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At 85 years old, Lew Hollander will be attempting the Ironman World Championship for the 25th time, hoping for his 24th finish. The only DNF on his record after decades of racing came last year, when the winds on the bike were too much for him. So Hollander, who already holds the Guinness World Record for being the oldest person to finish the Ironman World Championship (at 82), will be back for some unfinished business, to give the Big Island one more shot. We caught up with him to find out more about his athletic background, his motivation behind racing and his secrets to longevity in the sport.
When did you start racing triathlons?
’85 was my first Kona. I’ve finished 23 times, and last year I didn’t finish—there was a lot of wind on the bike. It was pretty ugly. Then I went to Florida and I qualified for Kona again. Hopefully there won’t be as bad [of wind] this year, ha ha.
What’s your strongest discipline? Swim, bike or run?
I don’t know. I can always swim, and I used to be an ultrarunner—I’ve run Western States 100 miles, so you know, the Ironman was easy after that. … Then before that I did endurance riding on a horse. I’m in the hall of fame, actually, for endurance riding. That’s riding one horse for one day, 100 miles or 50 or 80. Yeah, so I moved from endurance riding on a horse—in fact I just did one last week. World championship actually, finished 14th. The oldest person to ever do that—the world championship. The oldest person ever to do the world championship [before me] was 76. Of course I’ve done it many, many times. But I did it when I was 83, now I’m doing it at 85.
You seem to be breaking barriers in different sports.
Well only in age! I haven’t sped up at all [laughing]. I can still do the distance, but I can’t do the time or the speed. And that of course will terminate my go at the Hawaii Ironman. It’s 17 hours, and this year they shortened it to 16:50. I said, ‘If I’m going to do this thing, I’ve got to make it.’ I did it when I was 82, so I’m in the Guinness Book of Records at 82. I skipped it when I was 83. I did it when I was 82, Hawaii, and finished. And I did it when I was 81 and finished. And I finished in 16:45 exactly each time. So if I repeat my performance, which would be unlikely, because I am slower—I’m two years older—if I repeat my performance, it’ll be 16:45, and they only give you 16:50 now, so this is not good.
That’ll be close!
But it’s good from the standpoint it’ll be harder for anyone else to finish it—then they won’t break my record. I can look at it that way. Anyway, I’m going, I’ll do the best I can, and we’ll see what happens. That’s all I know. You asked which was my strongest—I did a lot of running. I’ve never been a fast runner—I can go a long way. I can do a marathon. And then when I finish a marathon I look around and I go, ‘You know, I could not run any faster.’ All my contemporaries are in 20 minutes, a half hour in front of me. But I say, ‘But I can go out and do it again!’ So I can do the long distances—I guess that’s what I can do. So swimming, I’ve always been able to swim—so it’s just to get through it.
How did you get into triathlon after horseback riding and ultrarunning?
I ran the Western States in ’84—100 miles, you know—and they wrote an article in Outside magazine [that said,] ‘This is the toughest endurance event. If there’s any tougher they don’t want to know about it.’ And it’s a tough race—it’s a hundred miles running. So what am I going to do next? I finished the Western States, which is probably the toughest thing I’d ever done, and you’re running for 24 hours. In the stands are about 17 people—my family and that’s about it. … Why did I switch? It was some personal reasons. I gave up endurance riding and switched to triathlons and ultrarunning. I was looking for the next challenge. And riding your bike and riding your horse are pretty much the same muscles. I had no trouble getting off my horse or getting back on and riding my bike. So that was no problem. Running and bike riding are two different muscle sets, so that’s where triathletes—that’s where people run into problems when they start triathlon. If they’re cyclists for example and then they have to run, well that transition probably kills them. But for me, I’ve been riding and running. … So like I said, I just did the world championship two weeks ago on Saturday. And two weeks before that I did the Boise half-Ironman. I didn’t exactly place, but I finished it, in 8 hours and 25 minutes, which is not bad for an old man. So anyhow—you asked me which one was better, and I have been thinking that I really don’t know. I’ve always liked the swim, and I don’t mind swimming—I just figure it’s a necessary evil. The bike I’ve gotten better on with technological improvements, so that I feel more confident on the bike these days. And running, I’ve slowed way down, so running used to be my strongest suit and now it’s probably my weakest suit. I can probably get through the swim and the bike OK, but the run I’m so slow that I don’t make the time. I can walk a little—but there’s not much difference between my run and my walk now, which is not good. … I’ve been doing endurance events for 50 years or something. It’s amazing I’ve been able to keep my health together. I used to count the number of competitors ahead of me, and now I count the number of competitors behind me, and I call that ‘the transition.’ The triathlon transition, from a competitor to a finisher or whatever.
How many hours a week do you train?
Everybody asks me that. I do pretty much—like I ride Wednesday night with a group … and then I live in a pretty place, so I run every day. I don’t know—I listen to myself. I don’t run on a schedule. If I’m not feeling well, I don’t do it anything. How many hours a day do I train? Maybe three. Yeah, I don’t understand how people can do the Ironman and have a job. There’s no room in life for that one, but I see they do it.
Have you found any secrets to longevity in the sport, or what advice would you give to people who want to find longevity in the sport?
Yeah, I have two mantras—obviously I’ve given this some thought. ‘Use it or lose it.’ In other words, all these people say, ‘Aren’t your knees giving out?’ I say, ‘Hell no, I use them all the time! They keep working.’ And the other is ‘Go anaerobic every day.’ I think there’s something magic that happens. How do you know when you’re anaerobic? When you can’t breathe! So you’re running and you ran a little harder, and how do you know? Well you’re going to face plant if you don’t stop! [laughing] Well why would a lunatic do that? Because I think some magic things happen to your whole system when you push [your system]. And I’m not recommending this for someone who hasn’t trained, but of course I’ve been doing these things for a long time. And so I go anaerobic pretty much every day, so the idea is that pushes your system to the max. … And so those are my only two thoughts.
How do you stay motivated?
I think I’ll die otherwise. That’s a fairly good motivator. I feel that one of the bad parts of getting in shape, if you will, and training and these things, is that you can’t quit. The most dangerous thing is to get in shape—and really great athletes just push themselves to the max—you write stories on them everyday. But these guys are on the cutting edge and they can’t stay there forever. Now, but their bodies are in perfect shape—there’s no extra fat around their heart or anywhere. They’re just perfect, otherwise they’d be wussie. So now what happens when they stop that intense training, at whatever level they’re at? They go to crap, and they die. You can look at the longevity of triathletes. I think they stay in pretty good shape. But once you get in shape, you’ve gotta stay there. There’s a limit to what race you can win or what race you can participate in—I’m sure we have those limits. But we have to keep exercising. You can’t stop once you start, that’s the point.
I know you’re a scientist—how do you think that scientific mind affects your triathlon racing?
Oh 100 percent. It’s logic and research and all those kind of things. It affects my whole life. It drives my girlfriend crazy. … ‘Why are you doing that?’ ‘I don’t know, I just feel that’s right.’ I’m like, ‘Think about it, come on, get the facts!’
What’s your favorite thing about racing in Kona?
I have to like something about it?! I don’t think I have a favorite thing about it—it’s horrible! It’s the ugliest, toughest race. If you want to say the worst thing about it, it’s the last couple of miles. Every year, I say, ‘I’m never going to do this again, never, never.’ Well there are lots of races that are much better than Kona in my book. That’s an ugly race. It’s hot and miserable, the wind’s blowing—everything’s going wrong. I keep going back, so there must be something good there.
What does it mean to you to be able to start the 85-89 age group in Kona this year?
Not a whole lot, strangely enough. Like I say, I’m in the hall of fame for endurance riding, I’m in the Guinness Book of Records for triathlons. I’ve done well in science. But I don’t think any of those things. Why is it important? Because I look at my participation in sports as a test of me. You want my third mantra? You’re supposed to say ‘yes.’
I use the Mirror Principle, where 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. There’s guys who are going to run faster than me, there’s guys who are going to run longer than me, there’s guys who are behind me, I know that—and girls. I know that. So all I have to do is account for the person in the mirror. So where I am now I’ve done the best I could. Every time you see a [finish] time or something, you’ll know Lew Hollander did the best he could. I can’t do any better. So I get 85, great! I’m happy now, I’m happy I’m alive. That’s the main achievement. So this is a test. To do the Ironman again. I told someone I figure I’ll live 20 years after I finish my last Ironman. Of course I could do easier Ironmans than Kona. I think there’s some merit in that logic. I keep in shape, and I follow exercise, and a race like Kona, it’s only a test. It’s a test for Lew. It’s like going and getting a cardio, running on a machine and getting your EKG and so forth. It’s just a test to see where I am. The only one who really cares is me. And if I look in the mirror and say, ‘That’s the best you could do.’ If I’m halfway through the bike and I say, ‘That’s it,’ or ‘You did it! Great!’ As long as I did the best I could, that’s all I can do.