Athlete Case Study - Simon Butterworth

Photo of Simon Butterworth and his family
May 17, 2023

Mike Ricci



I hope I will be forgiven for writing this athlete case study about myself. A feeble excuse perhaps is that I also coach myself.  I am going to write about all the athletes who have and are racing Iron Man who are around my age, a small cadre, as you will see.  I hope by the end you will understand why we should be considered both lucky and crazy. Lucky that we can still do this stuff and crazy for not finding something better to do in old age.

Back in 1998 at the ITU world championships a friend Dick Wilson and I stood up to cheer the top finishers in the older, 65+, than us, age groups.  We looked at each other at some point with the same thought, if we were ever going to get on that podium, we were just going to have to outlast our competition.  Dick did race a few more years doing well, but finally “retired” as did several other friends to spend more time with their growing family of grandchildren. Other friends have been forced into retirement and sadly, I have lost a few friends and competitors.

I expected in my early days of triathlon that we would see a huge increase in the numbers of older athletes competing when my generation made it into their 70s. We are part of the post war baby boom so there were simply more of us.  The increase has been significant at all distances from my observation and in the case of ironman the data is easily available.  Last year, 172 people over the age of 70 and 3 over 80 finished an Iron Man.  In 2012 and 13 the numbers were 81 and 75 with four over 80 finishers in those two years (one of those 80-year-olds was sister Madonna Bouder, and I believe she is the only woman over 80 to finish an Iron Man, she is still racing shorter races in her 90’s). Sister has a small group of fellow athletes that age, all setting new records each time they race.  

The two big things as you get into your 70’s is recovery and slowing down.  Both are hard to accept but there is no avoiding it. Up to age 50 recovery does not change much and neither does speed for those who stay healthy. In my own case I did not start serious competition until my late 40’s so up to 60 I was getting faster. One of my best improvements being transitions, never underestimate the importance of transitions. Here are some statistics showing my slow down since hitting 65. 

The drop in power in 2021 has an easy explanation, covid. The drop in run pace that year was also easy,  a sea level event. My Peak Run in 22 was also at sea level.

Trends in one race such as Kona is harder to analyze because of the variables. I have included the pacing for two winners, Hans in 16 and Bob in 18. Hans retired that year when we both aged up giving me a chance in 17 to win which I did.  Bob almost set a record when he won in 18, conditions were amazingly mild that year.  He is gunning for another win this year in Nice.  Clearly my swim pace has hardly changed at that distance.  Bike even trended down from 16-18, thanks in part to lower wind speeds.  2021, actually May 2022, was in St George, the hardest hilliest IM I have ever done.  

I have had the privilege of getting to know some amazing men and women.  Last October I was at the finish line when Cherie Gruenfield set the record for the oldest female finisher, if you want to learn more about her click here  or here to learn how she got into the sport here.  After struggling to finish last year in over 16 hrs she announced her retirement.  

Cherie Grunfield crossing the finish line

One of my early role models was a WWII much decorated Vet, Army Ranger, ambassador and Mad Dog #10 (Mad Dog was at one time the biggest Triathlon club in the US). He was one of the first to attempt Kona at 80 and set the record when he finished at 77 (my age this year).  I spent the best part of an hour with him after he had won the USAT Nationals in 1999 more than ten times.  I tucked away his best advice, be sure to adjust your rest time as you get older, you will need more and more, it's frustrating but necessary.  And you will need lots more sleep than non-athletes.   

My toughest rival in more than just racing was Stephen Smith.  He was the man to beat, and very few did for much of my 30 years racing.  His last words to me in 2014 was go win a big bowl, in reference to the first-place trophy handed out in Kona.  He died after fighting a brain tumor for three years just before I headed to Kona that October. I did as he suggested two years later, and he was with me through the run.  

I have shared the podium at the IronGents dinner, an annual event in Kona for anyone over 60, with Bill Bell who almost made it to become the first Kona finisher over 80.  I traveled down Ali’I drive with Lou Hollander, then 81, after an almost race ending bike mechanical in 2009.  It was as good as running with Elvis, I was with a rock star and the crowds on the course new it.  Lou, Cherie, Stephen, Jim, Bill, and others are my inspiration to keep going.

Compared to the total number of people who finish Iron Man the numbers over 70 are still incredibly small.  After my first time in Kona, I met an athlete on the beach the next day, who I had watched crossing the line close to midnight.  I told him I was blown away by his effort, I could not get my head around being out there for 17 hours. And could not imagine doing the same thing myself (I survived almost 16 hrs in St George). That I think in a nutshell explains why my cadre is now so small. But if you’re lucky, you can still do this stuff when you reach my age and are crazy enough to want to do it then you will.  I hope the information I have shared will be helpful and like to think that I am now inspiring some nutcases like me.

Coach Mike Ricci is the Founder and Head Coach for D3 Multisport.  His coaching style is ‘process-focused’ vs. ‘results-focused.’ When working with an athlete, their understanding of how and why they are improving is always going to take precedence over any race result. Yes, there is an end goal, but in over 2 decades of coaching, experience has shown him that if you do the right work, and for the right reasons, the results will follow.

Coach Mike is a USAT Level III Elite Certified Coach, Ironman University Certified Coach, and Training Peaks Level II Certified Coach. He was honored as the USAT Coach of the Year.

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