Norm Coleman contacted us as a way of getting in touch with Hilary Walker - we couldn't pass up such an opportunity
Who are you, what do you do, how old are you?
I am Norm Coleman, who has medical board certification in internal medicine, medical oncology and radiation oncology. I was a department chairperson at Harvard Medical School for 14 years (1985-99) and for the last 18 years I have worked at the US National Cancer Institute doing cancer research, health and medical preparedness for nuclear incidents and helping broaden the research opportunities, particularly for radiation oncology.
I am 73 years old, having grown up in the New York area, with career stops in California, Boston and Washington DC. I still work ~60 hours per week.
How long have you been involved in Triathlon? How did it begin?
I did my first triathlon in 1979 and the Davis CA triathlon in 1980. It was one of the first. I was an early member of the USAT- USA Triathlon, that has gone through metamorphoses. Having an injured back, I started swimming and biking and managed enough running to finish. Following successful back surgery (yes!!) in 1985 I have since done serious triathlon, including 10 full Ironman races and others. Also a number of marathons with a 3' 28" best.
What do you like/love about it? Terrain, off-road, being in nature? Travelling?
I love being healthy and actively maintaining health. Being part of the mix on starting lines in races of thousands when I am among the 10 oldest (or fewer- was oldest in last half IM) is a great feeling of living a full life. I train by myself as my work schedule is usually too busy. I am not an off-roader. I enjoy my solo rides (also like going with friends willing to be with on “old coot”) in the country. I love the energy of the events and also being a role model for young folks as to how to live a full life. Triathlon has the athlete's age on their calf so it’s fun with the first number being a “7”
Were you always interested in sports / fitness? Did you do any other sports / activities?
Interest in sports started in summer camp. I wasn’t very good but did wrestling (1 year) then track and cross country in high school. My team won state championships (not due to me!) but that was awesome. After getting headaches and gaining weight during internship I started running. And that ended them. Fortunately, running shoes (the Adidas SL72) were coming out so I didn’t have to run in sneakers. My wife and I both feel being physically active is essential. I went from running to triathlon due to injuries. My wife and I have done a lot of traveling and trekking, including a number of the “Ultimate Challenge” treks, often to high mountains. We love the remote cultures (Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, Andes, etc)
What inspires / drives you keep in good shape? Will you continue? What brought you to realise that it is still possible / rewarding / achievable at an age that is beyond most people’s idea of that possibility?
On a round-the-world year trip when we were 30, thinking our end of activities like this were near, we met people in their 60’s and 70’s trekking with us to Mt. Everest Base Camp (19,000 feet). We realized life-long fitness was possible. We’ve been doing this ever since. My wife has done one Ironman and many marathons, being in the top 10 in her age group at Boston Marathon. On the year we both were over 70, and with our 45th wedding anniversary, we both won our age groups at a major Thanksgiving Day 10K race in San Jose CA. Not a bad way to celebrate 45 years of marriage. Our son ran, too. Our kids are both very healthy, my son doing water sports and my daughter being a trail runner, hiker and Olympic trials qualifier curler (didn’t make the team but that was pretty amazing).
Would you say that you're you still improving your fitness, or just slowing down decline? Does the fitness you have enable you to enjoy the other things you do more?
Physical fitness is part of what we - my wife Karolynn and I – are. We are both slowing down, some by choice to avoid injury. We do have extraordinary days, like sweeping the 70-y-o age groups and I am occasionally in the top 15-20% of all starters of major national races, like the Cherry Blossom Ten miler. I still can’t catch the best in my age group who are amazing. I am sure the fitness enables me to do all the things I do at work and for an NGO, the International Cancer Expert Corps, which focuses on bringing cancer care to the underserved globally.
What sort of training regime do you have? How much work (if any) do you do on keeping up muscle mass and strength as opposed to cardio? Do you think this is an important aspect of fitness later in life?
I try to do something every day and usually do decent exercise 6 days per week. I do it before work in general. I do some weight training but mostly just do the components. In that I do race I do things at a pretty high level. I hope to be able to do this to the very end (which may also be delayed by being healthy and requiring no medicines).
Do you have any ailments that impact your triathlon/life? How do you deal with it/them?
Yes, I need to be careful with my back and I have various overuse injuries (the best kind, except when it's predictable and one is “stupid”). I see a physical therapist once a week (or generally so) and that has played THE MAJOR role in my parts still working. Some are even better than a decade ago. I also have massage once per week. A large swath of funds go into keeping moving.
Injuries are depressing. I try to exercise with a different sport which is why triathlon is good as one can swim and even bike during running injuries. Too much running, to me, is really a big risk of permanent joint injury.
What have been the best/most rewarding events of your triathlon "career"? Best/most rewarding event could be race results, could be people you’ve met, places you’ve been, anything at all.
I’ve won 2 Ironman races and qualified for the Kona World Championship.
As an aside for silly rules; I had a flat and it was >110F on the road so I got off the bike 4 minutes late. The rules are the rules but they didn’t let me do the run, which is my best event. So, I think some reason should have prevailed in that I would have easily made the overall time.
I had a great friendship with a professional colleague, Bill Bernard, with whom I did events. Sadly, he died a few years ago of a rare illness. It’s hard to find mates for races at this age.
What events are you planning in the near future? How long do you imagine running for?
I have a slot for the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in South Africa in Sept 2018. I’ll be there with my professional colleague and friend, Hilary Walker (very impressive).
A goal is to do a half Ironman at age 90. (and more) and go to World’s!
If you are retired, what was your profession? Were you concerned about retiring, and if so was it due to lack of structure/stimulation/challenge/position within society? (This concern was raised to us by another interviewee who said that doing her sport gave her much of what she missed from her work)
I am not retired. The International Cancer Expert Corps (look us up at iceccancer.org) is designed to not only help the poor but to provide useful roles for retirees. This will keep them in the workforce and capture the incredible life experience society tosses away, foolishly in general.
Retirement might be: retire Friday, clean the garage and basement Saturday, paint them Sunday. Do a second coat early Monday and then find something to do for the community or society!
We feel strongly that doing demanding exercise really contributes to keeping your brain alive. Do you agree?
Absolutely and data more or less show the benefits to it.
You describe yourself as a “Lunatic” - we approve! Please expand!
That it took me 4 months to free up an hour to write this probably answers that. There is a lot of good things to be done and life to be lived, so I’m at it at work and in life. I think I am healthier than 90% of people I work with and while I am not (entirely) foolish, I think I will just keep doing things that are “hard” even for younger people. That includes trips to high altitude, doing Ironman (half at least) and being in the mix.
Anything else you'd like to say not covered by the questions? Or please ignore any that you don’t want to answer.
I’ll leave you with two great quotes.
First is from a colleague at Stanford (early 1980’s) - Jerry Markovich who got my wife and I into running. We were sitting around the clinic chatting races or something like that and another colleague came by and said “you know, running won’t necessarily make you live longer” to which Jerry replied, “maybe so, but unlike you guys at least I’d know when I died!”.
And from my wife, who is a clinical social worker and mindfulness meditation teacher, full of all sorts of wisdom and who really gets to the essence of things. This really hits home and I think has made people reshape their lives a bit. Definitely quote Karolynn Coleman:
“If you don’t spend the time taking care of your health you’ll spend that time taking care of your illness”
Thank you for the opportunity for an old coot to throw “the bull”.