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Facing age with 'up and at 'em' attitude

Peter Thornton looks at 10 golden oldie weekend warriors, some of whom have fought back from injury or set higher goals to achieve remarkable feats on mountains, across lakes, in the sea or on bikes.

Self-confessed "old goat" Brian Smith, 80, runs NZ's hardest half marathon. Photo / Supplied
Self-confessed "old goat" Brian Smith, 80, runs NZ's hardest half marathon. Photo / Supplied

Dick Smith, 77, wants more oldies to swim with in the State Beach Series.

Many of us struggle with the impact of Old Father Time. But in the words of American writer Betty Friedan: "Ageing is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength".

Throughout 2012, we have seen this in many forms. We have met a huge number of athletes to whom age is no barrier to getting out there and doing it.

These people are what Action Weekend is all about. Old-timers who refuse to slow down and are regular competitors, and often the real characters, at events all over New Zealand.

In the final weekend of 2012, we pay tribute to the country's top 10 veteran weekend warriors (in no particular order). For middle-aged athletes who use the phrase "I'm getting too old for this", this group of remarkable achievers will make you think again. And as you look forward to 2013 and make your annual New Year's resolutions, these people will help you believe that anything is possible.

1. "Silly Old Goat" on the pace

Brian Smith will only stop running when he gets a serious injury. The 80-year-old hobby farmer from Huntly was the oldest athlete in the field for the Goat Alpine Adventure Run and couldn't wait for his fourth attempt on the hardest half marathon in New Zealand.

Smith is not slowing down with age. In fact he's getting faster.

He ran the Toi's Challenge in Whakatane a minute faster than he did as a 75-year-old five years ago.

The veteran, who never gives up, last did the Goat in 2010 when he ran 4h 54m. "I love this run," he said. "It's challenging, well-run and I feel totally safe."

He said the secret to his longevity with running was starting later in life at the age of 52 and "picking my parents carefully, who lived to their 90s".

"My family does think I'm a little bit mad and in the Goat I run in the category called 'Silly Old Goat' which sums it up really." Smith said there was a lot he loved about the freedom of running in off-road environments.

"The challenges that can be different, like road-trail running, get me to places that I normally wouldn't see."

His effort at the Goat was not a one-off. For 2012-13, he signed up to a list of gruelling races that included the Abel Tasman Classic (36km), Auckland marathon, Toi's challenge and the Kauri Run (32km).

"I sign up for a run and do the work required for it. At the moment I'm just running races.

"I was happy to go a minute faster than five years ago at the Toi's Challenge. It's always good to beat old times."

His attitude brings to mind the old adage that there's no finishing line when it comes to running.

"I have no intentions to run to any age. I'll just take it as it comes and probably call it a day when I get a permanent injury."

2. Look out - local hoon coming through

The saying "the older I get, the better I was" does not apply to Opotiki's Denis Lindesay.

The 76-year-old, who was a mechanical and marine engineer before retiring, is seen two or three times per week "hooning around" on the Motu Trails. He has no plans to slow down.

"If anyone had told me that I could still race over 100km at the age of 76, I would never have believed it even 20 years ago," said the larger-than-life local character.

Back in 1990, Lindesay crashed and broke his hip. It was screwed together at his insistence, but the surgeon said there was only a 50 per cent chance of success and wanted to fit a full replacement hip. "I was told not to ride my bike, or to put weight on the leg," he remembered.

"But I was to do exercises, pretending I was using it. Well, that didn't work as the x-rays showed no healing in a month. I was told that the blood supply was damaged, and that had to work for healing to take place. So I rode my bike. I thought it the best way to get blood to it. And it worked.

"At the next check, the surgeon said that it had "suddenly" started to heal. I said that I was exercising a bit. At the next visit I told him what I was doing. He leaned back in his chair and said: "We don't know about people like you. I'm used to screwing people together who go home and lie down waiting to get better. You had best do as you think."

The hip came right, but eventually wore out after about 10 years, and Lindesay had to have a full hip replacement in 2000. "In 2001, I did a personal best time around Taupo" he proudly announced.

These days he loves surprising people with his fitness in his late 70s.

3. Cooper takes a run down memory lane

Christchurch's Fred Cooper is not the sort of man who lives in the past.

The 74-years-young runner, who is a long-retired mechanic and retailer, wound back the clock when he took on the Arthur Half Marathon in the Legend Run. It was the realisation of a long-held goal.

"When I finish it will be another one off the bucket list," said the larger-than-life Cooper, who played soccer and rugby and as a teenager and represented Taranaki at league.

Cooper's running history is a long and winding road, like the course of the Legend over the Waitakeres. He ran the event "for old times' sake".

He joined the RNZAF in 1958 and met Ralph King, who talked him into taking up running for Lyndale. He was posted to Singapore and ran for the city in the first Malaysian Games and held the Singapore mile record.

"I returned to New Zealand but there wasn't much future in middle distance with Mr Snell and co around, so I had a serious go at road running and ran in the very successful Lyndale team in the mid-60s and represented Auckland occasionally."

Fast-forward to September 2012 and Cooper is back running, because he can. "I took up running again just before my 70th birthday just to see if I could, as I was getting a bit tubby and bored with playing golf, and have since run six half marathons and am enjoying life as a member of the Port Hills Athletic Club."

4. West is best for Goodwin

Jim Goodwin's name is synonymous with the Waitakere Half Marathon.

The 64-year-old engineer has done every run since it began 15 years ago and is proud of that record.

"I just love being part of this run," said Goodwin. The Waitakere Half Marathon is an event he has a special bond with.

"It has always had an association with the Waitakere Triathlon and Multi Sport Club. Mixing with these athletes inspired me to compete in 21 Ironman events so far and in 2006 I was lucky enough to go to the ITU World Long-Distance Tri Champs in Canberra."

He finds the track a good challenge and has lowered his expectations in 2012 after a recent injury.

"The half course is brilliant as its part-road, part-track. This year I'm just hoping to finish as I twisted my knee three weeks ago and am still having physio." Even at 64, and nursing an injury, Goodwin isn't slowing down.

5. Pollard always has time to swim

Those of us who are busy at work and struggling to find time for fitness in a hectic week need to talk to Sue Pollard.

The CEO of the NZ Nutrition Foundation keeps to a strict fitness routine and was a regular competitor in the popular State Beach Series at Takapuna Beach in 2012.

"The beach series is an opportunity to swim in the sea every week and socialise afterwards," said the 68-year-old. "It makes me leave work on time each Tuesday. I enjoy the swimming and the social aspect, and I have made new friends."

A keen masters swimmer, Pollard is president of New Zealand masters swimming. She trains in the pool with the North Shore Masters Club each week and, in the summer, in the sea averaging 8km to 10km per week.

"If I wasn't working full time I would do more," she said.

It's important for Pollard to remain fit and healthy. "The mission of the NZ Nutrition Foundation is to enhance the quality of life of New Zealanders by encouraging informed, healthy and enjoyable food choices as part of an active lifestyle.

"I want to practice what I preach, but I also felt the benefits in improved health and wellbeing myself when I got back to swimming about 12 years ago after a gap of over 30 years."

6. Three generations take on Ironman in 2013

Justine Milne can't wait for Saturday, March 3, 2013 when her family will "enjoy a moment that may never happen again".

The 30-year-old Kohimarama Primary School teacher is aiming to complete her first New Zealand Ironman alongside her dad, Steve Milne (54), and grandfather, Neil Fleming (76).

If they all complete the event - a 3.8km swim, 180km bike ride and 42km run - it's believed it will be the first time three generations of the one family completes the NZ Ironman. "It's pretty amazing, the fact that three generations of our family are training and could complete this," said Justine.

"It's the reason I've been inspired to do this. I don't know how much longer my grandfather will be doing ironmans and I wanted to make sure I took that opportunity. I thought if they can do it in their 50s and 70s, then I should be able to do it when I'm 30. It has been a great challenge."

It won't be the first time that Justine competes in a major tri event with her grandfather. In her youth, she did a lot of sprint triathlons and standard triathlons and when she was 24, she went to the Age Grade World Championship in Switzerland in 2007.

"My grandfather competed there as well, so that was a great feeling. It was amazing actually to be at an international event like that and he was in his 60s competing against his peers from around the world."

Fleming's fire has not burned out. He recently completed Kona - arguably the toughest triathlon in the world - and then a week later he came home and did the Auckland Triathlon.

7. Smith wants "more old farts to swim against"

Dick Smith, one of the regulars in the State Beach Series, has one pet grump with the event.

"I always win the 70-plus age group, mostly because I'm the only one in it," said the 77-year-old-veteran. "I wish there were a few more old farts to swim against."

Smith, a former school teacher who finished working almost 18 years ago, retired as the principal of Ranui School in 1994. He swam four out of the eight events in the State Beach Series (2011/12).

He swam all of the eight remaining 1500m swims and hoped for some company in his age division. "It's wonderful to swim with the younger [people under 70] and especially my grandsons," he said.

"One of them usually comes in 2nd or 3rd and the other two aren't far behind him. When I come in at about 120th, one of them is always waiting at the finish line with a recovery drink for me."

8. Pettersen loves a really long walk

Walkers made up about 20 per cent of the 700 athletes who took on the FIX Tussock Traverse and few of them will be more inspiring than 70-year-old Neil Pettersen.

The retired general manager of a group investment fund walked the 26km for the fourth time in succession. "I am always slightly amused that as a walker, I can still turn in better times than many runners.

"Not that I would wish to take anything away from any who complete the event, no matter what their time - they too are entitled to their own sense of satisfaction and reward."

Pettersen said running or walking in the Tongariro National Park was a marvellous experience with incredible scenery and extremely varied terrain. "The challenge to the event is not only managing the difficult terrain, but also managing the conditions.

"For me, it's all about personal satisfaction and the tremendous sense of achievement when each event is completed.

"The Tussock Traverse and other events are simply the icing on the cake and the reward for the months of training.

"But it's the months of training that provide the real benefits in personal health and wellbeing."

9. Kettlewell back for more at XTERRA

Sixty-seven-year-old Jim Kettlewell came into the XTERRA Auckland trail-running series in form after winning the Legends division at the Tussock Traverse in February and the Super Veteran division (over 50 years) in the Wild Turkey Off-road Half Marathon.

The Northlander won the Legends age-group in the super-long distance last season. He went on to win his age-group at the world XTERRA champs in Hawaii in December 2011 in the 65 to 69 section.

"Winning the Legends division in last year's XTERRA series was almost an anti-climax but it encouraged me to contest the New Zealand championships at Waihi, which I won by more than 20 minutes," said the veteran who has been running competitively since 1976.

"It was a real buzz and gave me the incentive to go to the Worlds in Hawaii." Kettlewell ran the shorter "long" distance in the XTERRA Series this year for a new challenge.

10. English Channel next big goal for Dickson

Pam Dickson is a trailblazer in women's swimming and an inspiration to athletes all around New Zealand.

The 59-year-old from Rotorua, who completed a 40km swim across Lake Taupo this year that took 13 hours, is geared up for the 2012 State NZ Ocean Swim Series.

But she has a much bigger goal in mind. Dickson is using the series as training for her attempt to swim the English Channel on August 26 in 2013, which would make her the oldest New Zealander to do so. She'll be almost 60, and there are only 13 older people who have made it across the Channel.

"After swimming Cook Strait then the length of Lake Taupo I'm still inspired, so have picked the English Channel as my next big goal. I keep going as a swimmer because even at my age, I'm still improving."

She has no doubt that she's going to make the English Channel crossing and few would bet against her with her proven ability to rewrite history.

"I loved the challenge of conquering Cook Strait and becoming the oldest person in the world to do so at that time [she still holds the oldest female title]. I'm still the oldest person to swim the length of Lake Taupo. It would be an honour to become the oldest New Zealander to swim the English Channel."

She has simple advice for older athletes looking to stay active. "Find a way to improve, to achieve small goals and break it down. An example is someone who swims the same thing every day, say 50 laps, break that habit ...

"Keep setting new goals, no matter how big or small.

"Believe in yourself. Get a coach to help you improve," she said.

- NZ Herald

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