Aging and Triathlon- Gail Hughes

I’ve known Gail a good part of a decade through my good friends Justin and Brooke Daerr. Gail works with us at our camps and, in years past, even opened her home to me during my professional career to train in Flagstaff. 

She continues to inspire me. Her positive attitude and her willingness to be the best she can be is something I hope I can do for as many years as she has. On top of that, if you saw her, or know her, you would think she is half her age in appearance, pure grit to get out there, and get after any challenge. Her adventurous attitude and spirit is something to be admired. When most people her age are riddled with medications and health issues, Gail continues to toe the line at some of the most challenging endurance events in the world.

Whenever I’m around athletes I am inspired by, I ask them their secrets to success. I certainly want to know what being 66 years old and still qualifying for World Championships feels like one day. Here is her interview on aging in triathlon and staying young.

Gail Hughes:

I am 66 years of life. I am a three-time Kona qualifier, and more recently a two-time 70.3 World Championship Qualifier. My triathlon bio would include 35 years as a Finish Line Timer for lots of exciting and prestigious series, championships, and fun events including 6 years at the IM World Championships in Kona. I've been 10 years as a 'regular' Tri Competitor, a past USA Triathlon Board of Directors Member, Membership and Rankings provider, and am currently a full-time event management data geek for some great organizations. My inspiration and most prideful note -- I am mom to the exceptional Brooke Burger Daerr and my tri hero Justin Daerr. 

I had the great fun of 'racing' with Coach Marilyn this summer. While we waited for a start-delay, we chatted about triathlon racing in general and moved from that day's circumstances to our lengthy tenures in the sport of triathlon. Coach MC asked me my thoughts about continuing to race as I grow older, and that has led to many days of reflection. 

There is surely a lot of great technical data available on performance factors and levels as the median age of triathletes creeps up.  And I am right there with the older athletes testing diets, supplements, planning a calendar more carefully, setting intense days relative to recovery days, length of pre-A-race taper, etc.

But my overriding thoughts to Coach's questions continued to move totally away from the technical and more to the motivational. Here are some of my more recurring thoughts.

Why Tri at any age, and what is different as a competitive Grand Master?


Everyone has a story. I overheard Mike Reilly say that in Santa Rosa as he and Sean planned to edit their pre-race video...Truth. We all go through every day with our own life-to-date background. Aging surely adds a few more stories. Using sport is definitely one of the most productive ways to remember to make the most of every day, to set goals for the future, to keep the demons in our stories at bay and value all survivals and successes.   


I love the great memories of waiting at the finish of 22 years of all-women's triathlons and being humbled every race, appreciating that "racing" covers a huge range of performance. Within our process, we train so we can experience the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, the camaraderie of training, the sheer joy and energy of the race process. (I also truly value the not-always-gentle reminders from my daughter, who thinks I never train enough to hope for the goals I set) A Dream is not a Goal. For me, setting performance goals at any level is a very positive motivator.


A very recent light-bulb moment was afforded to me when Coach MC wrote about her background - specifically that the effort of putting herself "in the room" with successful athletes empowered her. Totally resonates for me. I choose to keep my goals and my performance at the highest level possible without concern for my gender or age. The skill in aging is to manage the perspective. After 35 years in the triathlon industry but truly only 10 years of racing, I am still swimming faster each race, and I am more skilled and faster on a TT bike. Running speed definitely diminishes most rapidly with age, so I work every run to be smarter as a compensation.  My definition of success in training and racing is adjusted - but efforts and my intention to be the best triathlete I possibly can be are not. 


Every so often, I am surprised to receive kind and encouraging comments from fellow competitors that seem to be beyond the accustomed 'good job' type.  A sweet note after running 10 miles side-by-side working together to the finish of IM Bolton UK was when the man first insisted that I cross the line ahead of him, and then moved aside me to say, "It was a privilege to run with you mum.” In the moment of a race, it’s easy to forget that the age showing on the back of my calf often means more to others (based on their life stories) than it does to me.  As with Coach MC, my amazing son-in-law, and my perception of other much more successful triathletes, aging and continuing to compete brings a visibility and I believe a responsibility to be credible, to be humble, to appreciate, and to represent. 


Our lifetime is pretty short in the scheme of all. Aging particularly reinforces in us that we have the choice to do what give us pleasure. With an aging performance, I choose to continue on in triathlon. I derive unbounded pleasure from this lifestyle. Meeting new friends, traveling to exciting destinations, watching the sun rise at venues, swimming in the most beautiful bodies of water, riding through incredible scenery, running to make a place become familiar, and occasionally completing that more-and-more difficult marathon run to stand on the podium,  combine to be my life pleasures.  


I choose for my fitness lifestyle to be a purposeful priority in my life. I accept my aging limitations as I judge my performance. I adjust my perspective and goals to match my evolving physical limitations. I perceive the fit of my participation and try to pay forward to others by example. I truly value the pleasure, and through all this, it brings me peace