Each time Doug Puckering competes in Ski to Sea, he insists it will be his last race – that he’s getting too old for this sort of thing. But eventually, he finds himself back in training, looking to give it one more shot.
This year, at 82, Puckering is the race’s oldest competitor by more than six years. He’s lived a life of physical fitness, from backpacking to canoeing to cross-country skiing. He ran until age 40, when his knees gave out. He promptly picked up distance cycling. In his 50s, he rode across the entire country.
Puckering last competed in Ski to Sea in 2011. The following year, his wife of 56 years, Loris, was battling cancer, shifting his priorities. She passed away later that year, and Puckering took a break from the race.
So after a five-year absence, why is he returning now?
“I wasn’t finished,” Puckering said matter-of-factly. It was on his bucket list.
Puckering moved to Lummi Island in 1996, after retiring as an associate dean of instruction at a California community college. He’d never heard of Ski to Sea until a friend told him about it, and in 2001 he made his first start, competing in the road bike leg. The 2017 race will be his eighth race, and fourth time competing in the canoe leg.
I’m not ready to quit until I have to, and thus far, I don’t have to. I feel really blessed that I’m still able to do this sort of thing.
He’ll race, as he always has, with his 50-year-old son David as a canoe partner.
“Nobody else would have an old man except (my) son, who tolerates my inability,” he says jokingly. “I’m a recreational paddler; I’m not a competitive paddler.”
Despite this, father and son say their goal is to finish in the top 50 percent of their field, something they’ve done before. One year, they finished 135th out of nearly 400 canoe teams.
Since December, Puckering has been training intently. He uses an in-home stationary row machine three times a week. On his non-canoe days, he walks, cycles and does calisthenics. The best training, he said, is simply getting in the canoe and paddling.
For older people competing in Ski to Sea, Puckering advises to start training early, proceeding slowly and being careful not over-train and injure oneself, as the older you are, the longer the recovery time.
“I’m really careful to maintain the intensity of what I’m doing, not to create an injury,” he said, “because I know that if that occurs, I’m toast.”
If I become limited because of some physical condition – okay, then I know— that’s the end of it. But I work out year-round, and that’s a lifestyle.
Puckering and his son are competing for Eclectica, a team so named because it’s an eclectic group of competitors. About half of the team has been together for almost 10 years, said David. The entire team is over 50, except for their runner, a 30-year-old woman from Seattle.
After the race, Puckering said his goal is to stay physically active as long as he can. Last summer, he and another Bellingham man took Puckering’s rowboat – he built it himself – on a 150-mile river journey in Montana.
“You have to work at it,” he said. “If I become limited because of some physical condition – okay, then I know— that’s the end of it. But I work out year-round, and that’s a lifestyle.”
This year, as she does each time he competes– his daughter will fly in from Milwaukee to cheer him on. Three of his nine grandchildren also will be present.
He said he doesn’t know if this will be his final Ski to Sea. But when Puckering gets out of his canoe for the final time on Sunday, you can bet he’ll probably be thinking about next year.
“I’m not ready to quit until I have to,” he said, “and thus far, I don’t have to. I feel really blessed that I’m still able to do this sort of thing.”