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'60 and Over Across America' for a Friendship That Endures : 'Iron Gents' Will Take Old Age on Long Bicycle Ride

April 23, 1987|ALAN DROOZ | Times Staff Writer

By day, they are elderly well-to-do businessmen, retirees and family men.

On Friday mornings, they meet in Westchester to eat pancakes, reminisce, compare notes and swap lies. Physically there is little to distinguish them as athletes and endurance freaks.

That, they say, is the point.

Because when the weekend comes or when they can snatch some spare hours for midweek workouts, they become the Iron Gents. Members of their select club have to be at least 60 years old and have completed the Iron Man Triathlon--the grueling one-day race combining a 2.4-mile ocean swim, 112-mile bicycle ride and marathon run--after age 60.

In June, the Iron Gents and a few friends plan to bicycle from Santa Monica to New York City, riding 24 hours a day in two-man shifts. The group is dedicating "60 and Over Across America" to one of their friends who came up with the idea and planned to tag along up to the day he died of cancer two months ago.

Their point is that age is no deterrent to challenging physical activity. They hope publicity along the way--they are trying to set up press interviews and want to make some stops at retirement homes--will spread their gospel.

But even if nobody meets them along the way and they labor in anonymity, they plan to make their point by whipping through those 3,500 miles in nine days.

Bill Bell, an Iron Gent from Redondo Beach, said at a recent Friday get-together, "No. 1, we're going to finish. No. 2, we're going to prove that just because you're old and losing your hair, it doesn't stop you."

He also admitted, "People--including my wife--say, 'You must be crazy.' "

The Gents, who plan to leave June 12, will take two motor homes and a trailer to carry the bikes and have actively sought financial backing. Bell said American Airlines will fly them home.

"But regardless of backing or not, we're dedicated to this ride and we're going to do this ride," he said. "The main thrust is to keep going."

The Iron Gents taking part in the ride are Bell, 64, Norton Davey, 68, and Keith Albright, 63. The other riders will be Bob Mason, 65, of New Jersey, and Peter Mattie, 62, of San Francisco.

The common thread uniting the Iron Gents is the late blossoming--or rekindling--of the competitive fires. For these guys, life began at 55 or 60.

Bell is the president of an aircraft marketing firm in Lawndale. Davey recently retired as an executive with Continental Airlines. Albright is a former musician and now tunes concert pianos. Most of them spent several sedentary decades before getting into exercise.

As Bell says, "We all grew up in the Depression. We all went to work. There wasn't much time for athletics."

Bell, perhaps the most gung ho of the group, took up running at the suggestion of his doctor in the 1970s. "He said, 'I want you to run three times a week.' I never stopped."

He entered the Palos Verdes Marathon in 1976 and has since run 125 races of marathon length or farther. In 1981, he watched the Iron Man Triathlon on television and was entranced. He has run every one since.

He met Davey there in 1982. The wiry Davey, a Playa del Rey resident who rowed crew as a collegian, has missed only one Iron Man since--to climb a mountain, another preoccupation. He has climbed to the base of Mt. Everest and recently returned from Mt. Kilimanjaro. He also took up running for health after "a 30-year period when I sat behind a desk."

He described the quick transformation: "First we did it to feel better, then we find we like it. Then the worst thing happened--we got competitive."

Albright, of La Crescenta, the youngster of the group, added, "I was in terrible shape when I was 40." Albright began running at 45 and now hops on his bike to go to piano-tuning jobs.

Three of the Gents ran the Catalina Marathon in March and Bell will run the Big Sur marathon this weekend. When they started meeting each other at races, they began their informal get-togethers and came up with the Iron Gents. They have since been incorporated as a nonprofit organization which tries to raise funds for charities and service organizations as well as promoting fitness for the elderly.

The Iron Gent who overcame the most and inspired the upcoming ride was Fred Ellis, who recovered from alcoholism in the early 1960s and cancer surgery in 1982 to join Bell in several Iron Man Triathlons as well as a relay swim across the Catalina Channel.

When asked what he would do if the cancer recurred, Ellis replied, "It'll catch me swimming, biking or running." It caught up to him at age 63 earlier this year. His friends say he was talking about accompanying the cyclists up to the week he died.

"Fred really wanted to do this ride," Bell said.

So his friends will do it for him.

Bell said the Gents will get their satisfaction when they complete the ride, part of the motivation for taking on such strenuous challenges.

"You don't feel great when you're doing it. There's nothing glamorous about pain," Bell said. "The thing is, when you finish you look inside yourself and say, 'My God, I did it.' (After) my first marathon, I was euphoric."

The group hopes to finish at Madison Square Garden in New York, where they will again trumpet their message.

Said Bell: "You've got to keep the old body moving. We only get one of these and we better take care of it."

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