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He's the Pied Piper of Sexagenarians : Triathlon: With drive and training regimen of a younger man, Corona del Mar's Eric Piper is leader of the 60-and-older pack.

November 06, 1994|JOHN WEYLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eric Piper was heading past Keahole Airport and down the slight grade into Kailua-Kona feeling pretty good . . . OK, as well as a 60-year-old man who has swum 2 1/2 miles in the Pacific, cycled 112 miles and run about 20 miles through Hawaii's scorching fields of black lava can feel.

Piper was a few miles shy of winning his age group in the Gatorade Ironman, the world's most prestigious triathlon, and apparently the endorphins had really kicked in.

"One of my buddies on the course said, 'You're way out in front, take it easy.' But I got a little carried away," Piper said. "I really started to go for it coming down the hill into town. I dropped the pace under seven (minutes per mile) and was passing guys. I felt like a kid again."

By the time Piper had made the final turn in downtown Kailua-Kona and was about a half-mile short of the finish, he began to feel his age, and then some. Within seconds, a slight twinge had erupted into a full-fledged back spasm and the Pied Piper of sexagenarians had become the hunchback of Notre Dame.

"There was a huge crowd, they estimated it around 10,000, and I ran the last 400 hundred yards bent over like I was looking for coins," he said. "My daughter came running out to guide me along the last few yards."

Piper collapsed at the finish, 11 hours 46 minutes 57 seconds after he started and more than 48 minutes ahead of the the next competitor in the 60-64 age group. He was helped to an aid station, got a massage and was in good enough shape to celebrate that night at a local restaurant.

"We had walkie-talkies and were very aware of dad's splits and where he stood against the rest of the competition in his age group," Piper's son, Eric Jr., said. "We were pretty excited, but it was intense there at the end.

"We were worried because we didn't know what was wrong. But it turned out he was fine and then we could appreciate what a great performance it was."

Piper's wife, Berry, was more thankful that her husband was able to stand upright than she was about the victory. "That was not a happy sight, not what I had anticipated," she said. "Yeah, it scared me. But Eric is Eric, and he's been this way forever.

"He's always had a goal and he puts himself on the line for it."

*

Piper had emerged from the ocean in a pack with three others in his age group, trailing the 60-64 age-group leader, Jim Gaughran, by 13 minutes. Ahead awaited 138.2 miles of cycling and running in 50-m.p.h. winds, heat that reached 110 degrees on the pavement and 86% humidity.

"I cleared the transition area ahead of those other two and never saw them again," Piper said. "About the 75-mile mark, (Donahue) Wildman of Malibu, who had won the division last year, passed me. There was an NBC camera crew following him so I knew it was him.

"I stayed with him though, trying to stay the minimum of four bike lengths back, because it's illegal to draft. He had one of those little mirrors on his helmet so he could see me behind him. He tried to break away a couple of times, but I stayed with him. Then he wanted me to pass, but I wouldn't."

Piper and Wildman played cat and mouse for the remainder of the cycle ride, with Piper growing increasingly confident because running has always been his strength.

"As soon as we got on the run," he said, "within a half-mile, he was dust."

Four miles later, Piper caught Gaughran and ran away from the early leader, who was still out on the course long after Piper was getting that massage.

"It was a long day," Piper said, smiling.

Indeed, but also relatively short in some respects. Piper's time would have been good enough for third place in the 55-59 age group and 10th in the 50-54 division.

Somehow, his remarkable feat almost pales in comparison to the training regimen he subjected himself to every day for more than two months before the Oct. 15 event.

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Piper swam 3,500 yards at UC Irvine and then ran eight miles on the roads around his Corona del Mar home. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he rode his bike for 70 miles and ran eight miles.

Weekends off? Not exactly. On Saturdays, he ran 20 to 28 miles.

Sundays, a little rest?

Very little. On Sundays, he rode his bike 95 miles . . . and then ran eight miles.

*

"There are two keys to being competitive on this level," Piper said. "The first is quality workouts. Not just the mileage but you have to train with people who are better than you, who can pull you up to another level.

"I train in the pool with the UCI masters program, and I ride on the weekends with the Santiago Cycle Club in Tustin. Both places, they pull me along.

"Secondly, you have to hold up without breaking down through all the training and I've been very fortunate to remain injury free."

When it comes to diet and workouts, Piper fits the description of fitness fanatic, but surprisingly he has no use for weightlifting or stretching.

"I've never lifted weights and I do very little stretching," he said. "I think the swimming keeps me stretched out pretty well."

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