It used to be that our 50s, 60s, and beyond was a time characterised by slowing down and taking things easy. But thanks to changing perspectives around ageing, more and more people are forging bold new paths instead – by making career changes, travelling the world, or following their passions.

One perfect example of this is 59-year-old journalist David Nicholson who, after being inspired by the London Olympics in 2012, embarked on a quest to push his body to the limit and compete at the highest level he could.

Below, David tells us about the ups and downs of his journey as a triathlete, what it takes to achieve your best, and the benefits of getting stuck into sports later in life…

“It was only in my late 40s, when I discovered triathlons, that my competitive nature started to assert itself”

David with his family in Mallorca

Coming from an active family, sports have always been a part of David’s life, whether it be swimming, cricket, or squash. Although, as he tells us, it was never particularly competitive – that is, until he developed an interest in triathlons when he was nearing 50.

It was 2012 and while Olympic fever swept the nation, David was in sunny Mallorca with his family at a swim training centre called The Best Centre. It’s one of the most revered outdoor swim centres in Europe, attracting everyone from Olympians on training camps to the general public, like David and his family.

David tells us, “It was only in my late 40s, when I discovered triathlons, that my competitive nature started to assert itself. I started to love the events and the competition – striving to do better than last year.”

“My kids were doing a swim training week on holiday and I was joining in a bit as well. Then, I found out the centre was organising a triathlon for next year – so, I thought, why not come back and do the race in a place that I love?

“My urge to take part in the race was also, I must say, about turning 50; about putting on more weight than I was comfortable with and the general health issues that are liable to hit you at that age unless you do something about it.”

“I liked the idea of taking these three individual sports and being good enough to put them all together”

When we don’t have it, passion seems like a fickle and elusive thing. The world is a big place, and searching blindly for the things that give us the most joy, fulfilment, and motivation, can seem like a mammoth (if not, impossible) task. But as we’ll see from David’s story, when we stumble across something that lights that fire inside of us, it can be powerful and all-encompassing, transforming our lives and identities.

When asked what drew David to triathlons specifically, he explains, “I met this guy on holiday well before 2012. He was my age and quite frankly he had the most amazing body. He was ripped. So I asked him, ‘How did you get that?’ And he told me that he did triathlons.

“I was also inspired by watching the Brownlee brothers at the Olympics. They’re British and were at the top of the world rankings, so I thought I could follow in their footsteps. Plus, I liked the idea of taking these three individual sports and being good enough to put them all together – because it’s a complex thing.”

However, as we all know, deciding to do something and actually following through with it are two completely different things. So, to help him achieve his goal, David took on a triathlon coach as a way to stay motivated, keep himself accountable, and make sure he was training in the right way.

He says, “We started in January and the race was in May. I saw him every week at the local park, and he would give me training exercises to strengthen me in the right way. I also started doing more of all three disciplines separately.”

“I wasn’t unfit when I started training. I played a bit of squash and I would go running. So I was already a little way along the training curve but my coach gave me that extra push.”

“It’s not beyond your capabilities – but I think a lot of people believe it is”

The event that David was training for in Mallorca was an Olympic (or standard) distance, which involves a 1.5km swim, 40km bike ride, and 10km run. For the casual sportsman, this may seem a little daunting. Though, as David explains, it may be more attainable than you realise…

“If you’re fairly fit, can swim okay, and aren’t going to fall off your bike, it’s not beyond your capabilities – but I think a lot of people believe it is. I believe what turns most people off is the swim. It’s typically in the ocean, and there are waves and currents and other people thrashing around. So there’s quite a bit to be anxious about.”

But by getting himself a coach, David gave himself the best possible chance of succeeding – a decision that paid off come race day.

“I figured it was going to take me about three hours,” David says, talking about the race in May of 2013, “but I was much quicker than I thought I was going to be.”

“I was absolutely thrilled; full of endorphins and just ecstatic”

However, it wasn’t just his surprising time that enamoured David with the triathlon experience, but the whole event and the satisfaction of completing it. “I was absolutely thrilled; full of endorphins and just ecstatic. I loved it all – the whole process was very exciting and fulfilling.”

And that was it, David was well and truly hooked. Soon after that first event, he began signing up for more races and even travelling abroad to take part in training camps, from which he says you can learn a lot about the sport and ways to train.

It was at one of these camps that a fellow triathlete suggested to David that he should do what’s known as an ‘Ironman’; an ultra race that combines a 3.8km swim, a 180km bike ride, and a marathon (42.2km run).

David tells us, “This guy said, ‘It’s not that hard. You just do a couple of half-distance Ironman races and then a couple of years later you’ll be ready to do the full one.’ I thought this was nonsense. I really couldn’t see it happening. But there was something about what he said – and the fact that he was my age, maybe older – that allowed the possibility to seep into my brain.”

So it was that version of David – his competitive side now unearthed and revving – who found himself taking part in a half-Ironman event not long afterwards. Although, he would come to find out that every race wouldn’t be as easy as his first…

“[T]o perform at your absolute peak, you need to be close to your limit”

Speaking about his first half-Ironman race in the North East of England, David says, “It was disastrous. The waves were enormous and it took me almost two hours to get out of the water. The whole thing took about eight hours when it should have taken six. It was a real washout. But somehow I finished, and I couldn’t help thinking, ‘I can do better than this.’”

Despite the setback, David’s resolve was stronger than ever. So after that blustery day in the North Sea, he re-doubled his efforts, signing up for more training camps and taking on a new coach specifically for Ironman events. This time, he would give himself a whole year, but train for a full-distance race.

“I did my first full-distance Ironman in Austria in 2016, and I got a really good time. Again, I surprised myself and felt brilliant afterwards. So I thought, ‘Yeah, I think I’ll do more…’”

As David, now 59, takes us through his journey, it becomes clear that a triathlete’s progression is marked by dramatic peaks and troughs. In the following years, he would collapse in Chattanooga, Tennessee, when competing during a heatwave, and be rushed off to hospital with total dehydration and cramping midway through a race in Langkawi, Malaysia.

Yet for David, these are all inevitable consequences of performing at your best, “When you watch the professionals,” he explains, “it’s quite common for them to collapse, crash, and not finish. This is because to perform at your absolute peak, you need to be close to your limit. And sometimes you go over it – that’s part of the game, really.”

“Each race is like a festival”

David competing in an Ironman event in Portugal

Despite bumps in the road, more recently, David’s triathlon and Ironman career has seen more highs than lows. After representing his age group for Great Britain in a triathlon in 2019, last year he qualified for the Ironman World Championships in St George, Utah.

“When you’re a triathlete, you become part of this amazing community. Every time I go to a race, there will be people from 50 different countries there, and I’ll probably know 10 of them from camps or previous races.

“Each race is like a festival. Rather than going to Reading or Glastonbury as you would when you were younger, as someone who’s nearly in their 60s, this is my festival. Nobody’s drinking or smoking, nobody’s off their heads, they’re just loving their sport and being with others who feel the same way.”

David’s later life sports obsession has not only allowed him to forge new connections with other athletes but bolstered his existing ones too. “I’ve got four kids and they’ve all done triathlons as well. We do them together and do the individual sports together,” David says.

“And even though my wife’s not a triathlete herself, going to the events is something we love to do as a couple. She enjoys spectating and arranging travel, kit, and logistics. She takes great pictures and we go to the party afterwards and celebrate. It’s something that’s really bonded us together.”

“You don’t need to be aged 30 or 40 to perform at a high level, you can get there!”

Alongside his freelance journalism, David now works as a triathlon coach with Total Tri Training, and for those looking to get into the sport in later life, he has this advice…

“Strength and conditioning exercises are really important, particularly if you’re going to be doing the longer distances. The running part of triathlon training is high-impact, so by strengthening muscles around your key joints like knees and hips, you can lessen the pressure on them and avoid injury.

“Running on a treadmill where there’s a little more give, or grass and softer, trail-type surfaces, can also help to mediate your risk.

“If you’re looking to improve and get some really good race times, then you need to be quite committed. If you’re drinking a lot, and not doing strength training or putting the hours in, then it’s far less realistic.

“But I turned 59 in 2022 and my times are getting better when a lot of my contemporaries are slowing down. You don’t need to be aged 30 or 40 to perform at a high level, you can get there!”

To find out more about David’s coaching services, head over to his profile on the Total Tri Training website. And if you’re interested in reading some of his work, you can check out his book, Think Like an Athlete: 57 Ways to Achieve Your Life Goals, or read his race reports from around the world on his personal website.