Whatcom seniors enjoy benefits of exercise at a high level


Growing older in Whatcom County hardly means dropping life's recreational speed to idle.

Vicki Griffiths started running fervently decades ago as a 40-year-old college student. Her perpetual training partner and long-distance marvel, Barb Macklow, began at 51, the same age that Duncan Howat launched his acclaimed rowing career.

Runner Mike Palmgren started trying triathlons on for size in his mid-50s.

As the successful older foursome from Bellingham has shown, it's almost never too late for vigorous new challenges. Staying super-active can spin off hidden profits, too, as Howat attests.

The longtime manager of Mt. Baker Ski Area sustained few injuries related to rowing, but three years into the sport, prostrate cancer struck.

"My training and racing helped with that," says Howat, 68. "My focus was so sharp I knew something was off. Otherwise, I probably wouldn't have caught it."

Howat survived cancer and went on to win so many age-group rowing titles he lost count. About 100, he estimates, including several at the prestigious Head Of The Charles Regatta in Boston, as well as regional and national championships.

"I love to compete," Howat says. "It's my end thing."

While Howat and dozens of other older local athletes reach a high competitive level, they reap basic health benefits that many everyday recreationists also can enjoy.

Studies of seniors have long indicated that ample exercise, strength and resistance training, and a healthy diet fetch such rewards as stronger muscles, greater energy and flexibility, improved balance and even a more alert mind.

Lorrie Brilla, a Western Washington University professor who specializes in health and fitness, says older people should spend as much time exercising as they do eating.

"It doesn't have to be a specific exercise routine," Brilla says. "You can walk places instead of driving. The big thing is not making exercise an outlier. We make time to eat. Why is exercise less important?"

The idea of couch potatoes becoming distance racers might stretch the imagination, but it happens. Daryl Smith, a physical therapist who coaches Palmgren and other local athletes, says planning sets a tone for achievement.

"Find something you enjoy and start small," Smith advises. "Aim for a 10-minute walk, and if you increase 10 percent a week, you're going to be amazed by what you can accomplish."

Macklow, 79, and Griffiths, 69, now run ultra races - 50 kilometers-plus - after starting small with no grand goals.

Macklow is the second American woman over 70 to complete a 100-miler, after Californian Helen Klein. Macklow began running around Lake Padden daily for fitness, building up to short-distance running races, a marathon and, eventually, the Chuckanut 50k trail race in 2000, the first of her 20 ultras.

"I was interested in what those longer distances would be like," she says, "sort of a challenge."

The goal always was to finish, anything but last, and Macklow kept meeting her goal.

Griffiths started running in 1984 while attending junior college in Southern California - "a stress reducer," she says - and soon entered a 10k run.

"The longest race I did my entire life," she says, half-jokingly. "I thought it would never end."

Her first ultra was the 2001 Chuckanut race, running alongside Macklow, the pair completing the 31 miles at a 16-minutes-per-mile pace. They run far, they say, not fast.

They've run together for most of the past 15 years, embracing consistency in training and frowning on missed workouts. Each of them runs 10 to 14 hours a week.

"You have to enjoy it and want to do it," Macklow says. "Every day."

Howat, who has taken to surf ski paddling and kiteboarding in recent years, says new activities keep his approach fresh. He says his balance is as good as ever, that he can still climb towers and run along cliffs.

Similarly, the variety of three events in one - swimming, biking and running - attracted the 66-year-old Palmgren, a lifelong runner, to triathlons.

"I only do so much with one thing before I get bored with it," he says.

Palmgren, an age group winner last June in a half-Ironman in Oliver, B.C., has adapted well to the triathlon, getting faster every year since bonding with Smith, the physical therapist, five years ago. He stays healthy with a steady stream of nuts and fruits, tofu, salmon, lean chicken and turkey, fried vegetables and rice.

Eating small meals at different times and snacking on fruits and cereal worked for Howat, who, as a rower, saw weight control as a sink-or-win issue.

"I had a mantra on the boat: 'Weight is the enemy,'" he says.

In their struggles to control weight and become fitter, maturing adults should set their sights high, experts say. Brilla indicates that a seniors' weight training program at Western doesn't "baby" older lifters. The program starts people at 50 percent of their maximum capability, but in just two weeks, she says, they're up to 80 percent.

The biggest payoff for more sedentary adults may be blending exercise into their daily routine, so they see not only physical, but also mental and emotional gains.

As Palmgren says, "even my bad days are better if I stay active."


Bellingham's Daryl Smith, a physical therapist and personal coach, offers these insights about older athletes and those starting an exercise regimen:

• "They need more recovery time in their training. They don't bounce back as quickly, so they have to take a more patient approach."

• "Where some people go wrong is that they haven't done anything for 20 years or more, but they remember what they did as a high school or college runner. They want to go too fast."

• "As an older athlete, it's important to first do all the core work and conditioning you need."

• "Consistency is the key to training. I tell people you'll get there faster if you go slower."

Bob Carter is a freelance writer in White Rock, B.C.

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