Lew Hollander - the oldest Ironman

lew4There's no magic pill!! Hard work and determination are the keys to everything in life, says multi age-group World Champion Ironman triathlete Lew Hollander. That's one of Lew's rules for life - one of the several that he lives by.

When we contacted him about writing this article, we had focused on his sporting achievements. However he wanted to stress that hard work and determination apply in every area of life, not just sport. "People with that drive can achieve all the goals that they set, regardless of ability". That's what Lew says, and he certainly HAS achieved.


We first came across Lew Hollander while researching an article on another 80+ year old Ironman athlete, Sister Madonna Buder. At that time of writing she was the oldest person ever to have completed an Ironman triathlon, but now Lew Hollander holds the record. He achieved that feat aged 82 in October 2012 at the Ironman World Championships at Kona, Hawaii where he has now completed 23 Ironman triathlons. And overall, he has more than 50 under his belt.


So how does he do it? How did he start, and how and why does he carry on?


lew6His start in Ironman was not the usual route from marathon running through the shorter, starter-distance triathlons before finally reaching the longer distance races. Rather, his first involvement in endurance events was in the sport of endurance horse riding. This is a sport that had been completely unknown to us at SGSC until writing about Lew, but looking at where he lives, in the vast open spaces of Oregon, we can see why this sport would have developed. The races would involve riding 100 miles in a day, and he has done enough that he has been inducted into the American Endurance Ride Conference Hall of Fame. He took part in Ultra Distance runs, any distance beyond marathon, sometimes as much 100 miles in a day. When he did come across the Ironman race - itself then in its early years - being the sort of man who is always looking to push the boundaries, he just jumped right in. That was 1985 when he was 55. He found the triathlon format more exciting than anything he had done - so he stuck with it, he had found his 'home' and says "I sure am glad I just do triathlons".


The years spent riding had already given him a good base in the necessary physical and mental attributes for success in these endurance events so he did well, and more triathlons followed, including more Ironman races. He developed his conditioning (through hard work, of course) and he continued being successful in the races. As the years passed and the success continued he didn't feel like giving up - so he didn't.


As a scientist - a field in which he is still active, with two new patents in nano-technology - he didn't take accepted wisdom about ageing at face value, rather he followed the evidence of his own eyes. And his eyes showed him that if you work hard you get the result. The result he was after was completing each race, which was something he achieved, race after race, year after year. Many he won but all he finished - as he says "To complete is to win" - all, that is, until the Ironman World Championships this year 2014, where for the first time in his racing career, over 2,000 races, he did not finish. He attributes it to the excessive wind this year which took its toll.


lew3That race may have been his first ever DNF, but did it defeat him? Not a bit, it raised his famous determination and he entered Ironman Florida - and he completed! That finish earned him his next goal - entry into the Ironman World Championships in 2015. The reason the spot at Kona 2015 is important to him is that it means he will open up the 85-89 age group, another goal achieved, another first.


Although completing a race is his stated aim, he is also a fierce competitor, and a healthy dose of competition with, amongst others, fellow Ironman triathletes Sister Madonna Buder, Bob Scott and France Cokan, all of a similar age to Lew, has been one of the factors fuelling his determination - and no doubt his continuing to race has been a motivation for them. They push each other, as all competitive athletes do.


There is, of course, another reason why he continues, which is that the results of all that work are there to be seen as much when he is not racing. Say, in a seminar presenting to and motivating his ??clients/students??. When you look at him, Lew is redefining the parameters of what that age looks like. There's a double take where, yes, he is his age, but, wait a minute, he is so lively and active, so full of energy, not like almost any octogenarian you have seen before.


Lew believes that the mixture of the sports in a triathlon give you everything you require to stay fit and strong into whatever age you decide. If what you decide is to remain active all your life, then he has another useful axiom, "If you want to be functioning at 80, you'd damn well better pay attention at 40!".


lew1Which leads to another of his rules of life - "Go anaerobic every day". He says that he now no longer trains over distances as he already has a good base for endurance, so in his training he has reduced the distances but raised the intensity level. He believes that the effects of exercising extremely intensely for short bursts - at a level beyond the body's ability to fuel the exercise from oxygen - are "magic", extremely beneficial at a fundamental level - even if he doesn't actually know the mechanics of how and why the benefits come about. But he is convinced in his own mind of the beneficial effects of high intensity, anaerobic training.


These days, having raced and trained for so many years, he doesn't feel the need to follow a strict programme, but goes out every day and follows his instincts, he does whatever he feels he needs to do. Of course, those many years have given him very reliable instincts in the training department.  On top of that, he says, you need to eat well - lots of fruit and vegetables and only meat in which you can identify the body parts - and also have a good stretching regime.


He is also an excellent example of his belief that looking after your body in the way he does is an essential part of, and inextricably intertwined with, looking after the health of your brain. He believes that one of the consequences of his fitness is a cardio-vascular system that can keep his brain more than adequately supplied with the blood it needs to keep it functioning well. The intensity of anaerobic training, he believes, forces blood into all the little blood vessels in the brain and does it all kinds of good. Who are we to contradict him?


He's 84 now, how long does he intend to carry on? Having opened up the 85-89 age group in Ironman, his next aim is the 90-95 group! He has said that he would like to make it to 120 and beyond. Looking at the statistics, he reckons there are 50,000 or so centenarians, but only 50 or so in the decade after. What he wants to do is to add to the statistics of those surviving to the decade beyond that. But one thing you can be sure of is that he won't want to be just a 'survivor', his idea will always be to be living life to the full, and working hard enough to do just that.