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  • Denise King-Miller

The Courage to Train for a Triathlon at Age 72!

“I will never allow age to define or confine me!” ~ Denise King-Miller

As a member of the Anthony Bowen YMCA in Washington DC, I joined their Y-Tri triathlon team in 2020. Y-Tri is a premier training program for aspiring triathletes (running, biking, and swimming), offering an 18-week training program from February to June to prepare new and veteran triathletes for a June race. The coaches are professional and work with you no matter what your age or fitness level. This year I trained for the Jamestown, Virginia triathlon that took place on June 17-18, 2023.


This year, my challenge was conquering the fear of swimming in open water, (OWS). I soon learned that swimming in the deep end of a swimming pool is unparalleled to swimming in open water! In a swimming pool, you know what to expect swimming lap to lap, and you can see “the bottom” of the pool. However, swimming in open water (outdoor bodies of water such as oceans, lakes, and rivers), is like swimming in uncharted waters, there is no touchable bottom, so for all practical purposes, the water is “bottomless,” brown, murky, and mostly unclear. Moreover, based on the current, the water can be choppy and often cold. So, I took what I learned from conquering my fear of swimming in deep water in the swimming pool and applied it to open-water swimming; this helped, but I needed more! Part of our swim training required open water swim practice a minimum of three times. More sessions were recommended if you had no open water swimming (OWS) experience. The first thing I purchased was a wetsuit! My swim coach told me the wetsuit would provide buoyancy while in the water… So, buying the wetsuit helped me conquer half my fear of being in the bottomless open water. The other half is mostly mental and of course, developing good OWS techniques is a must. With each OWS practice (I took five sessions), I felt more hopeful that perhaps I could do this! In training, we were required to swim out to the buoy and back, which was equivalent to the 750mm triathlon swim. I successfully completed 3 of the five OWS practices; additionally, I had swim practice in the pool twice a week. All in all, I began feeling calm swimming in that bottomless open water! The swim coach assured me that my swimming techniques had improved and pointed out a few areas I needed to work on. At that point, I felt that I was as ready as I was ever going to get for the swim portion.

Race day finally arrived and when I looked out onto the James River to see the swim course and where the buoys had been placed, I was a little nervous but dived in anyway! I was not able to finish the entire 750mm swim course, only half of it. I was calm while swimming, which was good for me! To my disadvantage, I swam too slowly and did not allow myself enough time to swim the full course. Fortunately, my slow swimming did not disqualify me from the race and so after the kayak pulled me to shore, I was able to continue with the biking (15 miles) and running (5-K) portions of the race.


Bicycling is not a challenge for me, but I did have to learn how to use bike gears and clip-in pedals on the newer bicycles. When training for a triathlon, it’s important to include two to three bicycling workouts per week; starting at the level you are most comfortable with and building up to 15, 20, 30, 45, and 60 minutes plus which helps you build stamina and endurance. Y-Tri bicycle training starts with indoor spin classes during the winter months. Indoor cycling allows you to quickly get to the focus of the workout without having to deal with traffic, inclement weather, or other road distractions.

These workouts prepare you to participate in Y-TRI’s 25.6-mile weekend bike rides come Spring. It’s important to include some hill workouts in your training and before you know it, you will have built up enough endurance to ride long distances. On my training rides, I practice shifting gears, drinking water with one hand while steering the bike, and clipping in and out of my bike pedals timing is everything. I fell off my bike a few times because my timing was off, but I must admit, experience is one’s best teacher.

Learning bicycle maintenance is crucial. Knowing how to inflate or change a flat tire, oil your bike chain, or put it back on track builds one’s riding confidence in that if you should get a flat tire, or the chain comes off your bike, you know how to fix it. Also, dehydration decreases performance so staying hydrated for all your sports activity is super important, so when training be sure to drink plenty of water with electrolytes. The 15-mile bike leg of the race was the easiest of the three disciplines for me to master.


The last leg of the triathlon is the 5-K run. Some say running is the easiest of the three triathlon sports, but that’s debatable! I think it depends on which sport you like most. For me, my order of preference is bicycling, running, and finally swimming. I hope to make swimming my number one preference after completing two intensive swimming camps this summer. Anyway, I believe the secret to successful running is to start wherever your physiological abilities allow you to. I started out walking at a slow pace, then picked up my pace to a racewalk, then I began running 5 minutes nonstop with 4 minutes running and 1-minute sprinting. As I increased my running time, I also increased my sprinting time. For example, if I ran for 10 minutes, I increased my sprinting to 2 minutes. When I pushed myself to run for 20, 30, 40, 50, and 60 minutes, I would add in walking and sprinting intermittently based on what I believed my body could do at the time. Within a few months, I could comfortably run an hour or more non-stop. The longer the run, the easier it became over time. The more I worked out, the more I found that my comfort level was in race-walking. It is as it sounds; this technique includes posture, arm motion, and a distinct stride. Technically, you must always keep one foot on the ground. Race walking is accepted as a form of running in a triathlon, just as long as you keep moving forward toward the finish line. Stretching, (before and afterward a run) and hydration/electrolytes are also key elements to a successful running experience. Race-walking is age-defying and is a wonderful way to help prevent the decline in physical functions. A brisk walking pace is thought to be 100 steps per minute or 3 to 3.5 miles per hour. The distance of the triathlon run is 5-K, precisely 3.11 miles and it took me 49 minutes and 56 seconds to complete it racewalking.

The Triathlon: Jamestown, VA – June 17-18, 2023

Thanks to my coaches, and the support from my teammate’s family and friends, I finished my second triathlon, even though it took twice as long as my competitors. As I was running toward the finish line I saw the Director of the Y-Tri program running toward me to coach me in… Keep running he said, you are almost there, and he reminded me to be sure to run all the way to the finish line! I did, as my Y-Tri coaches, teammates, spectators, family, and friends cheered me in…Yeah Denise… Whoo-hoo…Go number 59!! And even though I was last to finish the triathlon, at age 72, I finished!

It was a great experience, and perhaps the best lesson learned that day was to never, never, never give up!

Will I train again next year with Y-Tri for the 2024 triathlon? You betcha!


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