In early November, Lew Hollander was beginning to wonder if his days as “Iron Lew” were over.
Hollander, who estimates that he has competed in more than 3,000 races in a variety of disciplines during his lifetime, became the oldest man to complete an Ironman Triathlon in Kona, Hawaii, in 2012, when he was 82.
But during his next Ironman World Championship, in 2014, Hollander ran into a strong head wind during the bike leg and could not meet the cutoff time necessary to begin the running leg. He qualified for this year’s championship, which was held on Oct. 10, and became the first person to compete in the 85-89 age division, but once again failed to finish the race before the cutoff time of 16 hours, 50 minutes.
“I’m a little bummed, because before I thought maybe I could’ve made it if the wind weren’t so bad, but now I’m thinking, it’s just out of my range,” Hollander said last week at his home near Terrebonne. “I had a good swim, good bike, got off on the run and just couldn’t run fast enough to make the time cutoff. I just couldn’t. Nothing was wrong, I couldn’t have had a better day, it’s just a little beyond me now.”
Hollander said there were occasions when he thought about how many more times he would pack up his bike and haul it to another race. But in mid-November, just days after posting “Life after Ironman, I have to ponder that one,” on his Facebook page, Hollander got an answer to his question of what to do next.
A woman calling on behalf of Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa of Bahrain said the 28-year-old prince (and triathlon enthusiast) would be hosting a Half Ironman race in Manama, the capital city of Bahrain, on Dec. 5, and he was inviting Hollander to compete as his guest.
Other competitors often come up to Hollander after races and tell him that seeing him participate in endurance events well into his 80s has given them the confidence to try it for themselves. But none of them had ever flown Hollander across the world to compete in their own race before.
At first, Hollander was not sure he wanted to make the trip all the way to Bahrain, a small island nation in the Persian Gulf. Aside from the short notice, Hollander said he was concerned about the chance of violence in the Middle East during his trip. Although Bahrain is currently calm, a series of tumultuous protests against the monarchy of King Hamad, Sheikh Nasser’s father, were staged during the Arab Spring in 2011.
A Bahraini refugee living in Britain has since accused Sheikh Nasser, who is the commander of Royal Guard and the president of the Bahrain Olympic Committee, of torturing anti-monarchy protesters, but the Bahraini and British governments did not bring charges.
Despite his initial reluctance, Hollander agreed to enter the race because, as he put it, “I’m 85 years old, what difference does it make? If I was younger I might worry more about my future, but I’m going.”
Hollander said any qualms about the trip disappeared once he landed in Bahrain. As he found, it pays to be the guest of royalty: He was escorted out of a side door at the airport, skipping customs and passport check, and a driver took him to see some of the local landmarks, such as the Al Fateh Grand Mosque and the Bahrain National Museum. (For those of you wondering, yes, other motorists do switch lanes to make way for cars with royal court license plates.)
“They took very good care of me; the only problem is that we had trouble getting my bike in the Mercedes,” Hollander said with a laugh. “I’ve got a Subaru — it slides right in the back. (The Mercedes) didn’t even have a bike rack on the top — I can’t imagine a car without a bike rack.”
On the day of the Ironman 70.3 Middle East Championship Bahrain, the swim was canceled due to a dangerously strong current, but the rest of the contest proceeded in breezy 70-degree weather. The final 5 kilometers of the bike leg took place in the Bahrain International Circuit, which is usually used for Formula One races, while a large stretch of the run took place in the Alareen Wildlife Park.
“It was really neat, because you run through the monkey cage, and they’re all around you,” Hollander said of the stretch through the park.
Bart Aernouts of Belgium won the race in 3 hours, 11 minutes, 15 seconds. Hollander finished the 70.3 mile course in 6:40:15 (although, as he jokingly pointed out, he easily won his age group.) Swiss athlete Daniela Ryf won the women’s race and earned a $1 million bonus from Sheikh Nasser (who also competed and took second in his age group) for sweeping the Challenge Dubai, World Championships and Middle East Championship in Bahrain.
Hollander said Sheihk Nasser made a point to introduce him to the king, Sheikh Hamad, as an example of “successful aging.” But the trip was also a reminder that he still has a few races left in him.
When he returned home to Central Oregon, he made a new plan. Next June, he will once again be packing up his bike, this time hauling it to the Escape From Alcatraz race in San Francisco.
Iron Lew’s not ready to retire just yet.
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