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PROFILE : A Will of Iron : John Melville, a 71-year-old grandfather and triathlete, won't let age slow him down.

October 04, 1990|MAJA RADEVICH

Saturday morning, while children sit in front of the television set cheering on their favorite cartoon heroes as their parents sleep, thankful for a reprieve from the weekday alarm, a 71-year-old grandfather from Ojai will swim 2.4 miles, bicycle 112 miles and run 26.2 miles.

"Doing things, getting out there and striving for something is the fun part of life," said John Melville, who will compete this weekend in his seventh Hawaii Ironman world championship triathlon.

Melville was introduced to the event in 1982, when he and his wife were vacationing at their Maui condo. They heard about the Ironman competition going on in Kona, "so we went to see it," Melville said.

Before retiring at 55, Melville had worked for the defense industry. Then he went into real estate. "When I retired, I thought life would be easy. But then I saw the Ironman, and it looked awfully good. It looked like a superhuman feat."

Always one to push himself toward new goals, Melville began training for his first Ironman. He gave up steaks, doughnuts and margaritas and all but the occasional beer. Much of his television-watching time was replaced with training.

"I love the feeling of setting a goal and then working to reach it," said Melville, who had not participated in organized sports since playing high school basketball. "It's a confrontation, and what's important is that you keep pushing and pushing and pushing. You bet I respect the 'never, never, never quit quality' some people have."

Melville repeatedly demonstrates that never say die characteristic. For example, in June, he competed in the 100-mile Western States Run, which takes place on a ridge of the High Sierras and includes inclines of more than 19,000 feet in some parts. Just to be able to qualify for the event he had to run 50 miles in less than 10 hours--and he set a national record for his age group in the process.

In August, following the Western States Run, Melville raced on the same trail the same distance for the Tevis Cup, a cross-country horse race. And a couple of weeks before that, he competed in the 40-mile Ride-and-Tie, in which two partners alternate riding a horse and jogging.

When not racing or watching television--just cable, not those network channels, he said--Melville and his wife, Wilma, like to ride their horses in the mountains behind their 1 1/2-acre Ojai ranch. They ski together, they built and flew their own plane together, and Wilma was his partner in the Ride-and-Tie event.

Even in light of their many accomplishments, Melville says there is danger in taking yourself too seriously.

"In time, it will all be forgotten," he said.

Which is why the motto of the over-60 triathlete club, formed by Melville, is "Omnius gloria fugit": "All glory is fleeting."

So fleeting to Melville that he has decided to document for posterity the lives and tribulations of the elderly athletes. Melville recently gathered and bound the autobiographies of almost all of the 56 men and one woman over the age of 60 who have competed in the Ironman and sent each contributor a copy.

"Each story is an inspiration," Melville said. "There are some stories of people who came back from the very bottom, right off the floor, and fought their way up. All these people set themselves a goal, and they never quit."

And Melville isn't quitting either. He still has one major goal.

"I'd like to live to Jan. 1, 2000. It sounds like fun to see the new century," he said. And until that time, he said he hopes for the "graceful degradation of all faculties."

"A body is like a complicated Sony stereo system," he said. "It's finely tuned and works so well, but then little by little, it'll start doing funny things. Right now my own body clock is running down. But it takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin'."

UP CLOSE JOHN MELVILLE

Age: 71

Home: Ojai

Weekend fun: Competing in the Hawaii Ironman, a triathlon composed of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike race, and a 26.2-mile run.

A favorite saying: "It's a sin to waste a dirty old man."--Anonymous

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