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ONE FOR THE AGES : Melville's Triathlon Career Got Off to a Late Start, but at 69, He Is Quickly Making Up for Lost Time

August 10, 1989|RALPH NICHOLS | Times Staff Writer

John Melville was elated, almost jubilant. He had a marathon to run and seven hours to finish it.

Melville's aide was less enthusiastic. He peered at Melville with a quizzical, almost sorrowful, look in his eyes. Though rushed for time, Melville noted his assistant's concern before plunging into the 26.2-mile run, the third leg of the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii.

Melville never asked his assistant what was bothering him, but he had a good idea. The aide was probably wondering what a man old enough to be his grandfather was doing competing in a triathlon.

And not just any triathlon, mind you. The Ironman, which includes a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run, is the Super Bowl of triathlons. It is the premier event in a sport dominated by young men and women with svelte, lean, muscular bodies who have nothing better to do than swim, bike and run to the point of exhaustion.

So what was Melville, a 69-year-old retired research engineer from Ojai, doing in Hawaii mingling with a bevy of youthful, ultra-fit athletes?

"I had read about the Ironman in the newspaper and I thought, 'Gee, that sounds interesting,' " Melville said. "I went to an Ironman to watch and it was really interesting, so I started training."

Since completing his first Ironman at age 63 in 1983, Melville has competed in five more Ironmans. He finished all but one, and that time he failed only because he missed the cutoff time in the bicycle race.

Preparing for his first triathlon seemed entirely logical to Melville. He was retired, so he had plenty of time to train. He also had a year to get ready.

Melville started training slowly. He competed in 10K races and gradually took longer and longer bike rides before competing in his first triathlon.

After a year's training, Melville felt ready for the Ironman--despite the fact that he had only done one triathlon and had never undertaken a long ocean swim or raced a bicycle more than 100 miles.

Melville planned his first Ironman with an engineer's precision. He knew to the minute how fast he had to finish each leg of the race in order to make the 17-hour time limit.

Melville was only six minutes behind schedule after the first two legs of his first Ironman, despite bracing head winds of 35 to 55 m. p. h throughout the 112-mile bike ride. He finished in 16 hours, 8 minutes, and felt surprisingly good despite painful cramps in his arms and hands from gripping the bicycle handlebars.

Melville lowered his times in subsequent Ironmans before recording his best mark of 14:48 in 1986. But when you are pushing 70, time is relative.

"It's no problem for the younger guys, but us older guys are racing against the clock," Melville said.

Melville was pushing 60 when the Ironman first caught the public's attention in the 1970s. Sports Illustrated profiled the little-known sport in a 1979 article, but it was not until 1980, when ABC-TV began broadcasting the Ironman, that it really garnered national attention.

Triathletes quickly flocked to Hawaii to compete in the race. In recent years, race organizers of the Ironman, which attracted only 15 die-hards in 1978, have limited the field to approximately 1,500 entrants.

Older triathletes, such as Melville, are more common to the sport than might be expected, considering the demands of the ultra-endurance contest.

More than 2% of the 40,000 triathletes registered with Triathlon Federation/USA--an organization that oversees competitions throughout the United States--are 60 or older.

"It's more unusual for people in their 60s to be involved in triathlons than in a sport like golf, but we do have them," said Tanya Lynde, executive assistant for Triathlon Federation/USA.

The senior citizens of triathlons are the celebrities of the sport. They are often treated with reverence by the younger triathletes.

"Even the top pros are in awe of the older triathletes," Lynde said. "They know what kind of discipline and training it takes to do a triathlon."

Melville has known such adoration. After completing a triathlon in Bakersfield, Melville was followed home by a triathlete who wanted to learn his secrets.

"He wanted to see what the future holds for him and how an older man trains," Melville said.

Melville doesn't belong to a triathlon club. He trains alone in the steep foothills behind his isolated Ojai home.

When not training for the Ironman, Melville works out with his three Arabian horses. He recently competed in the Tevis Cup, a 100-mile equestrian endurance race from Squaw Valley to Auburn, Calif. Horse and rider traverse 100 miles of treacherous paths that wind over steep mountains along the Western States Trail.

Melville started racing horses to keep up with his wife Wilma, a veteran of three Tevis Cup races. Wilma, a retired physical education teacher, did not return the favor by joining her husband in the Ironman, but she supports his hobby.

"He had no real history of being an athlete when he started with the Ironman, but he trained carefully and took it slowly so he would not get hurt," Wilma Dasche-Melville said. "You have to be motivated and really want to do this and he does."

Wilma also enjoys the fringe benefits from her husbands involvement in the Ironman.

"I can't complain. It's just great to have a healthy husband at this age," she said.

To say nothing of having one who visits Hawaii every year.

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