Triathlete Defies Odds, Qualifies For World Championship After Grueling Half Ironman Race


By Dinesh Arab, MD

Rick Taylor was swimming the race of his life. The Virginia half-Ironman (70.3 miles) was underway, and Rick swam the 1.2-mile course in the Carvin Cove Reservoir in 30 minutes and 43 seconds, coming out of the water first in his age group at a blistering pace of 1 minute and 35 seconds per 100 m (1.36/100 m). What was more incredible was that his heart rate through that effort was an easy 109 beats per minute. He was warming up. The heart rate in long-distance racing is like an RPM meter in a car; you want to have it as low as possible in the initial part of the race. If your heart rate gets too high too early, you can accumulate lactic acid, which affects muscle contraction and possibly end your race. To put the swim in perspective, the swim speed of top professional athletes is between 1.10/100m and 1.25/100m depending on the course.

Rick turned 52 this year and became a grandpa last year. I met Rick through his wife, who is a pharmaceutical representative. He reminded me of a younger version of Bruce Willis, with his dry humor and one-liners. The amateur circuit for triathlon racing is an intense one. While the professionals have to only train and concentrate on nutrition, the amateur racer balances training with a full-time job and family obligations. There are no endorsements, crowds, or large prize monies at the end of the race. The training is brutal, to say the least, with early morning 4:30 am starts and the weekends chewed away with the longer distance 60-mile rides and 12-mile runs. The half Ironman distance is a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike, and 13.1-mile run. The full Ironman is double that distance.

Rick’s journey was challenging. He was racing his first Ironman 70.3 a few years ago and was near the end of the race when he cramped up and almost had a seizure. He was hauled into the medical tent and needed IV fluids to stabilize him. The second time, training harder and convinced he had a better grasp on his nutrition, he managed to rupture his Achilles tendon as he ran out of the water, tripping on a hole in the beach. He needed surgery and was laid up for a few months, during which he put on weight and drove everyone around him crazy. He returned to training with a renewed focus and, during a particular training session in the hills, proceeded to cramp up again and almost passed out. He was whisked away to a local hospital by ambulance. He texted me from the hospital bed, asking me whether it was safe for him to sign out of the hospital, as they wanted to keep him for additional tests. The standard joke among the group was while others would acquaint themselves with the race course, Rick would familiarize himself with the medical tent personnel.

The answer was straightforward from a medical standpoint. Rick needed to replace his electrolytes faster. Humans sweat to lose heat. The average athlete loses up to 1000mg of sodium an hour, which varies with the temperature, humidity, and wind speed. He decided to take a sweat test, something professional athletes frequently do, to determine their sweating rate under different conditions. Rick, as expected, was an outlier, and armed with his new data, he doubled his electrolyte rate. He lost weight, got a new bike, and redoubled his training.

Back to the race, Rick finished the 56-mile bike ride with 3967 feet of elevation in three hours and four minutes, averaging a speed of 18.1 miles per hour (28.9 km/hr). His maximum speed on the descent was 45.2 MPH (72 km/hr). When you think of these speeds on a bicycle, with turns, surrounded by other racers, and visibility of 30 feet at best due to the mist, the sheer insanity of the race comes into perspective. His average heart rate through all this excitement was 126 BPM.

Rick wasted a few minutes as he stopped to pee, one of the issues with getting older. The younger ones pee on the bike, but the prostate in us more senior men puts an end to those shenanigans. He finished the half marathon in an hour and 40 minutes, finishing sixth overall, with an average heart rate of 140 BPM. The first-place finisher in the 50-year-plus age group completed the half marathon in an hour and 30 minutes. The whole race had taken Rick five hours and 11 minutes, with a 3,500 kcal burn.

Many of our friends think that older triathletes are going through a mid-life crisis. It is a mid-life awakening: the realization that health is an essential asset that will dictate how we spend the finite time ahead. Rick qualified for the world championship in Finland, where he will race with stronger, leaner, and badder grandpas. As for me, I am happy to hang in the back; I know I will catch the leaders at the breakfast cafe after the race.

Dinesh Arab is a cardiologist.


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