Ironman events are among the toughest single-day endurance events in the world, consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run. Cherie Gruenfeld raced her first Ironman at age 48, just six years after she began running. Now at 78, she has won 14 Ironman World Championship Age Group awards and, in 2022, became the oldest woman to ever complete the Ironman World Championship event in Kona, Hawaii. Cherie shares some of her top strategies for success, not only for athletes, but also for anyone looking to make a midlife change.
Secret #1: View everything as a new opportunity. One Sunday morning in 1986, my husband and I were lounging in bed, enjoying coffee and watching the first Los Angeles Marathon on TV. I was 42, working in the high-tech industry and, aside from playing tennis and skiing, wasn’t athletically active. But when I saw those runners pounding the pavement, I thought, I want to try that. The next day, I bought a pair of running shoes and a book called How to Run Your First Marathon. My first run lasted just 10 minutes, but six months later, I completed the Run Through the Redwoods marathon in Northern California in 3:26, a finishing time that qualified me for the Boston Marathon. Within just a few years, I was competing in Ironman.
Many folks tend to stay in their comfort zones, so they don’t see things like a marathon on TV, a magazine article about starting your own business or a restructuring at work as the possibility it might be. If something nags at your gut or makes you feel a bit scared but also a little bit exhilarated, give it a serious look.
Secret #2: Setbacks and mistakes happen—it’s okay. When you start something new, you probably won’t get things right the first time—maybe not the second time either. That’s not failure—that’s learning, and it’s all part of the process.
Eight years after I began Ironman racing, I started the nonprofit foundation Exceeding Expectations, a program that works with at-risk kids. We use the sport of triathlon to help redirect lives, with the ultimate goal of each member getting a college education. These kids live in seriously disadvantaged circumstances, and every day I learn more and get better at helping them.
In the beginning, I selected 12 kids at an elementary school. I told the teacher, “We’ll write a note to the parents, explaining to them that their child has been selected for our program and asking permission for them to train with us on weekends.” She looked at me like I was crazy and said, “These parents usually are not around or involved. You’ll need to physically go into each home and try to find a parent to speak with and earn trust that way.” It was the first of several mistakes I made, but it informed my actions and mindset moving forward.
Being hit with an unexpected setback requires the same kind of determined learning process. In 2019, while training for the Ironman World Championship, I was diagnosed with two unrelated cancers. After spending several days in denial, I accepted my situation and chose to focus on becoming cancer-free while still working out. Except for the day of my surgery and one recovery day, I kept up my regular training schedule, even throughout radiation treatments.
Secret #3: Work smarter, not harder. One of the advantages to making a big change in your life when you’re older is that you have decades of experience and gained wisdom, much of it coming from mistakes and setbacks. As Will Rogers put it, “Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.”
Push yourself, yes, but keep your expectations reasonable and set attainable goals. Ask yourself, What do I need to do to get that promotion, to move cross-country to a new city, to start getting more fit? Be honest about the answer to those questions.
Hire a coach or expert in the field if that would work for you. Write down your goals and put them where you’ll see them often. I stick notes with my long-term goals on the bathroom mirror. Every time I look at them, I recommit myself to accomplishing those goals.
Keep in mind—part of working smarter is making sure you’re enjoying what you’re doing. If not, you’ll lose your drive and won’t stick with it. A few years back, while training for a full Ironman in the grueling Palm Springs desert heat, I realized that training was no longer as enjoyable as it used to be. So I made the strategic choice to temporarily shift my focus to Ironman 70.3s, which are half of the Ironman distance (70.3 miles instead of 140.6 miles). I was much happier, and it showed in my performance.
Secret #4: Find your support system. When you’re venturing into unknown areas, support is absolutely critical. You need someone who believes in you. After I’d been a marathoner for a few years, I read a Competitor magazine dedicated to the Ironman World Championship event in Kona, Hawaii. This was interesting to me, but it never occurred to me that I could do such a thing. My husband, Lee, who believes I can do anything, read the magazine, and said, “I know you can do this. I think you can be good at it.” He gave me the push I needed, and the rest is history.
Not every loved one will do this. Some may say it’s not practical to apply to graduate school at age 50, too hard to write and self-publish a book, too risky to start an Etsy shop selling your hand-poured candles. Don’t listen to them. Change can feel risky. Surround yourself with people who believe in you and will support you.
The Huntsman World Senior Games
Every autumn for more than 30 years, athletes ages 50 and up gather in St. George, Utah, to compete in everything from swimming and pickleball to indoor rowing and square dancing at The Huntsman World Senior Games. Competitors are divided according to age and skill level, so an amateur softball player isn’t facing up against someone like Major League Baseball star Jose Canseco, who at age 58, has competed at Huntsman several times. The 2023 games will be held October 9 through 21. Most events run two to three days. Learn more at SeniorGames.net.