Older athletes are not only competing in endurance races — they’re excelling. A study of masters athletes (the name given to older competitors, usually over age 35) at the Hawaii Ironman triathlon — an event consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a full marathon — revealed that the top male finishers ages 60 through 64 were only a few minutes slower than the top 30- through 34-year-olds. These older triathletes represent "a fascinating model of exceptionally successful aging," the study authors report in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.
"There was a time when many people thought you simply couldn’t be a serious athlete after your early 30s," says Michael Joyner, M.D., a professor of physiology at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. "That’s obviously not the case."
The six distinguished masters athletes featured in this slideshow offer living proof. edition.
Ron Lacey, 54
Many masters athletes say their age and experience help them beat out younger competitors. "The young guys, they go all out in the first half hour or so of a long ride, and then they’re toast," says Lacey, a bike-shop owner in San Diego and a fiercely committed cyclist who rides up to 450 miles a week during the racing season. “We older guys know how to settle in, then pick up the pace until the kids’ tongues are hanging out. It is so energizing to be outpacing riders who are 20 years younger than you.”
Dan Weiser, 52
A national-class masters sprinter, the 52-year-old Weiser has lost only about 21 seconds from the 800-meter times he posted in high school, making him one of the top racers at the national masters track meet the past several years. "It’s so incredible nowadays to feel my body respond," says Weiser, a congressional staffer in Washington, D.C. "To feel the power and the speed when I run."
Joan Campbell, 80
"My cardiologist always tells me to keep doing what I’m doing," says Campbell, of Palm Harbor, Florida. She is a national record holder in masters swimming. Never much of an athlete in her youth, she started swimming at age 59. "The doctor says that if everyone were as fit as me, he’d be out of business."
Colleen de Reuck, 46
“I can still run fast,” confirms de Reuck, of Boulder, Colorado, one of America’s best marathon runners. At 41, de Reuck ran a sparkling 2:29 marathon, an age-group record that has yet to be threatened. In the spring of 2010, she briefly ranked as the top female marathon runner in the nation. Not the top age-group racer, mind you, but the top racer, period. “Sometimes it’s a bit surprising to me to be training or racing and see these younger runners behind me. I think, ‘Shouldn’t they be up ahead?’ ” de Reuck says. “But I’m quite pleased, of course, to be in front.”
Bob Heins, 71
Heins is living proof that older muscles can still be strong. A dentist and serious competitive triathlete in Plattsburgh, New York, Heins holds national and age-group course records in the Ironman triathlon. "Some of the older guys out there are doing an under-four-hour marathon," he says of his fellow triathletes. "I know plenty of 30-year-olds who can’t do that."
Brian Cheney, 63
Masters athletes continue to excel — and a few seem unstoppable. Cheney, of Chandler, Arizona, has 68 national tennis championships to his name and continues to compete around the country. His mother, Dorothy Bundy Cheney, now 94, just won the national 90-plus indoor doubles championship. "I hope I’m still playing when I’m 94," Brian Cheney says. "I certainly plan to be."