Inspiration for Fitness: Meet Triathlete and Local Resident Harriet Anderson

When you’re older, fitness yields greater benefits than at any other time in life. It helps keep your mind alert, reducing the chance of Alzheimer’s; it prevents or forestalls coronary artery disease; it helps you retain muscle mass, and it gives you more energy.

Yet fitness is also harder to achieve for older adults. For inspiration, meet a special San Carlos resident and a retired nurse.  Harriet Anderson, 82, took up running and triathlons in her 50s.  She has competed in more than 23 Ironman triathlons in Hawaii and has become something of a legend.

For the uninitiated, an Ironman triathlon consists of 2.4 miles of swimming in the ocean, followed by 112 miles riding a bike and then running a full marathon (26.2 miles) — raced in that order without a break!

You don’t have to aspire to be a triathlete to learn from Harriet’s love of sports and fitness. Below are some tips gleaned in an interview with Harriet.

Identify and capitalize on your strengths – Harriet realized that she was not the fastest swimmer, cyclist or runner. However, she had another talent: “I knew I had endurance,” she says. An additional advantage: She’s always been an early-morning riser and enjoys working out while others slept.

Try to do something everyday – Harriet no longer competes in triathlons. Instead, she runs in water at her local gym and enjoys taking classes in yoga, Pilates and spinning.

Be open to possibilities – Harriet didn’t set out to be a triathlete. She started running with friends and entered a road race. When she found out that her time for her age bracket qualified her for other races, she kept going.

Tackle goals with schedules and plans – To tackle a 112-mile bike ride entails quite a few training rides. Harriet broke everything into plans and created a master schedule.  And speaking of goals, this was her overall aim for her first triathlon: “My main goal was to finish.” She did, and finished fourth in her age category!

Find your fan club – Harriet’s husband was happy to accompany her to Hawaii. Find your fans, too, be they family or friends. Consider getting to know people at Adult Activity Centers (in San Carlos, Redwood City and Belmont).

Work to improve – While Harriet loved cycling, she felt she wasn’t a strong swimmer – so she joined Master’s swimming classes to get better. It worked.

Have fun – Although she didn’t grow up exercising, today Harriet loves it.

Need some more inspiration? Consider these highlights from Harriet’s triathlon career:

Persevere despite the obstacles:  One year a fellow competitor accidentally crashed into her on her bike during the Ironman competition. Harriet didn’t want to waste valuable time at the medical tent. She had someone quickly tape up her arm to immobilize it and walked the rest of the way. She finished on time and found out later she had a broken clavicle.

Build a great support network – Once when Harriet got injured 7 weeks before a triathlon, she developed a fitness plan with a sports doctor so that she could still compete. She was able to do everything but run during the training period. She made it and finished another triathlon.

Fastest time: 13 hours, 23 minutes – yes, that’s 13 hours of continuous exercising!  In 1989, the first year Harriet competed at the Ironman on the Big Island of Hawaii, the weather conditions were “near perfect,” she says.  Harriet attained the same record goal a few years later. Next time you’re encouraging yourself to finish a walk or an aerobics class, think of Harriet competing for more than 13 hours at a stretch.

Visit the 70 Strong directory for fitness ideas that are right for you.

This piece was written by Pamela Kurtzman, CEO of Sequoia Healthcare District. 70 Strong is an initiative of Sequoia Healthcare District in partnership with Peninsula Family Service.