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Secrets from a 76-Year-Old Ironman Athlete

1. Build from your specialty. One of Heckmann's top tips for beginners? "Aim to be proficient at one event prior to training for your first triathlon. This gives you an anchor to work on and allows you to work on two instead of three disciplines," she says.

2. Never lose hope. Strike 1: "While carrying a box in a slippery, greasy parking garage in 1975, I slipped and broke my ankle into 16 pieces. Fifteen screws and 6 months later, I was able to exercise again and started swimming and biking as part of my doctor-advised rehab," she says. But her career kept her too busy to become a hardcore fitness fiend until about 10 years later when Heckmann took up running. Strike 2: That bad break caused arthritis. "In 2000, I started doing triathlons after my orthopedic doctor told me that I needed to focus more on cross-training to take some of the pressure off of my ankle," she says. Strike 3: Heckmann was hit by a car while on a 75-mile bike ride in 2009. Her leg was broken, but just like always, her resolve was not.

3. Find a support team. Tim, her husband of 25 years, is her number one fan. "My proudest moment is seeing my husband's smile as I cross the finish line. He is the most supportive man in the world," Heckmann says. "Even though he thinks I'm nuts, he's spent hundreds of hours taking me to the beach for open water swims or shadowing me in the car when I do long bike rides."

4. Don't fear new gear. "I've tried nearly every brand of sneakers. Three months ago I discovered Hoka shoes and I now own three pairs. Running feels better than it has in years!" she says.

5. Practice, practice, practice. Almost like a full-time job, Heckmann prepares for her next race for about 30 hours each week. Her seven-day schedule:

  • Every morning: 30 minutes of stretching
  • Five days/week: Swim for 1 hour
  • Three days/week: Run 7 miles, strength train for 1 hour
  • One day/ week: Spin for 1 hour
  • Plus 8 to 10 hours of biking

Related: 8 Triathlon Tips Every Beginner Must Know

6. Keep yourself entertained. During those long and slow training runs or bikes, Heckmann tunes in to "bouncy Latin music or audiobooks." Follow her lead and pop in those headphones (when on a safe, traffic-free path) and cue up one of our go-to motivating playlists.

7. Time it right. Next big race, Heckmann plans to arrive earlier to recover from jet lag and give her body time to adjust and deal with any lingering exhaustion, illnesses, and more.
8. Choose an active hobby. Since retiring from her career in real estate, Heckmann focuses on preparing for triathlons and tending to her organic garden. Even something as low-intensity as weeding and digging can help reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease, obesity, osteoporosis, and more.
9. Reflect on your success. "My most memorable race was running down Alii Drive, the final sprint, during my first Kona Ironman in 2005. I could hear Mike Reilly over the loudspeakers saying, 'You are an Ironman.' It was extremely emotional knowing that an entire year of training was coming to fruition, and I would be joining a very exclusive club of triathletes that have run the same path," Heckmann says.

10. Move forward after failure. Unfortunately, Heckmann had to drop out of Kona this year, after struggling with a cold and stomach issues during the swim and the first 40 miles of the bike leg, but being in good enough shape to even attempt the 140.6-mile triathlon seven decades in has us uber-inspired. "I don't think that age is a limitation to me and never really gave any thought to being the oldest in any race. I just want to do my best," she says. Now, she's more determined than ever to race down that road again! Next up: Training for the 2016 Florida Ironman to qualify for 2017's Kona Ironman. Remember: Never let one setback hold you back.

Photo: Andrew West