I hit the BIG “4-0” this year and like clockwork, I have noticed more of my aches and pains. My achilles are tender when I run too much, my shoulder hurts if I play too much volleyball and my back, well, my back just hurts when I wake up in the morning causing my first steps out of bed to look more like a shuffle.
For me these have all been reasons to take it “easy” and to take some time off from running races.
Sunday morning John and I got up early to walk down the beach and see the swim start of the LA Triathlon. It was a different experience to be at a race as a spectator; I loved being the one to cheer others on and to just relax and feel the energy in the air.
John and I clapped and expressed our support for competitors as they came out of the water and got on their bikes.
Many faces showed absolute determination and true grit, others tremendous satisfaction, and some were simply enjoying the moment and in awe of what they just did. All of them seemed to appreciate our encouragement and relish in our cheers of support.
All of a sudden, our full attention was taken by an older man slowly making his way up the beach to the bike transition. He was still built stout and strong, but his legs were as thin as pencils and labored just a bit more in the sand than those of the competitors running past him. With tremendous enthusiasm we cheered him on as he walked slowly up. He grabbed the barrier that I was standing behind and with a smile announced, “I am 91 years old!”
We learned his name was Bill Bell and I literally melted when he posed for my camera and gave me the “thumbs-up”. I was instantly inspired and wished I could jump in and finish the race with him. When I got home I was determined to see if I could learn more about him.
Sure enough, there was much to learn about Bill. We had come in contact with a legend and an icon.
To this day, Bill has finished 32 Ironman competitions (including 5 world champion honors in his age group), 2 Ultramans (a 3 day triathlon that includes a 6 mile swim, a 250 mile bike ride and a 52.4 mile run), 8 “Escape from Alcatraz” swims, over 300 triathlons, 159 marathons and ultraruns, and even 2 cross country bike rides where he biked 2,473 miles in just 7 days.
He must have been racing all of his life right? Wrong.
In 1976 at the age of 54, a stress test revealed a slight murmur in Bill’s heart. Bill’s doctor prescribed some medication and 40 minutes of jogging at least three times a week. Outside of golf, Bill had never been much of an athlete. After three weeks of running he was hooked. He went back and asked his doctor if he could run every day; the doctor gave his blessing and the rest is history.
Bill finished his first marathon at 59 and the next year his first Ironman (he hadn’t ridden a bicycle since he had a 4:30 am paper route when he was 15 and the only swimming he had done was as a Boy Scout).
Bill’s first Ironman race was in Kona, Hawaii in 1982. He competed in it every year taking only 1989 and 1990 off due to exercise induced asthma and some fatigue-causing thyroid issues (but he still did other races). He battled back and trained as hard as ever winning his age group in Kona for the next several years.
After finishing the 2001 California Ironman in under 17 hours and becoming the oldest man to do so, his heart refused to drop to its previous resting heart rate of 42 bpm. He had a pacemaker put in in 2002 and made one more valiant effort to complete the Kona Ironman at age 82, but was unable to finish. He decided then that Kona (one of the all-time toughest Ironman races in the world) was “just to tough” at his age. He did one more Ironman in Florida because “as we all know, it’s easier than Kona” and then he retired.
But retirement from Ironman distance races has not stopped him from doing other triathlons, or riding long distance races.
Bill said, “There is one word that I have excluded from my vocabulary my entire life – ‘can’t’. You can do anything you put your mind to and it’s never too late to start.”
Of all these accomplishments he seems most proud of his decision to marry his best friend, Margie. He and his wife were married for 66 years until she past away last year. He continues to ride and race today in her honor.
When asked how he keeps going he says he lives by what he calls the “lawn-mower theory” — “if you leave a lawnmower out in the grass and it rains, you better get out and push that thing before it gets rusty. I’m creaking and rusting everyday when I get up in the morning, but after I get moving, I feel pretty damn good.”
Just by watching him shuffle up the beach this morning, Bill showed us how much the human body, mind, and spirit can really do.
You may not be looking to finish a triathlon or an Ironman anytime soon… or ever. Maybe you are just looking to make some changes in your lifestyle, overcome some obstacles that seem to be holding you back or just accomplish some goals small or large. Whatever your situation — there is a take away for all of us from Bill and his story.
We certainly don’t have to match Bill’s accomplishments, but we can learn that while age or other obstacles may slow us down, they don’t have to stop us.
Bill’s simple advice to those who want to know where to begin: “Just get moving!”
Once we get moving, the only way to go is UP!