I would almost call Art & Debbie the “Peter Pan” couple from St. Pete Beach. Like Peter, they don’t seem to age. But I believe they are better athletes than our favorite flying lost boy. I’ve known this uber-fit couple for several years. Back when we all lived in traffic packed Atlanta – home of the Braves, torrential rain to rival a rain forest, and way too many mosquitos. They seem kind, gentile even. But it’s a façade. If you are between either of them and the finish line, or if you are facing them across the net of a tennis court – you are their enemy. Afterwards, there will be laughter, compliments and very probably – a recovery drink made exclusively for adults. These are wonderful people – as long you are not their competition.
Here’s the fun part: they are not 50+. They are both 60+. Other than an occasional training mishap, they look and move like much younger athletes. Their strength and endurance is enviable. I am fond of the phrase “exercise is medicine” – and I would vote to put Art & Debi on the faces on that currency.
They enjoy participating in multiple sports, but the triathlon is the sport that consumes more of their training hours. This is where they get seriously competitive. This interview will focus mainly on their life as run, bike, swim athletes.
50+ years in 50 seconds:
Athletes: Art & Debi Billington
Home residence: St Pete Beach, FL
Art – 70
Debi – 68
Art: 5’10”, 170 lbs, resting HR: 61,
Debi: 5’9”, 135 lbs, resting HR: 45-50, bodyfat: 19%
Occupation when not participating in your sport: Retired! Pre-retirement, Debbie was an RN for Surgical Services at Northside Hospital and Art worked risk management / loss control for an insurance company.
Sports/activities in order of time and preference: triathlons, tennis, strength, pilates for Deb – and now that they live in St Pete Beach: beach bikes!
(bonus question) Exactly how much do you love coffee? On a scale from 1 – 10, it’s a 10 for both!
Did you play sports when younger?
Art: played all regular sports, but focused on swimming. Swam competitively in both HS and in college.
Debi: I was a competitive water-skier, including competing in the famous Cypress Gardens.
“Have to” or “Want to”?
Mutual agreement: Very much want to!
Art: none right now
Debi: I need a a total knee replacement. My doc says “it’s in your future”, but I don’t necessarily agree. (is it true that nurses are the worst patients?)
Past injuries, fully recovered:
Art: Pretty serious bike accident, actually knocked out. But thankfully, no long-term injury.
Debi: Wear and tear from tennis, pulled hamstring
Past injuries that effect today:
Art: minor tear on the meniscus, but doesn’t really effect you today
Debi: both knees are wearing down
Age when I stopped recovering quickly from injuries:
Art: late 50’s
Debi: mid 50’s
Medications I currently use:
Art: prescription for enlarged prostrate
Medications I was able to stop using once I started training:
Does not apply to either. Always active, always involved in at least one sport.
Supplements I currently use:
Art: most of the same as Debi. Amino acids, coq10, omega 3,
Debi: immune booster w/ D, zinc, calcium, vitamin C, super beets, collagen, dhea, B complex
Dietary choices or restrictions:
Debi: leans Mediterranean, did KETO,
Average hours of sleep:
Art: 8 -9
Do you track your quality of sleep?
Debi: nothing formal. Tracking my sleep just added stress (editor’s note: this is the exact same answer from all interviewees so far)
Greatest achievement of being a 50+ athlete:
Art: I can still do pretty much exactly what I want to do.
Debi: Same. I can still ski (both water and snow), and do all of the activities I enjoy.
Specific to the sport of Triathlons
How did you get interested in tri’s?
Art: Did my first triathlon in San Diego, at age 36. At the time, tri’s were still fairly new and the challenge was exciting. (editor’s note: The first triathlon was held by the San Diego track club in the mid ‘70’s) Stopped competing to focus on career & kids. Fast forward to 60, ran my first marathon, then decided to try triathlons.
Debi: I didn’t start until 58. I was already running, competing in local road races. A patient at Northside hospital challenged me to “just try a few triathlons”. I survived my first – the Iron Girl Atlanta. Actually did very well, but knew I could have done much better, so I signed up for my next race that same night.
Your best of the 3 events?
Your worst of the 3 events?
Art: happy to say, I’m really pretty even across all three events
Single area of focus you want to improve?
Art: mental toughness, pushing through the fatigue
Debi: swim, can’t just cruise, no way to rest
How important is the transition?
Art: Huge. Every triathlete definitely has to practice, practice their transitions.
Debi: The transition can make or break your success, especially in the sprint distances. No time to think about the helmet, the shoes. Has to be reflexive.
Favorite race distances:
Art: I’m not a sprinter, so I prefer the longer events: Olympic, half ironman, and occasionally a full ironman
Debi: I compete mostly in the Olympic distances, but also really enjoy the sprints.
How do you fuel?
Art: Depends on the distance. During a full ironman, we get an entire food bag at the half-way mark. For these events, my body craves real food, not a lot of gels. On the bike, I use Go Far in the bottle.
Debi: I also need real food. And I have to eat often. Pre-race, I like a pretty big breakfast, including hard boiled eggs. I also use Go Far on the bike.
How does fueling change based on distances?
Both: The longer the race, the more real food. For shorter, more intense races like the sprints: gels, GU’s
Average weekly hours of training?
Debi: Changes based on type of race preparing for, but on average, 10-12 hours per week
Art: Same. 10 hours on average.
Is your family supportive?
We support each other! (empty nesters)
Art: Yes, glide. And occasionally, maybe Vaseline.
Post-race recovery protocol?
Art: Recovery party!
Debi: Eat and drink whatever you want!
How do you pace each leg of the race?
Art: you’re not going to win the race based on the swim. He finishes the event efficiently, but saves energy for the other two events. Pacing also depends on which event is your strength.
Debi: on the bike – cannot start out with a sprint. Saves energy for the finish. Will not podium if you’re not strong in all 3 legs. Confident she’ll overtake competitors on the bike. Have to watch the HR
Who most inspires you in your sport?
Debi: A local 90 yr old couple – they’re still competing!
Art: That couple is amazing. There’s another local athlete: Roger Little. He’s 80 yrs old and he’s still a beast. He’s completed the really difficult Escape from Alcatraz triathlon multiple times.
Favorite tracking device / app?
Debi: I love my garmin watch – the one made specifically for tri’s. Just put it in “tri mode” and go.
Art: I also use garmin, plus a separate cycling computer on the bike.
Lost in your thoughts or letting music set the pace?
Art: I prefer to be lost in my thoughts. This is my meditation time.
Debi: Music! Pop, rock, anything energetic.
First thought when you see another competitor up the road?
Art: It’s so hard to just do your pace when you feel the need to catch someone, but I have to catch them.
Debi: Oh yeah – gotta catch em!
Both: Hate to get passed! Interesting strategy: In a race, they will often select a specific athlete to focus on and compete against.
Who’s the most competitive?
Debi: Well…let me think – ok – I’ll confess it’s me!
Why do triathletes hate single sport athletes?
Both: Hah! Well….hate is a strong word, but…
Art: Single events are easier to train for, plan for – a triathlon requires more strategy.
Debi: Can’t we all just get along? But I do find it harder to be a superstar when competing in all three events.
Why? What motivates you to put yourself through this suffering?
Art: Because I still can. I love being able to do physically what I want. (editor note: if this was Family Feud, this would be the #1 answer) I still enjoy pushing myself physically. I feel strong.
Debi: I’ve always been active. This is just what feels good. I prefer the feeling of being fit, healthy. The more I get moving, the better I feel.
What achievements are you most proud of?
Art: Completing an Iron Man at 68 years old. I MIGHT do another one, but the time to train is an incredible commitment. Will probably stick with olympic distances. Climbing Mt Whitney was a true challenge.
Debi: qualified at nationals, went to world’s. represented the USA at the age of 63. It was an honor. Competing with athletes from all over the globe.
Let’s discuss injuries or medical conditions that effect your training and/or goals:
Does not apply. (super impressive when you consider that 87% of Americans of this age are taking an average of 4 prescriptions daily)
Nutrition / diet: has training changed anything about how you eat or drink?
Does not apply.
How healthy were your parents at your age?
Art: Not at all. They were both drinkers and smokers.
Debi: Both parents were very healthy. Dad was snow skiing at 80.
Any family history you’ve been able to avoid?
Art: My mother’s father died of heart attack in his 40’s, but most of my parent’s health issues were lifestyle, not genetic.
Debi: Not really. Dad died of parkinson’s due to chemical exposure, but not until 80.
The health benefits of training: is that a focus? Or just a happy and beneficial outcome?
Art: The latter. I train because I love the activity. Happy of the benefit, but that’s not the focus.
Debi: Bit of both. I enjoy training, but I want to remain healthy.
How do you feel – physically and emotionally – when you miss several days of training?
Art: I can go a day or two, but then it doesn’t feel good. Physically, I need the movement. Definitely helps me handle stress much better.
Debi: That does not work well for me. Probably more mental. I feel more lethargic.
Do you find a supportive community in your sport / activity?
Art: Definitely. Joined a local tri club and the organizer became his mentor for tri’s. quickly bonds with other triathletes
Debi: absolutely. Several good friends that can all discuss training. Can always meet other triathletes.
Outside of your sport, how do you prepare your body for the stressors of that sport?
Art: Various forms of cross training, including strength training, and lots of sleep!
Debi: I cross train as well, primarily with Pilates and tennis
Do you follow any specific recovery protocol?
Art: massage every now and then, but no specific protocol. Stretching and rolling.
Debi: definitely builds in down time, especially post race
Any “non-exercise” forms of preventative care? (massage, chiro, personal trainer, blood work, etc)
Art: blood work twice per year, yoga
Debi: sports chiro, massage. I tend to look at this as an indulgence, but need to get better at incorporating.
Something non-triathletes should know about triathletes:
Debi: we are not weird! We enjoy the physical challenge. I do it because I love it. The actual race day is really the reward for the hard work. Non-triathletes just cannot relate to the volume of training if they have never done a race.
Putting on your coaching hat…
What advice would you give your younger self?
Debi: Wish I’d started tri’s earlier. I was always active, but this sport just wasn’t on my radar. I would tell my younger self to “be kind to my body”. I’ve probably pushed too hard at times, but always felt if I could achieve “x”, then I could achieve more.
What advice would you give any 50+ individual that believes their athletic days are better left in the past?
From both: a trip of a 1,000 miles begins with a single step. Each plateau you achieve is rewarding. Just start. Work the process.
Any final hard-earned wisdom you’d like to share to the 50+ crowd?
Art: At 70 years of age, I still do not struggle with sleep. If you need that really, deep, restorative sleep – exercise. Specific to racing: finishing an Ironman is an incredible achievement for any age, but not necessary for purely health reasons. If the goal is health – just move.
Debi: You can always achieve more than you think you can. Just get started.
Questions for either Art or Debbie?
Include any questions in the comment section below and I’ll forward their reply.