“I could’ve been a contender” – the need to compete as we get (a bit) older

Posted on: December 1st, 2018


More and more cyclists and triathletes and continuing to race for longer. And some are staying very competitive into their 40s and 50s.

Now in is early 40s, and heading into the mid range of that decade, Ryan Williams has turned to triathlon. He says the need to push ourselves hard and compete is more intense as we get a bit older.


By Ryan Williams

As a young guy I was top of my game – Ulster swim champion, Ulster track 800m and 1500m champion, cross country at Ulster and All Ireland level.

At university I started weight training and grew some muscles – but still looked like a jockey’s whip with a few bumps.

I played water polo for Queens, ran a bit, swam a bit… the usual; obviously in between getting hammered at the Bot in Belfast to the whimsical tunes of Skip Alexander.

In my early 20s and 30s I kept at it – weights, fitness, did some long-distance endurance events. Back then endurance meant you were still back in the same day.

I ran a bit, swam a bit; enough to stay on the right side of a size 34 trouser. I had the usual mid-life crisis at 40 and did the Amazing 12 programme – 12 weeks of strict diet and weight training six days a week.

At the end I had the body of Batman and the face of a heroin addict. It thought it was absolutely class. I loved it even though the family all thought I was a bit mad.

So, what do you do next to stay focused as you edge towards mid 40s? Now every man in his mid 40s, irrespective of weight, fitness, ability or sense, does triathlon.

I’m not sure if it’s down to our purpose as men changing at probably the most rapid pace in history. Or maybe it’s the fact the kids are now up a bit and require a bit less attention.

That is; unless they are now training with you … as in my case and making me look like a well-worn penny farthing on a weekly basis.

Or this particular demographic, men now into their 40s, just need something to hang their hat on, find their place in the world.

Or maybe someone has spiked the water supply with a 40 plus triathlon pheromone!

Triathlon is ridiculous. It makes no sense. In one of the eight events I did this season the winner was a 17 year old whippet and the guy who came second was 52 years old. And they were separated by just seven seconds.

It’s also one of those sports where most people are really good at one discipline.

You can be a hero in the water, Forest Gump on the run but on the bike if you have stabilisers and handlebar ribbons things aren’t going to go well.

Then there’s the transition… Jesus don’t mention transition. Who knew that a flask of coffee and a scone – with jam and cream – wasn’t an option!

I guess the life lessons on triathlon are many. However, the best one for me in this first season is just to understand how shit you actually are.

Guys with bellies, taped legs, old bikes and half a wetsuit are, quite simply, better than you. Much better.

It’s not a place for finely tuned abs and ‘suns out guns out’ types. Even the top guys look like willing members of a Japanese prisoner of war camp fraternity – no one is making it as the next main character on Netflix ‘Power’.

Raw, stubborn brawn has its place in this new amphibious land of misery and murder. Maybe that’s why we love it so much.

It has a simplicity of purpose, the cheesecake of the 40+ male.

The other lesson is that ability to resign yourself to the inevitable pain – every triathlete walking towards the lake/sea/river swim is thinking… ‘What the f**k am I doing this for’, its hilarious.

You can see it on everyone’s face from Zeus in his HUUB Archimedes to Penfold in his mate’s water-skiing suit he borrowed for the weekend.

Never judge a swimmer by his wetsuit.

Usually Penfold beats Zeus, by the way. Never trust a triathlete in a HUUB wetsuit or with an Ironman tattoo on his calf.

So what else have I learned in triathlon? I started the season finishing just below 50 per cent of finishers. I was devastated, humbled and motivated.

Over the season I’ve made it to the top 25-30 per cent of finishers. To get to the top 20 per cent, the level of middle-aged commitment requires an off-season intensive training plan, the diet of a Spartan, daily cyro baths and possibly a hip transplant.

Will I do it? absolutely. I am almost mid 40s, it comes with the turf!