‘Feeling fit’s the best gift you can give to yourself’

From broken bones to new beginnings

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And if you’d told them Sandra would one day be taking silver on an international medal podium, they would have laughed you out of the classroom.

Teachers Sandra and David Abrams looked forward to a leisurely retirement of bracing beach walks, tranquil sea views and a spot of windsurfing.

Sandra and David Abrams at home with just some of their medals and trophies. Picture: Sarah Standing (13575-9418)

Sandra and David Abrams at home with just some of their medals and trophies. Picture: Sarah Standing (13575-9418)

Not once did they imagine themselves cycling at breakneck speed into a rocky desert landscape.

They never thought they’d be clambering frantically out of their clothes in full view of crowds of strangers.

And if you’d told them Sandra would one day be taking silver on an international medal podium, they would have laughed you out of the classroom.

A couple of years after retirement and when they had both reached their 60s, Sandra and David plunged into the hectic and highly competitive world of the triathlon.

Sandra and David on a training run

Sandra and David on a training run

Now the couple dash around the country and world competing in Olympic distance events – that is a 1.5km swim, followed by 40km cycle and 10km run.

The former school heads had decided to move from Maidstone to Hill Head to relax by the sea and take up a fun hobby after their high-pressure careers.

David says: ‘We imagined a bit of windsurfing, we wanted to be active but it was supposed to be quite leisurely.

‘But we love this, it makes you feel fantastic. We feel better than we ever have. I think feeling physically fit is the best gift you can give yourself.’

The couple, both 66, had exercised through their lives but hadn’t tried anything like this before and had to start from scratch.

But by last year they were competing among the 65 to 69-year-olds in the European Championships in Eilat, Israel.

David came sixth and Sandra won the women’s silver, despite problems in the transition stages (where competitors switch from wetsuits to cycling and running gear).

And they’ll always treasure the memory of hurtling into the desert with the shimmering pinks and yellows of early morning skimming the tops of distant hills.

There were also magical moments when Sandra competed in the World Age Group Championships in Beijing in 2010.

‘It was an incredible experience. We swam in a reservoir overlooked by a beautiful temple and cycled through wooded hills,’ she recalls.

‘There were crowds of local people, shouting and clapping and banging saucepans. It was bizarre but absolutely lovely, a wonderful experience.’

Some friends and family have been surprised by the couple’s new zest for physical challenges that would make many 25-year-olds shudder.

‘People keep saying ‘‘don’t overdo it’’ and ‘‘aren’t you getting a bit addicted’’. Some friends have said ‘‘is it wise doing that at your age’’,’ laughs David. ‘But the fresh air, the weight loss, it makes you feel mentally and physically better.

‘We used to take city breaks a lot, which was relaxing. But now we say ‘back when we were older...’

Surprising people is all part of the fun. The couple were booked into a training session at a naval facility and the men on the gate did a double take. ‘I think they thought we were escapees from a Saga holiday,’ says Sandra.

In the US, triathlons are becoming increasingly popular among older people. David says the combination of disciplines puts less strain on the joints and muscles.

There are only about 17 people in the 65-69 age group competing in this country and fewer in older categories but David says there are some amazing older triathletes.

‘I think one of the oldest guys I’ve come across is in his late 70s. I only catch him on the run. He’s much better in the swimming and bike.’

Times vary but David generally does around two hours 45 and Sandra three hours 20.

But when they started it was a very gradual process and David even needed swimming lessons because he couldn’t do front crawl.

The couple decided to retire from their careers because they were working long hours and had both had health scares. Sandra was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 50 and David with prostate cancer at 58.

Both cases were thankfully caught early and treated successfully but it had left the couple extremely mindful of their health.

‘We feel fine now, but it has made us really value our fitness,’ says David.

A member of Stubbington Green Runners told them about triathlon and Sandra trained for a shorter event.

She remembers that first one with a sense of pride – and embarrassment!

‘When the others came out of the water they took off their wetsuits and had this gear on underneath. I hadn’t thought about it and was wearing an old sports bra and comfy pants.

‘I had to run through crowds to get to my t-shirt and shorts. It was a real Bridget Jones moment,’ she laughs.

Now they practice the transitions in the front garden, peeling off under pressure – a bit of an eye opener for the neighbours.

Sandra has come a long way since that first event and was recently named a Healthy Hero by Holland & Barratt.

But it certainly hasn’t been plain sailing. Triathletes have to be hardy, particularly older ones.

‘We’ve had injuries, but the great thing is it makes you do something about them. You don’t just accept things as a part of getting older,’ says David.

‘Mind you we have been stung – literally. We were swimming in Malta and came across jellyfish!’

They love the travel and often their sons and grandchildren accompany them. David’s nephew Greg and wife Sara have even started doing triathlons themselves.

They all take the competition very seriously. Before the early morning races the atmosphere is charged with tension and nerves.

But they haven’t forgotten how to relax – and admit to being quite partial to an afternoon nap. ‘You do feel it after the race,’ laughs David. ‘We have a nice drink and then often sleep.’

TRIATHLON

Triathlon is one of the world’s fastest-growing sports and was given a further boost by the London Olympics.

Britain’s Alistair Brownlee won the gold medal and his younger brother Jonny took the bronze.

The standard distance (commonly referred to as Olympic distance) is 1500m (swim), 40km (bike), 10km (run). Other distances range from super sprint: 400m (swim), 10km (bike), 2.5km (run) to Ironman distance: 3.8km (swim), 180km (bike), 42km (run).

Elite triathletes are professionals who compete at international level.

Age group athletes are non-professionals, who may also compete at international and domestic level in their own age category.

WELCOMING CLUB

Sandra and David are members of Stubbington Green Runners and say group members were extremely welcoming and helpful when they started.

Founded in 1985, the club is based in 
Stubbington near Fareham and caters for a wide range of ages and abilities. It currently has 400 members.

Runners participate in events across the country and world, but the group also caters for beginners, offering a six-week course.

There is a triathlon section of the club which offers swimming and cycling training opportun-ities, as well as running.

There is also a good social scene with frequent informal get-togethers following training runs during the week.

To find out about fees and joining, visit sgrac.net.