When Denis Bailey consulted a doctor about his arthritis he was told to give up all strenuous exercise and stick to a little gentle walking.
“He said when I got the urge to do something strenuous, I should sit and watch Countdown until it went away,” Bailey remembers. “He wasn’t joking. I thanked him for his advice and signed up for the London Marathon.”
Some 30 years and five London Marathons later, plus thousands of miles of training and more epic endurance events than he can remember, Bailey, at 80, is Britain’s most successful veteran Ironman triathlon athlete and has no intention of hanging up his running shoes just yet.
He celebrated a safe arrival into his ninth decade by completing his seventh 70-mile Ironman triathlon, as usual, the oldest successful competitor.
“I always qualify for the world championships in America, but I don’t go,” Bailey said. “It’s too expensive – the insurers keep upping my premiums. They think I’m too old to be doing what I do.”
Which succinctly sums up a widely-held view that sport is a young person’s game. A recent study of over 2,000 people discovered that the majority believed that by the age of 26 anyone who took sport seriously should be starting to think about calling it a day.
As a result, the average park footballer will hang up his boots by 39, the club cricketer puts away his bat at 34 and the Sunday golfer sticks his clubs in the shed at 46. Gymnasts are limbering down at 34, followed by rugby at 37 and hockey at 38.
Work and family commitments are usually given as the reasons why around 47 per cent of people decide to watch sport from the sofa and stop giving the real thing a go. And nearly a third of adults polled blamed their current aches and pains on past sporting or physical activity.
Of course, there’s no shortage of experts who hold a diametricallyopposite view. Dr Ellie Cannon, media pundit and a family GP with patients aged up to 100, believes there is no serious evidence to support the belief that you should give up sport at a certain age.
“I would encourage everyone, whatever their age, to maintain an active lifestyle,” she says. “Not only will it help increase your energy levels but you will feel good, too.”
Denis Bailey goes along with that: “I’ve kept fit all my life. Most people my age get a few aches and pains but there’s nothing that will stop me running. I’m out training every day and when it’s raining I work out in my gym in the garage.
“I run and cycle about 60 miles a week and swim twice a week. I guess l will go on racing and competing until I keel over. I’ve no intention of stopping while I feel as fit as I do,” says the west country-based marathon man. “In fact there are plenty more like me – and even older.”
How long you continue in sport seems to depend to a large extent on your discipline and Bailey seems to have made a wise choice.
Studies have shown that in running, swimming and cycling – the three Ironman triathlon sports – physical performance decreases by up to ten per cent a decade. That’s considerably less than the average for ball sports and athletic field events.
Which presumably is why French cyclist Robert Marchand holds the one-hour time trial world record for his age group at 104. Cycling 26.9 km in an hour he was only 50.1 per cent slower than Bradley Wiggins’s 54.53km record.
It seems Marchand has exceptional muscle and cardio respiratory function resulting in an age-related decline of less than eight per cent per decade for more than 60 years.
It seems there’s no stopping golden oldies. John MaGowan, now 76, is the oldest darts player to throw a nine-dart finish at a championship tournament. Yuichiro Miura had four heart operations and climbed Everest at 80 and dressage-rider Hiroshi Hoketsu rode for Japan in the Olympics at 68.
Ironman triathlons, claimed to be the world’s hardest non-stop one-day endurance races, were originated by US Navy officer John Collins in 1978 and are now run on six continents.
Nowadays, Bailey limits himself to the age-group-only middle-distance 70.3 mile Half- Ironman triathlons, leaving the ultra 140-mile contests to the younger fellows. But a typical 70.3 – the Exmoor triathlon – is daunting enough.
Started in 2006, it begins with a 1.2-mile swim in a chilly reservoir for the 1,000 competitors, followed by a 56-mile two lap cycle race across the hilly moors and a three-lap half-marathon.
“Competitors love the unique setting,” says Ironman regional director Kevin Stewart. “But it’s tough. There’s hardly an inch of the course that’s on the level.
“With the right attitude, a trained athlete could probably complete an Ironman. But to complete it and be competitive at the same time takes someone of a very special calibre.”
Bailey ran his first Ironman triathlon when he was nearly 70. “He was getting bored with marathons and wanted to try something new,” his wife Marion remembers. “Being Denis, it had to be something really difficult.”
“The race is very physical from start to finish,” is Bailey’s classic understatement. “There’s a continual measure of mental pressure. You need to be able to draw upon your ‘bank’ of training which gives you the confidence to push through the pain when your mind is telling you to stop.
“The first half of the run is when everything hurts so it’s vital that you establish a rhythm and hit your target pace. It will hurt more if you speed up but it won’t hurt less if you slow down.”
Hardened competitors like Bailey admit that the transition from cycling to running is usually the hardest. In the course of a full distance race an athlete will burn around 8,000 calories – three times the recommended daily allowance for an adult male – and there’s almost constant eating and drinking en route, “but you burn it all off during the race and usually come home lighter than you started.”
Bailey lived up to his “Ironman” reputation three years ago when he was the victim of a hit-and-run driver while out training on his bike in a country lane. “He was airlifted to hospital with a broken collarbone, damaged shoulder and six broken ribs,” Marion says.
“A fortnight later I found he’d booked a place in an Ironman event and not long afterwards was out training again. He did the race and qualified for the world championships. I suppose that after 52 years of marriage I shouldn’t be surprised by anything he does.”
Before he took up running, Bailey was a judo black belt, represented England in the European archery championships and was England archery team reserve at the 1976 Munich Olympics.
There was also a pretty challenging day-job – as a professional diver working mainly on oil-rigs, a job with unexpected perks. “We were diving in the Isles of Scilly when the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson had a holiday home there and I was asked to cut the seaweed off the propeller of his motor- boat.
“He was very appreciative and gave me a nice bottle of wine.”
What does Marion think about her marathon man? “He’s been into challenging sport ever since we met so I’m used to it by now. But when he can’t go running – like when he had his accident – he can be very difficult to live with. So I don’t want him to stop any time yet!”