who are going to run faster than me, there’re guys who are going to run longer than me, there are guys who are behind me, I know that,” he says. “All I have to do is account for the person in the mirror. … Every time you see a [finish] time, you’ll know Lew Hollander did the best he could. I can’t do any better. … I’m happy I’m alive—that’s the main achievement.”

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Lew’s Tips

Being an 85-year-old endurance athlete has certainly given Lew Hollander some life experience and earned wisdom. Here are his top two tips for triathletes.

Use it or lose it. “All these people say, ‘Aren’t your knees giving out?’ I say, ‘Hell no, I use them all the time! They keep working.’”

Go anaerobic every day. “How do you know when you’re anaerobic? When you can’t breathe! … I think some magic things happen to your whole system when you push it to the max.”

To read the full interview with Lew Hollander, visit Triathlete.com/lew.

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